What do the GOP, horses and the eleventh hour have in common? Apparently, your taxes.
Photo by AP Images

What do the GOP, horses and the eleventh hour have in common? Apparently, your taxes.

December 4, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

US Senate passes GOP tax reform bill on Saturday

The U.S. Senate passed its version of a Republican-authored tax reform bill at 1:36 a.m. Saturday by a vote of 51-49. All Republican senators voted for the 479-page “Tax Cut and Jobs Act,” with the exception of Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) who voted against the bill. The House passed its version of the bill on Nov. 16 by a vote of 227-205; it had been introduced there on Nov. 2.

The bill now goes to a conference committee to negotiate a compromise with the House bill before it is sent to the president for his signature. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said on his website, “Now we will move quickly to a conference committee so we can get a final bill to President Trump’s desk.”

On Thursday, the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) published its report estimating that the Senate bill would increase the federal deficit by $1 trillion over ten years.

Additional source: CNN

Distortion Highlights

  • The Senate passed the GOP tax bill on Saturday. Should you be worried?
  • Some news outlets suggest so. Others suggest not.
  • The thing is, they suggest this through spin. See how that opens the door to implication, often at the expense of the facts.

Show Me Everything

The Distortion

The Knife’s analysis of how news outlets distort information. (This section may contain opinion)

Top Spin Words

  • Hit rough waters

    The bill hit rough waters after the Joint Taxation panel concluded it would worsen federal shortfalls by $1 trillion over a decade, even when factoring in economic growth that lower taxes would stimulate. (AP)

  • Stubborn fiscal hawks

    Though Johnson’s vote was likely never truly in doubt, he could have held out for more changes, which would have further handcuffed leaders as they tried to satisfy a duo of stubborn fiscal hawks alarmed that the measure would blow up federal budget deficits. (Politico)

  • Blow it up

    After spending the year’s first nine months futilely trying to repeal President Barack Obama’s health care law, GOP leaders were determined to move the measure rapidly before opposition Democrats and lobbying groups could blow it up. (AP)

  • Scramble

    Democrats also ridiculed the GOP scramble to get the bill passed and the frequent rounds of horse trading required. (Politico)

    The Senate parliamentarian found that such a mechanism would violate complicated procedural rules, scotching a vote on the bill Thursday night and sending Republicans scrambling for alternatives. (Politico)

  • Stunningly swift

    The Republican-led House approved a similar bill last month in what has been a stunningly swift trip through Congress for complex legislation that impacts the breadth of American society. (AP)

  • Sweeping

    Senate Republicans negotiated through early Saturday morning to pass their sweeping, trillion-dollar tax reform bill, putting the GOP and President Trump on the threshold of a major legislative victory this year. (Fox News)

    Senate OKs sweeping tax reform bill, Trump predicts final passage before Christmas (Fox News)

    Senate passes sweeping tax overhaul. (Politico)
    The Senate passed the most sweeping tax rewrite in decades early Saturday, with Republicans lining up to approve an overhaul that will touch almost every corner of the United States economy, affecting families, small business owners and multinational corporations, with the biggest benefits flowing to the highest-earning Americans. (The New York Times)

  • Stiffened resistance

    But the sour projections stiffened resistance from some deficit-averse Republicans. (AP)

  • Burned

    But many of his colleagues greeted them with distrust, both because they expected tax cuts to generate more robust economic growth than the forecasters projected and because they felt burned by unflattering analyses of their health care proposals issued this year by the Congressional Budget Office. (The New York Times)

  • Radically simplify

    That included dropping plans to repeal the alternative minimum tax — a complicated batch of rules designed to prevent people from dodging taxes — that had been a key part of Republican plans to radically simplify the code. (Politico)

  • Hurdle

    In a second tweet on Saturday morning, Trump acknowledged the final congressional hurdle. (Fox News)

In news reporting, vague, imprecise or dramatic language (spin) can create impressions and implications that aren’t backed by data. This was the most prevalent distortion we found in the coverage of the Senate vote on the GOP tax bill. Here’s what we found in the four outlets we analyzed.

The rush job

The New York Times and The Associated Press (AP) used terms that emphasized the time it took for the bill to pass through both the House and Senate. The Times said lawmakers “raced” and “sprinted,” and AP described the bill’s timeline as “a stunningly swift trip.” Politico wrote that Senate Republicans “scramble[d]” and “frantically” rewrote the legislation. Here’s a more robust example from the Times (the spin is noted in red):

The lightning-fast trajectory of the bill and the ability to overcome — or ignore — objections that have bedeviled previous attempts to revamp the tax code, highlights the pressure Republican leaders faced to notch a victory after several failed legislative efforts this year.

