Political Animal


September 21, 2011 10:05 AM Fact checking the fact checkers

By Steve Benen

In a speech unveiling his debt-reduction plan earlier this week, President Obama fleshed out what he described as a simple principle on tax fairness: “Middle-class families shouldn’t pay higher taxes than millionaires and billionaires. That’s pretty straightforward. It’s hard to argue against that. Warren Buffett’s secretary shouldn’t pay a higher tax rate than Warren Buffett. There is no justification for it. It is wrong that in the United States of America, a teacher or a nurse or a construction worker who earns $50,000 should pay higher tax rates than somebody pulling in $50 million.”

The Associated Press ran a fact-check piece yesterday, making the case that the president’s claim was wrong — Obama, the AP said, “makes it sound as if there are millionaires all over America paying taxes at a lower rate than their secretaries.” Since, on average, millionaires and billionaires shoulder a larger tax bill, the AP disapproved of the president’s rhetoric.

But the fact-check piece made a variety of unfair inferences. Obama never said every millionaire pays lower tax rates than every administrative staffer; he said it happens, it shouldn’t happen, and if we approve meaningful tax reform, it won’t happen.

Paul Krugman called the AP’s analysis “stupid.”

[W]e’re not talking about one or two exceptional guys, either. Look at the IRS data on returns for the 400 highest incomes in America (pdf) — specifically, Table 4. If you look at the numbers since 2004, you’ll see that in a typical year between 30 and 40 percent of those super-high-income players paid an average tax rate of less than 15 percent; most of them paid less than 20 percent. Bear in mind that for the very wealthy the payroll tax — the main burden on working-class Americans — is trivial, because of the cap on Social Security and the fact that it only applies to earned income. And what becomes clear is that the Obama/Buffet claim is absolutely, totally true.

So why the attack? Probably because it’s such an effective line. And we can’t have populism that actually strikes a chord with the public, can we?

It’s really not that complicated. Obama has endorsed something he calls the “Buffett Rule,” based on the notion that millionaires and billionaires “should not pay a smaller share of their income in taxes than middle-class families pay.” Arguing that this only happens some of the time isn’t much of an argument, from Republicans or from major media outlets.

It’s also worth noting that Media Matters made an interesting catch: after publishing the fact-check piece, “the AP has subjected it to heavy revisions. However, posts reporting the story at National Review Online, the Weekly Standard, and Hot Air all quote from the original version of the story, ensuring it will live on in conservative mythology.”

I’m generally quite fond of media outlets engaging in these fact-checking endeavors; it sure beats the mind-numbing “he said, she said” coverage that dominates political coverage. But if your fact checks need “heavy revisions,” you’re doing it wrong.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • martin on September 21, 2011 10:19 AM:

    Now a REAL populist argument would be to get rid of the Captial Gains Tax completely and let all income be treated the same. It is one of the true indicators of who is conducting Class Warfare the "earned" income- money you get when you work- is taxed at a higher rate than "unearned" income - money you get when your money works.

    And if we start taxing "unearned" income as real income, we can start taking out a chunk fore medicare and Social Security.

    nkill dependent, insists Mr Captcha

  • Danp on September 21, 2011 10:20 AM:

    What AP is doing is not fact checking. They are reframing the argument in order to debate it. That's how biased reporting works.

  • T2 on September 21, 2011 10:21 AM:

    Thank you Danp.

  • jcricket on September 21, 2011 10:24 AM:

    Ohlemacher, the writer of said article, seems to demonstrate a pattern of false equivalency in his work. Sounds like a conservative tool to me.

  • c u n d gulag on September 21, 2011 10:25 AM:

    If I see something's from AP, I usually don't pay any attention to it.
    I know it'll be biased.

    And I'll third what Danp said.

  • John on September 21, 2011 10:28 AM:

    The Associated Press has been a disgrace for years. I worked in newspapers in the early '90s, and even back then anything they ran had to be heavily edited and usually fact checked. In recent years they've become more and more a GOP house organ, and many smaller, budget-strapped papers are AP cut and paste jobs. So not only is FOX is pervasive source of "information" for a lot of voters, but oftentimes their local paper is a merely a printed version of it.

  • LRM on September 21, 2011 10:48 AM:

    The damage is done and won't be undone. The vast majority will read that article and believe it, and never see the take down that points out the mistakes. Thanks AP, America really needs your sloppy and misleading reporting.

  • square1 on September 21, 2011 11:18 AM:

    Here is the thing though. It isn't like the highest-income individuals paid tax rates merely by hiring a bunch of tax lawyers who found a bunch of loopholes, credits, and deductions.

    Most of the income for those individuals is capital gains income that is taxed at a rate that is inherently less than what a typical executive assistant is going to pay. No tax magic is required.

    So while I give Obama his due for starting the conversation, I disagree that Obama has "fleshed out" his position. He never explicitly said that the lower cap gains rate should be repealed. He just insinuated that it was unfair. I'm still waiting to see how this looks when a plan is actually fleshed out.

  • Gregory on September 21, 2011 11:21 AM:

    Arguing that this only happens some of the time isnít much of an argument, from Republicans or from major media outlets.

    There's a difference?

    Note, though, how effective the Republicans' decades-long effort to create the myth of a "liberal media" as been. Republicans live in a fantasy world and say things that are objectively falls all the time, so the so-called "fact checkers," in order to provide some bogus sense of "balance," have to use false equivalences and tortured logic to laim that "both sides do it."

  • max on September 21, 2011 12:20 PM:

    The AP as a fact checker. LOL. Say no more.

  • jjm on September 21, 2011 1:12 PM:

    This is an outrage.

    I read this 'fact check' on McClatchy yesterday and was absolutely appalled.

    Interestingly, it didn't garner any comments of support, which is unusual for the right wingers who usually act as guardian angels for this kind of skewed reporting. Even they seemed to know it was phony.

  • Death Panel Truck on September 21, 2011 1:17 PM:

    Fifteen years ago, I worked as an editor/reporter on a weekly newspaper in southwest Idaho, 40 miles from Boise. On at least three occasions, the AP took stories I wrote and ran them as their own, changing only a few words here and there. Each time it happened, the publisher would call the AP to ask when we could expect payment. None was forthcoming, of course. We couldn't sue them, because we didn't have the resources.

    The AP simply cannot be trusted. They're biased and they're lazy to boot.

    Captcha sez: Com- ronlysa

  • Gov't Mule on September 21, 2011 2:13 PM:

    Steve: AP is using a sleight of hand argument predicated on most people being unable to actually understand what "average" actually is. Go to the link in parentheses to get the definition (http://math.about.com/od/glossaryofterms/g/Average-Defined.htm)

    Also, it is important to remember that back in 2000, George W. Bush was promising an average tax cut of about $1200. According to the Tax Policy Center, the Bush Tax Cuts only delivered a cut of $22 for the bottom 20% of taxpayers, and just $360 for the next lowest 20%.