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5 March 2001

Our current howler (part I): Post position

Synopsis: Handed absolute nonsense by Bush, the courteous Post started typing.

Richest 1% Will Get 22% of Cut, Bush says
Mike Allen and Glenn Kessler, The Washington Post, 3/3/01

Tax Cut Statistics Disputed
Dana Milbank, The Washington Post, 3/2/01

Tax-cut foes' analysis flawed, Lindsey says
Donald Lambro, The Washington Times, 3/3/01

Bush May Veto Excess Spending, Official Says
Mike Allen, The Washington Post, 3/4/01

Astounding. There's no other word to describe the article which appeared in the Washington Post this past Saturday. What made it most amazing? The names of its authors. Mike Allen was a breath of fresh air when he was added to the Post's election team. Glenn Kessler is the best "numbers man" out there. Frankly, we find it hard to believe that Allen and Kessler, left on their own, would ever produce a piece like this. We'll assume we see the heavy hand of an editor in this truly remarkable article.

The headline brought us out of our chairs: "Richest 1% Will Get 22% of Cut, Bush Says." It was especially surprising because of the piece which had appeared in the Post one day earlier. In that article, Dana Milbank—who contributed to the Saturday piece—reported on who would gain from Bush's tax plan. How much of the benefit would go to the top one percent? According to Milbank, if you assume that all estate tax benefits go to this group, then 45 percent of Bush's tax cut goes to the top 1 percent. But he also suggested another calculation:

MILBANK (3/2): [A]ssuming that the wealthiest 1 percent would get 64 percent of the benefit from an estate tax cut—an assumption that government has made in the past—the richest one percent's share of Bush's tax cut would be 39 percent, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, [a] liberal group.

That was what Milbank reported on Friday. The Post's Saturday headline suggested that Bush was claiming something vastly different.

And claim away the president did! Here was Allen and Kessler's first paragraph:

ALLEN AND KESSLER (3/3) (paragraph 1): President Bush, under pressure from Democrats to disclose how much of his tax cut would go to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans, released a partial calculation yesterday showing top earners would get 22 percent of the total dollar value of the tax cut.

What a paragraph! There's one word—"partial"—to give a clue to the absolute flim-flam it's peddling. Next, the authors gave obvious context:

ALLEN AND KESSLER (paragraph 2): That is lower than the estimate of 43 percent cited by Democratic congressional leaders, who have used the statistic to bolster their argument that Bush's tax cut is skewed toward the wealthy.

No sh*t, kemosabe! In paragraph 3, the writers retyped more of the twaddle they were sadly transcribing:

ALLEN AND KESSLER (paragraph 3): Bush's chart shows that 51 percent of the tax relief would go to those making $100,000 or more.

Paragraph 4 gave you more of the hoohah:

ALLEN AND KESSLER (paragraph 4): The administration, looking at the impact another way, said those making $30,000 to $50,000 would enjoy a 19 percent reduction in the amount of federal income taxes they pay, while those making $50,000 to $75,000 would see a 15 percent reduction. The White House says 6 million low-income families would have their federal income tax bill wiped out.

There was another minor clue ("income") to what was transpiring. At any rate, paragraphs 5, 6 and 7 took care of some housekeeping. In paragraph 8, we got the Full Monty:

ALLEN AND KESSLER (paragraph 8): The administration table, titled "Income Tax Burden by Income for Calendar Year 2005," said the top 1 percent would receive 22.3 percent of Bush's cut.

There's a one-word clue to the flim-flam there, too. That clue is the first use of "Income."

What exactly is the journalist's job, when he's handed sheer nonsense by public officials? In this case, the Washington Post did the following things when it was handed sheer nonsense by Bush. It provided a headline, quoting Bush saying that the top one percent would get 22 percent of his "cut." It politely noted that this differed greatly from what Democratic officials had said. It typed two more paragraphs, with more details about what Bush said his "cut" would do. In paragraph 8, it returned to the nugget—the top one percent would get 22 percent of Bush's "cut." Amazingly, only after all that, down in paragraph 9, did we start to find out how we'd been played. Finally, the Post fessed on up:

ALLEN AND KESSLER (paragraph 9): The estimate excludes the effect of the repeal of the estate tax, which is part of Bush's plan and disproportionately benefits the wealthiest. The estimate also does not include rate cuts that would take place in 2006, which also would disproportionately benefit top earners.

