Accuracy in Media

Are the media capable of providing accurate and complete coverage of issues of public importance? Consider the coverage of President Bush’s State of the Union address. Forget the endless commentaries about the President’s demeanor and the congressional reaction. What did the President actually say? Did journalists recognize and report that President Bush, in an unprecedented development and break with previous policy, had proposed a tax increase on the middle class?

One honest liberal, Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus, said, in her Wednesday column, that President Bush had proposed a “tax increase”-and she labeled it as such-in the form of a health care reform proposal. She doesn’t like the fact that Democrats in Congress have rejected it simply because it comes from Bush. She says the Democrats are engaging in a “knee-jerk” response by opposing a proposal that “would actually bring in extra revenue as the years go on?” 

Reuters quoted a White House official as saying that about 30 million Americans could face a tax hike under the Bush plan. 

However, in an official document, the Bush White House disguised the proposed tax increase, saying that the President was proposing that health insurance be treated as “taxable income” and that “This is a change for those who now have health insurance through their jobs.” Yes, a “change” that would hike their taxes. 

Now how did the media cover-or cover up-the nature of the President’s proposal?

To their credit, Jonathan Weisman and Michael A. Fletcher of the Washington Post noted that Bush had proposed “the first real tax increase of his presidency” in the health care measure. Their story ran under the headline, “Bush Adopts Some Priorities Of Congressional Democrats.”

A story acknowledged that “it could ultimately mean a tax hike for many who are covered by their employers, if they don’t change their health spending habits.”

The New York Times was kind to Bush, saying that he wants employer-provided health insurance, which is how more than half of Americans get their coverage, to “be treated as taxable income. For decades, those benefits have been exempt from income and payroll taxes.” Of course, this is another way of saying that Bush wants to raise their taxes. 

Unfortunately, some conservative or libertarian groups masked the nature of the Bush proposal.

The Heritage Foundation defends the Bush plan, arguing that those affected “do not really need a tax break.” This is another way of saying their taxes will go up. The proposed Bush tax increase will affect at least 20 percent of Americans.

The Cato Institute took an interesting approach. In a list of scholars prepared to talk about the President’s State of the Union proposals, one said that the health care proposal was “revolutionary” because the “unlimited tax exclusion for employer-sponsored health insurance does enormous damage to America’s health care system.” That implied support for the President’s proposal. On the other hand, another Cato expert said that Bush should have used the speech to “make an unequivocal promise that he will oppose all tax increases in the final two years of his administration.” But one cannot have it both ways. 

Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) inexplicably argued that the Bush proposal was “not a tax increase on American workers.” It said that the Bush measure would “eliminate the discrimination of tax benefits for healthcare” and is “exactly what is needed for lower healthcare costs and improve [sic] benefits.”

Of course, by eliminating so-called “discrimination” in the provision of “tax benefits for healthcare,” the proposal will raise taxes, by the White House’s own admission. That means the proposal runs counter to ATR’s concrete opposition to any tax increase. Indeed, ATR wants Bush to veto any bill with a tax increase. So ATR cannot have it both ways, either.

There comes a time when supporters of the President have to put their pro-Republican bias aside and be honest and straightforward about the tax-raising provisions of his proposal.

As the President moves forward and offers liberal proposals in other areas, such as immigration, it will be important for the media-and conservative groups-to tell the complete and honest truth about the White House agenda. 

This is also an area where conservative talk radio should shine. Will talk show hosts label the Bush health care proposal as what it is-a tax increase? Or will they come under the influence of White House spin? Time will tell. The response will help determine whether conservative talk-show hosts are Republican shills or independent conservatives.

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