There are two implications here: One is that the timeline was irresponsible and the bill will carry negative consequences because of it. The other is that Republicans may hold their notching a legislative “victory” more important than their constituents’ interests. There may be truth to both assertions, but neither is supported with data.

Yee-haw!

AP and Politico referred to Republicans’ actions as “horse trading” happening at the “eleventh hour,” with the latter outlet adding that lawmakers “corralled” votes. Fox News called it “eleventh-hour vote-wrangling.” Aside from the entertainment element these terms impart, “horse trading” can also carry a negative implication, which is that dishonesty or underhanded practices may have been part of the negotiations. Again, that’s possible, but it’s implied, rather than stated with facts.

Say it with data

The most common spin terms across the four articles were instances of vagueness or imprecision. The Times, for example, wrote that Republicans made “a crush of changes” to the legislation, and that party leaders “scaled back some planned tax cuts.” The references may be accurate, but not precise.

Here’s a list of terms the outlets used to describe the tax breaks: large, more generous, modest, more modest, smaller and expanded. Politico also wrote that the GOP bill has “polled poorly” with voters, and AP said the polls showed “scant public enthusiasm.” Sometimes the outlets did back the descriptions with data, but other times they didn’t, so in some instances we’re left to wonder how “large” is large, and how “scant” is scant, for example.

But wait, don’t buy yet!

Depending on the outlet you read, the spin supports an overall implication that the bill will be good for the country (Fox News), or that it won’t (the other three outlets). And subsequent coverage of the legislation suggests the same. For example, Fox News later published an article that depicted the bill’s passing as a heroic feat. Its headline reads, “GOP Senate survived two surprise, nor’easter-like storms to ultimately pass major tax reform.” The Times, on the other hand, suggested a more negative prognosis:

Republicans are preparing to use the swelling deficits made worse by the package as a rationale to pursue their long-held vision: undoing the entitlements of the New Deal and Great Society, leaving government leaner and the safety net skimpier for millions of Americans.

Spin, implication and speculation aside, the bill has yet to be modified and signed into law. Specific data and a comparative framework to understand the bill and its potential consequences would help voters navigate the changes and interact with their lawmakers in a constructive fashion. See our Context for that.

Note: The Washington Post published an article by The Associated Press, which we were not able to link to on AP’s site. For this article, we’re referring to AP rather than the Post.

Is it fact or fiction? Which outlet presents the most spin?

  • 64% Spun

  • 69% Spun

  • 77% Spun

  • 87% Spun

Fiction
or
Fact

The New York Times

“But many of [Sen. Bob Corker’s] colleagues greeted [the JCT projections] with distrust, both because they expected tax cuts to generate more robust economic growth than the forecasters projected and because they felt burned by unflattering analyses of their health care proposals issued this year by the Congressional Budget Office.”

The JCT projects the federal deficit would increase by $1 trillion over 10 years due to the Senate tax bill, if passed. Estimates by other organizations predict a smaller or no deficit increase. The CBO analyzed health care bills in the House and Senate this year, predicting they would result in 22 to 23 million more uninsured by 2026. Some senators say they disagree with JCT and CBO projections.

Politico

“But on Friday, Democratic leaders were mostly enraged by both the substance and process of the tax push.”

All Democratic senators voted against the tax bill.

Associated Press

“After spending the year’s first nine months futilely trying to repeal President Barack Obama’s health care law, GOP leaders were determined to move the measure rapidly before opposition Democrats and lobbying groups could blow it up.”

Bills introduced in the House and Senate this year to repeal the ACA did not pass. The House passed its tax reform bill 14 days after it was introduced; the Senate passed its bill 16 days later.

Headlines

An article’s headline can direct how the news is understood. Compare and contrast how different outlets present the story through their headlines.

Slants tax bill as all positive. Will no one “lose” and pay higher taxes?

Makes it about Trump and the GOP, not about the bill and the millions of people it might affect.

Focuses on a supposed dramatic ending, which could imply the bill was not well thought out.

The Numbers

See how the articles rate in spin, slant and logic when held against objective standards.

View Technical Sheet >