In the coverage of President Obama's tax proposal, New York magazine correctly notes that almost all of the media is forwarding a flat-out lie. The president's proposal is not a tax cut only for "people earning less than $250,000 a year," as CNN and everyone else reported it. Instead, as New York mag writes, the Democratic president proposes to let "every family keep their tax cuts on their first $250,000 of taxable income." That, of course, includes people who make more than $250,000 a year -- they too get a tax cut on their first $250,000 of income. For the richest 1 percent of households, that's a $20,130 tax cut, to be precise.
So are professional political reporters not paying enough attention to know how the progressive tax system works in general, and President Obama's proposal works in specific? Or are they deliberately misleading readers about what it actually does in order to manufacture a more dramatic storyline about alleged "class warfare"? A story by Businessweek's Joshua Green gives us a hint that it may be the latter.
Green's article is all about Democrats' debate over how to define "rich" so that they can supposedly figure out how to "raise taxes on the rich." In framing the article that way, he thus needs to create the illusion that this is, in fact, the proposal at hand. To do that, he perpetuates the notion that President Obama is only proposing tax cuts for those making under $250,000 -- and not for those making more than that. Thus, in his first paragraph, he declares as fact that President Obama is proposing "to extend the Bush tax cuts for another year, but only for households earning less than $250,000 annually" -- a statement that, as noted above, is demonstrably untrue.
Now comes the really revealing part: After writing the entire piece predicated on the claim that the Obama tax cut is "only for households earning less than $250,000 annually," Green admits at the very bottom that under Obama's plan, "even the millionaires and billionaires would get a (tax) break on their first quarter-million." In this, he isn't making some nuanced point that he then connects to his earlier claims about the tax cut being "only for households earning less than $250,000 annually." The two statements obviously can't be connected because they completely contradict each other (a tax cut can't be "only for households earning less than $250,000 annually" and also give "millionaires and billionaires ... a break on their first quarter million" of income). Instead, by burying the truth, he effectively -- if inadvertently -- admitted that he was aware of the truth and nonetheless built his entire article on the myth. Indeed, as evidenced by the buried sentence, Green clearly knew the truth about the tax cuts when he started writing the piece, but still went ahead and wrote an entire article based on the untruth.
You might think that when a reporter is caught red-handed like this, the reporter would try to apologize -- or come up with some rationale for the discrepancy. But the opposite happened. After I publicly questioned Green about his inaccurate claim that the Obama tax cuts are "only for households earning less than $250,000 annually," he responded not with an explanation or contrition -- but by telling me first to "quit trolling" and then to "take your meds." That's right, daring to question a Beltway reporter no longer means a correction or clarification -- it means the questioner is a "troll" who has a psychological imbalance.
Obviously, this little interaction exemplifies some larger trends. First and foremost, it shows that the arrogant attitude in professional Beltway journalism means that when anyone dares to question a Beltway reporter's writing, a correction or clarification is no longer issued in the name of accuracy -- instead a barrage of insults is hurled at the questioner.
Even more important, it shows the true banality of reporters sensationalizing a storyline.
Green's piece is but one of scores of stories perpetuating the lie about President Obama's tax cut proposal -- a lie that makes the tax fight seem like an exciting "class warfare" battle between fight-for-the-little-guy Democrats and top-hat-and-monocle Republicans, when in fact, it's a rather small dispute merely over how much to give the top-hat-and-monocle crowd. As Green shows, it's silly to think reporters like him -- reporters paid to cover Washington and economics -- wouldn't know how the tax system works. Like Green, almost all of them clearly know -- they're just willing to make things up if the reality of a proposal is too boring for a sensational storyline.
That manufactured tax storyline, of course, is a microcosm -- it is but one in thousands of political storylines that wholly fabricate narratives in order to make politics seem more exciting and polarized than it actually is. It's a trend that is arguably worse than a journalist selectively quoting sources to fit the journalist's preconceived -- and often wrongheaded -- sensationalized storyline. And we can thank Joshua Green and Businessweek for at least providing a perfect example of how this happens.