For six days and counting (including this morning), the broadcast networks entertained the idea that Paul Ryan was lying in his convention speech last week. Yet the problem for journalists was that Ryan’s speech was accurate, even if they didn’t like the implications. NBC’s Chuck Todd on Thursday evening’s Nightly News, for example, even conceded that “what he [Ryan] said many times was technically factual,” but grumbled that “by what he left out,” he “actually distorted the actual truth.”
Such a sensitive standard means journalists could endlessly complain, since even truthful speeches or TV ads necessarily omit information detrimental to their campaign objective. The question is, will journalists be so sensitive when liberal Democrats take liberties with their campaign rhetoric?
Fast forward to this morning, when in interviews on ABC, CBS and NBC’s morning shows, Massachusetts Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren described the GOP’s economic plan as including a tax increase on the middle class: “Mitt Romney says the way to fix this is cut taxes for the richest Americans and for the biggest corporations [and] increase taxes for the middle class.”
That’s not just an interpretive stretch, that’s false. Romney has said the precise opposite, including in an interview with Forbes magazine last month: “We are not going reduce the share of taxes paid by high-income individuals, and we’re certainly not going to increase the taxes paid by middle-income taxpayers.... I will under no circumstances raise taxes on the middle class.”
Yet none of the reporters who fixated on fact-checking Ryan and the Republicans pushed back in any way against Warren’s false statement, variations of which she delivered on all three morning shows on Tuesday:
On ABC’s Good Morning America: “Mitt Romney has made clear what his plan is: cut taxes for the richest Americans and the biggest corporations, increase taxes on the middle class, and don’t make any investments in the future. Barack Obama says that’s not the right way to do it....”
On CBS This Morning: “Mitt Romney and the Republicans have said, ‘We’re gonna cut taxes for the wealthiest individuals and the biggest corporations, increase taxes on the middle class, and stop making the investments — or, sharply reduce the investments in education, roads and bridges, the sorts of things it takes to build a future.’ President Obama says ‘No, that’s not the right approach....’”
On NBC’s Today: “The real question is, so what’s the vision going forward? Who’s trying to fix this, and how do they plan to fix it? Mitt Romney says the way to fix this is cut taxes for the richest Americans and for the biggest corporations, increase taxes for the middle class, and stop making the investments in the future — in education, roads and bridges. The President just reverses that....”
Claiming that Romney has “said” that he wants to raise taxes on the middle-class is obviously not true, and at least one of the networks should have been alert enough to call her on that. Instead, all of Warren’s network hosts just moved on to other questions, and never challenged her for misstating the record.
As for the suggestion that Romney’s plan for tax simplification would raise taxes on the middle class, that’s misleading, at best. That claim was derived from a study published last month by the liberal-leaning Tax Policy Center (a project of the liberal Brookings Institution and Urban Institute), and written by Brookings staffers. One of the study's co-authors, Adam Looney, recently worked in the Obama White House as an economist on his Council of Economic Advisors.
Despite its partisan pedigree, many journalists have embraced the study’s conclusions. ABC’s George Stephanopoulos even cited it to Paul Ryan this morning, attempting to make the same point as Warren:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: [Democrats] argue that the Romney-Ryan tax plan, and spending and budget plan, is gonna crush the middle class, including a $2,000 tax increase on the middle class.
PAUL RYAN: Not true. What we’re saying is we’re going to reduce people’s tax rates by 20%, and we’ll do it by closing loopholes. Here’s the point, George. We believe that there’s a bipartisan consensus to be had through this kind of tax reform. Democrats, like the Simpson-Bowles Democrats, agree with us that we should be lowering tax rates and broadening the base by plugging loopholes, so that people get to keep more of their own money, so that families and small businesses can have a fair, simple and equitable tax system. We think that’s one of the keys to economic growth.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But as you know, Congressman, the Tax Policy Institute [sic] and others have looked at your plan to close loopholes. They say you can’t cut taxes in the way you say and raise as much money simply by going after loopholes. They’ve looked at every single one, and you just don’t get there.
RYAN: They did not actually analyze the Romney plan. And, what other groups have shown is you can do this. Look, George, economic growth is the key to this, and one of the keys to economic growth is tax reform. And when we keep taxing our families and successful small businesses, at much higher tax rates than our foreign competitors tax theirs, we make our businesses less competitive....
But Ryan, not Stephanopoulos, is correct. The report openly states at the very top that it is NOT a direct analysis of Romney’s plan: “We do not score Governor Romney’s plan directly, as certain components of his plan are not specified in sufficient detail, nor do we make assumptions regarding what those components might be.”
And it DOES NOT conclude that Romney will raise taxes on the middle class, either. As the director of the Tax Policy Center, Donald Marron, further explained in an August 8 blog: “I don’t interpret this [study] as evidence that Governor Romney wants to increase taxes on the middle class in order to cut taxes for the rich, as an Obama campaign ad claimed. Instead, I view it as showing that his plan can’t accomplish all his stated objectives.”
A similar clarification was made in an added “Frequently Asked Questions” addendum to the original report, which makes it clear that the only conclusion being made was that Romney could not (in their view) accomplish all five of his stated objectives, which the Tax Policy Center outlined as follows: “(1) cut current marginal income tax rates by 20 percent, (2) preserve and enhance incentives for saving and investment, (3) eliminate the alternative minimum tax, (4) eliminate the estate tax, and (5) maintain revenue neutrality.”
Q: Did you say that Governor Romney wants to raise taxes on the middle-class?
A: No. We said that simultaneously achieving all five of the tax goals stated above would result in lower taxes for high-income households and thus – because of the revenue-neutrality constraint – would require raising taxes on other households.
In other words, the study concludes that Mitt Romney would inadvertently raise taxes on the middle class IF — and only if — the Tax Policy Center’s mathematical assumptions are true AND if Romney stubbornly clings to his other four economic objectives if a conflict arises.
But the Tax Policy Center’s math is disputed, too. Just last week, in the Wall Street Journal, Harvard’s Martin Feldstein crunched the numbers and found that “the proposed Romney cuts wouldn’t require any middle-class tax increase, nor would they produce a net windfall for high- income taxpayers. The Tax Policy Center and others are wrong to claim otherwise.”
In spite of the facts, expect this to be a major talking point at this week’s Democratic convention. Using the Ryan rule, journalists should be fact-checking the heck out of Democrats distorting this report to suggest that the Republican campaign will raise taxes on the middle class.
But reporters don’t even need to be that sensitive to challenge Warren’s false claim that Romney has “said” he plans to raise taxes on the middle class. Yet, if this morning is any indication, even such an obviously untrue statement gets no reaction from sympathetic liberal network hosts.