Two ways the media slants the GOP tax bill
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Two ways the media slants the GOP tax bill

November 4, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

House Republicans release tax reform bill

House Republicans released their 429-page tax plan, the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act,” on Thursday. The bill calls for reducing the number of income tax brackets from seven to four, raising the standard deduction rate for singles and married couples, and increasing the child tax credit and the number of available family credits. It reduces the corporate tax rate from 35 to 20 percent.

The bill proposes to:

  • set up four tax brackets at 12%, 25%, 35% and 39.6%, a reduction from the current seven brackets at 10%, 15%, 25%, 28%, 33%, 35% and 39.6%. The 12% bracket would apply to the first $45,000 of taxable income for individuals and $90,000 for married couples filing jointly. The 25% rate would apply to individuals making between $45,000 and $200,000, or couples between $90,000 and $260,000.
  • increase the standard individual deduction from $6,350 to $12,000, or double that for couples.
  • changes deductible mortgage interest. Under the current tax system, people can claim a deduction for interest paid on mortgage debt up to $1,000,000, which would be lowered to $500,000.
  • eliminate personal exemptions of $4,050, which are currently claimable for oneself, one’s spouse or dependents.
  • eliminate tax exclusions for specific funds spent on caring for dependents.
  • repeal the alternative minimum tax (AMT), which currently sets a minimum payable tax to higher income people by limiting deductions.
  • repeal the estate tax, with some provisions applying to estates of decedents dying after December 31, 2023.
  • repeal deductions for medical expenses, tax preparation fees, alimony payments, student loan interest and moving expenses.
  • reduce the tax rate on “pass-through” businesses to 25 percent on a portion of their profits. (See Context for more.)
  • and, the bill does not propose any changes to the tax-deferred 401(k) retirement savings program, as had previously been discussed as a possibility.

Reuters reported that President Trump requested that Congress send him the bill to sign by the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday on Nov. 23. Congress breaks for Thanksgiving on Nov. 16.

The bill needs 216 votes to pass in the House, which currently has 239 Republicans and 194 Democrats. If the bill reaches the 100-member Senate, it would either need 50 or 60 votes to pass, depending on whether it would increase the national deficit. The Senate has 52 Republicans, 46 Democrats and two Independents. Media outlets did not report on the estimated number of votes the bill might receive in either the House or the Senate.

Distortion Highlights

  • Why does Republican leadership want to pass the tax reform bill? The media suggests it’s to get a “victory” for the party.
  • Framing the legislative process in terms of winning and losing turns legislating into a competition and could distract from evaluating the benefits or drawbacks of the plan itself.
  • Keep reading to explore how media can feed into political divisiveness.

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The Numbers

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

View Technical Sheet >

The Distortion

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

Top Spin Words

  • Ferocious

    That is an ambitious timetable for such a long, multi-faceted piece of legislation that will face a ferocious lobbying battle among business sectors affected by the bill and fierce opposition from many Democrats. (Reuters)

  • Contentious

    The issue has been one of the most difficult for lawmakers to work out, and could prove to be one of the most contentious going forward.  (Politico)

    Contentious provisions will test Republicans, who control the White House and both chambers of Congress but have been unable to deliver any major legislative achievements for Trump since the businessman-turned-politician became president in January. (Reuters)

    The bill is loaded with sure-to-be contentious ideas affecting broad swathes of the economy. (Politico)

  • Grueling

    The unveiling of the 429-page bill — and a summary that runs 82 pages — kicks off what is sure to be a grueling slog to get legislation to President Donald Trump by the end of the year. (Politico)

  • Showdown

    The bill’s architects avoided one showdown by deciding not to make changes to the popular tax-deferred 401(k) retirement savings program. (Reuters)

  • Slammed

    Several influential business groups slammed the proposal. (Politico)

  • Twist arms

    GOP leaders have left themselves a short window to make changes, twist arms and change minds. (The Hill)

  • Controversy

    It also includes provisions sure to stoke controversy and fierce lobbying, including new limits on the popular mortgage interest deduction.  (Politico)

  • Overarching promise

    The overarching promise made to the middle class by Trump and congressional Republicans is that lower taxes would fuel faster economic growth, which, in turn, would cause incomes to rise. (The Hill)

  • Dwindle

    What is clear is that many of the benefits for the middle class could dwindle over time, even while companies and wealthy individuals could enjoy lasting tax advantages. (AP)

What is the purpose of Congress proposing and debating bills? Ideally, it’s to pass legislation that would help the country run effectively. But sometimes we treat it like a party score card – a running total of partisan one-upmanship – and media feeds into it. This happened with news coverage of the tax bill.