Hay-yo! Finally, we're told what this nonsense is about. Bush's "estimate" doesn't include the estate tax (which makes up about a quarter of his proposed tax cut). And even in the income rate provisions, it doesn't include the second half of his ten-year plan! (For the record: in considering only income tax reductions in the first five years, the Bush "estimate" is considering much less than half of Bush's overall "tax cut.") And wouldn't you know it? Just by an amazing pair of coincidences, Bush's "estimate" omitted those parts of his plan which disproportionately favor the top one percent. Here's what Bush's "analysis" actually says: My plan doesn't help the top one percent—unless you count the parts of the plan where it does.

Here at THE HOWLER, we almost never comment on the statements or actions of public officials. But then, it is hard to remember when a public official ever handed out such absolute nonsense. If a newspaper is prepared to retype nonsense like this, then that paper is prepared to be lied to about anything. And clearly, the Post has assumed that position. Post readers were wholly, completely deceived by this astonishing piece.

There's a word which the press corps has devised for this sort of work—for work where you have rummage through the fine print to figure out what has really been said. That word is, of course, "Clintonesque"—something the press corps just despises!! But we defy you to find a time in eight years when Clinton said something on a policy matter that could match this absurd report. All three reporters whose name graced this piece know perfectly well that it is wholly misleading. As we said, given the work the three writers have done in the past, we can only assume that an editor was responsible for crafting such howling deception.

What did other papers do? Predictably, Donald Lambro was even more deceptive. Over at the Washington Times, he quoted White House aide Larry Lindsey:

LAMBRO (3/3): Democratic leaders and the Citizens for Tax Justice, a liberal research group, said Thursday that the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans would get 43 percent of the tax cuts under Mr. Bush's plan.

But Mr. Lindsey pointed to an analysis of the Bush plan by Congress' Joint Committee on Taxation that shows that the highest 1 percent of income earners—who now pay 31.5 percent of income taxes—would receive 22.3 percent of the plan's tax cuts.

From murky constructions later on in the piece, a reader might have been able to tell that the analysis omitted the estate tax. Lambro never tells readers that the analysis covers only five years of the ten-year Bush plan. Meanwhile, the New York Times took a different approach—on Saturday, they didn't report this nonsense at all. In that, they did readers one small favor—they didn't deceive them, as the Post surely did. But they also missed the real story here—the story that all papers should have reported. It's news when a major official misleads the public. The fact that Bush would peddle such nonsense is news. A real paper might want to report it.

Last Tuesday night, an important discussion began in the House when President Bush gave his speech. A great deal will turn on the outcome of the coming budget battle. At their best, our newspapers are challenged by big budget stories. This budget story that began Tuesday night will of course be extremely important.

Will the public be well-informed on President Bush's proposals? Will they have basic facts broken done and explained? Judging by Saturday's astounding performance, the Post has let you know where they stand. In the name of serving some undisclosed interest, the Post is now the kind of paper where you turn first to paragraph 9.

Tomorrow: Russert interviewed Paul O'Neill. We're not sure why he bothered.


The occasional update (3/5/01)

Sunday, muddy Sunday: On Sunday, Allen referred to the "estimate" again. This time there was no way for a reader to know what the Bush study said:

ALLEN (3/4): Although Democrats have attacked [Bush's] tax plan as disproportionately benefiting the upper class, administration officials contend lower-income taxpayers would benefit most on a percentage basis.

A chart released by the White House showed that the top 1 percent of earners pay 31.5 percent of federal income taxes but would receive only 22.3 percent of the dollar amount of the tax cut.

That last statement, of course, is baldly false. As Allen himself reported on Saturday, the administration actually contends that the top one percent would receive 22.3 percent of the income tax reductions in the first five years of the plan (less than half of Bush's overall "tax cut"). On Saturday, the Post at least was willing to tell you that—if you were careful enough to read paragraph 9. On Sunday, the Post moved up a step, to outright dissembling. There was nothing in Sunday's article to let readers know what the Bush "estimate" had actually said.