While former Speaker Newt Gingrich has frequently complained about the media, it seems that former Governor Mitt Romney has the most reason to complain of unfair treatment in the last few days. Of course, it is not necessarily intentional misdeeds. Unfairness comes from the nature of the business; even well-intentioned writers can struggle to meet a theoretical ideal of "truth." Indeed, the idea of "media fairness" or "media objectivity" sounds promising but is very difficult to obtain. Editors, writers, and sources have to make decisions which can represent "truth" in very different ways, even when all of the statements are, in some sense, true.
Take for example the recent discussion in the media about Mitt Romney's taxes. Is this a newsworthy story? It seems likely that either Romney or Gingrich will be the Republican candidate for President. Since Gingrich decided to make this into an issue, and brought it up in a Republican debate, this is a newsworthy event. Additionally, Romney actually released his taxes - so, there is a "there, there." Something actually happened, it is an issue in the campaign, and so the news media has some kind of right to cover it. It is fair enough that they have done so.
But what about the type of coverage? This is where Romney has gotten a raw deal. While many news sources today had the same coverage, we will use CNN's story from this morning. Headline: "Romney paid 14% tax rate." The subheading - "Yes, Mitt Romney paid far less than the maximum tax rate on his millions. But he's not alone - 80% of Americans have an effective tax rate below 15%" - is in smaller print below the front page headline.
(Screen shot of CNN: approx 10:45 am, 01/24/12)
(for the Article, see: http://money.cnn.com/2012/01/24/news/economy/Romney_tax_return/index.htm?hpt=hp_t1)
Before moving on to the content of the article, let's examine the "fairness" of the headline. It is, more or less, true that Romney paid a 14% tax rate. That is, if you look at how many dollars came in, and how many dollars went out to the Federal government, 14% of the incoming dollars went back out to the federal government.
Why is this problematic? I think there are two reasons:
(1) the headline and the subtitle, while true, are misleading truths. The natural conclusion a casual reader of the news might draw is, "Romney found a way to cheat on his taxes," or, if not that, at least to take advantage of weird rules unavailable to the common man on their income taxes. Nowhere in the headline does it explain the essential truth: wage income and investment income are treated differently. If you got most of your income from investments, you would pay taxes around that rate as well. Additionally, there is a good public policy reason that taxes on investment income are lower than taxes on wage income: the government is providing incentives for people to invest since that is good for the economy as a whole. Lastly, this is a somewhat misleading way of calculating his ultimate tax burdern. People who are this wealthy usually do not spend all of their money in their lifetime. A typical person who invests pays income taxes on earned income, then pays a tax on dividends, and then pays a tax when they die and try to pass their money on to their children. While I am not a tax lawyer, so I am not sure exactly how his acquisition of these investments was taxed, I'm fairly certain he's likely to end up paying a tax when he dies on his "millions."
(2) This headline is playing right into Gingrich's hands. There are many other possible headlines - that are also true - that would have made Romney look much better, or that would have not advantaged either side. Gingrich wanted this story and he got it. At some level, news people should be aware that they are being manipulated and should actively resist it. Alternative headlines:
--- "Romney Releases Tax Records: Public Debate Follows" (even handed)
--- "Romney Paid $6.2 Million In Taxes: Records Released Yesterday" (even handed, perhaps good for Romney)
--- "Romney Tax Records Show He Gave $7 Million to Charity in Last Two Years" (good for Romney)
--- "Romney Puts Gingrich Argument to Rest: Releases Taxes" (good for Romney)
--- "Romney Correctly Paid Taxes" (good for Romney)
And so on. Out of the possible universe of headlines I can imagine on this subject, CNN ran about the worst possible headline for Romney. The article itself is more even handed but, as an author on this website, I have some idea of how many people read just the headlines and do not read the articles themselves. The article also failed to mention some another key point: While Gingrich raised this issue, under Gingrich's tax plan, Romney would have paid close to 0%. (See: http://www.politico.com/blogs/burns-haberman/2012/01/romney-i-wouldnt-pay-taxes-under-newt-plan-111988.html)
Just because this headline is not a good one for Romney, though, does not mean that CNN was out to get him. After all, it is one of the possible headlines out of the set of all possible reasonable headlines. Also, if they ran a different headline, the Gingrich campaign would have cause to complain that CNN was hiding what they viewed to be an essential fact. Either CNN took the chance to hurt Romney with this headline (advantage Gingrich) or they did not (advantage Romney). There was no really good way to have no effect at all.
It is true that Romney, as a politician, failed to make the headline about something else. It is hard to imagine a more successful Republican debater - on two term President from the 1980s comes to mind - allowing the opposition to grab control of the story in this fashion. Instead of having a Republican race focused on evaluating President Obama, the nation now has a race focused on evaluating Mitt Romney as a person. Certainly today, in the days to come, the Romney campaign will try to shift that story - shift it back to President Obama (after the State of the Union speech, this should certainly be possible) and shift it back to Newt Gingrich.
The line of attack on Gingrich, so far, looks to be the same one deployed with such success in Iowa: none of his old fellow congressmen want to work with him and they all think his is dangerous and "erratic." Erratic is likely to be the word-of-the-week on the Romney side. We will see if the media picks that up and gives Gingrich reason to complain again about media bias.
--- Stag Staff