Three of the outlets suggest that Republicans and the president really need a win with this bill because they’ve failed to gain legislative “victories,” and The Hill emphasizes that the party needs to “sell” the bill. The effect of this is twofold: (1) it implies the bill is flawed and won’t garner support on its own merits, and (2) it reinforces the idea that legislating is more about winning than about serving the country. Let’s look at both.

Needing to “sell” the bill

Republicans launch into sales push for tax plan” (The Hill, headline)

House Republicans have rolled out their long-awaited tax reform bill. Now they have to sell it.” (The Hill, lead sentence)

… Speaker Paul Ryan “continued pitching the bill.” (The Hill)

Ryan and other Republicans introduced the bill, spoke about some of its proposed benefits and explained why they supported it. Describing that process as “selling” or “pitching” the plan suggests the legislative process is about making sales, not serving the public. It also could imply that the bill needs to be “sold,” or that it won’t get support on its own. This could promote a bias against the bill based on a subjective opinion rather than helping people form their own opinions after critical evaluation of its details.

The GOP “needs” a win

Republicans released a bill to “deliver deep tax cuts that President Donald Trump has promised, setting off a frantic race in Congress to give him his first major legislative victory.” (Reuters)

“…lawmakers are desperate for a victory after the Obamacare repeal failed.” (Politico)

The pressure is on Republicans to deliver a major legislative win to President Trump, especially after their failure to repeal ObamaCare earlier this year.” (The Hill)

Who’s keeping score, and what are we measuring? The public and media can and should hold elected officials accountable and ensure that they are working to pass legislation to run the country and address problems under their purview. But that isn’t quite the same as categorizing legislative “victories” or “wins” by party.

Keeping score in that way could influence political priorities and may encourage divisiveness. In other words, it could make it seem as if getting more “wins” than the other party is more important than cooperating to enact laws that best serve the public. In turn, members of the public who identify with a party, may learn to concern themselves more with their side winning than whether Congress is passing beneficial legislation.

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

  • 69% Spun

  • 70% Spun

  • 74% Spun

  • 77% Spun

Fiction
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Fact

The Hill

“GOP leaders have left themselves a short window to make changes, twist arms and change minds.”

The bill requires 219 votes to pass the House. The outlets did not report how many members of congress support the bill.

Politico

“The unveiling of the 429-page bill — and a summary that runs 82 pages — kicks off what is sure to be a grueling slog to get legislation to President Donald Trump by the end of the year.”

The bill released on Thursday is 429 pages. President Trump requested Congress send him the bill by the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday on Nov. 23. The House recess begins Nov. 16.

Reuters

It’s “a multi-faceted piece of legislation that will face a ferocious lobbying battle among business sectors affected by the bill and fierce opposition from many Democrats.”

Some business groups, lobby groups and some Democrats have said they do not support the bill.

Fact Comparison

  • Facts in only 1 source
  • Facts in 2 sources
  • Facts in 3 sources
  • Facts in all sources

The tax bill would eliminate a break for casualty losses that allow people to deduct items lost in fires and storms. It would continue to allow the provision for people affected by hurricanes. House Ways and Means chairman Rep. Kevin Brady’s Houston-area district was affected by Hurricane Harvey. (Politico)


Before we removed the opinion, Politico says the provision it portrays as about hurricanes was “no doubt reflecting the influence of Brady.” This may give the impression that Brady inserted the provision specifically to benefit his hurricane-affected district. This might be the case, but isn’t necessarily; maybe the provision was inserted for more general reasons. Consider: the proposed tax provision is not just for damage due to hurricanes. It’s for damage from federally declared disasters, which includes hurricanes, but also flooding, wildfires and tropical storms.

Private universities would face a new 1.4 percent tax on their investment earnings from their endowments if the new bill passes. (Politico)


This tax would apply to some but not all private universities, which Politico doesn’t specify. The 1.4 percent tax would not apply to private universities with less than 500 students in the preceding tax year or with endowments of less than $100,000 per student.

The bill would repeal a prohibition on religious institutions being involved in political activities. (Reuters)


The bill would allow some but not all political activities. The bill allows tax-exempt churches to make “statements relating to political campaign[s] in [the] ordinary course of religious services and activities.” “Political activities” wouldn’t include activities beyond this, such as rallies held solely to promote political candidates.

Headlines

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

Gives opinion without providing details.

This headline doesn’t tell readers any facts about the bill, yet gives the opinion that it contains “tough tradeoffs.”

Focuses on a single aspect of the bill.

The headline doesn’t mention any other parts of the tax plan, which may leave readers believing this is the most significant proposal.

Could paint the bill as all positive by focusing only on provisions that the public might assume will lower their taxes.

By pointing out only that some tax deductions are going to increase, and some taxes will be limited, without mentioning other deductions would be reduced or eliminated, gives a one-sided and potentially misleading view of the bill.

Balance

Get the full picture! Don’t buy into cherry-picked information.

The media’s slant:
  • Republicans are working hard to “sell” the tax bill, saying the “whole purpose” of the tax reform is to create a “middle class tax cut”.  Stressing that they have to market it, may suggest the bill doesn’t have merit in its own right.
  • The Republicans are under significant pressure to pass this bill, especially following the failure to repeal Obamacare.
  • Trying to pass this bill will be a “grueling slog,” and it probably won’t succeed.   
  • The tax proposal isn’t a good plan and doesn’t help the people who really need it. (AP)
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • The legislative process was designed to encourage dissent and discussion that may uncover both the benefits and disadvantages of the bill.
  • Implying that the Republican party’s reputation is at stake could be misleading. When Republicans don’t pass a measure, it doesn’t mean they’ve “lost” and the other side has “won.” The system was designed to include checks and balances to ensure that, in the end, bills passed into law will be effective for the greatest number of people.
  • This dramatizes the situation but doesn’t add any clarity about the legislative process. More debate and lawmakers’ efforts might give us a better final law in the end.
  • We would need further analysis of the plan’s effects on the economy to reasonably predict how it could impact specific sections of the population.

Context

Access information and historical data that provides a more comprehensive understanding of the story.

The tax bill calls for changing the tax rate of “pass-through” businesses. It would reduce the tax rate to 25 percent on 30 percent of their profits in most cases. Some circumstances would allow businesses to qualify a greater share of their profits to be taxed at the reduced rate. The Politico and Reuters articles we analyzed mentioned changes proposed in the new tax bill to pass-through businesses, relating them to small businesses, but don’t explain what pass-through businesses are.

So what are ‘pass-throughs’?

“Pass-throughs” are businesses where the income “passes through” to the owner(s) and is taxed as individual income for that owner(s) rather than as income for a business, such as is the case for C-corporations. According to the Brookings Institute, Pass-throughs include S-corporations (those that have shareholders), partnerships, and sole proprietorships. In 2014, there were 26 million registered businesses in total, and about 95 percent of them were pass-throughs.

Brookings makes the distinction that “small” businesses are those with less than $10 million in yearly receipts. In 2014, 81 percent of profits in pass-through businesses were made by businesses with more than $10 million of total receipts, which represented one percent of all firms. Pass-through businesses represent a larger fraction of business income now than they have in the past. In 2013, C-corporations, i.e., non-pass-through businesses, earned 44 percent of business income.

To find more information on the tax bill:

There are various websites that summarize, explain or analyze the changes proposed in the new tax bill. The articles we analyzed mentioned two organizations for further reference:

Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget

Tax Foundation