He Said/She Said Rears His/Her Ugly Head - Yet Again

As we’ve suggested more than once before, it is a dereliction of duty when journalists report a campaign claim and then leave it up to readers to figure out whether or not the claim is true. Politicians being politicians, more often than not there is something conveniently left out or highly misleading in such claims — campaign rhetoric is, after all, a form of shorthand. And reporters should give readers the missing pieces every time.

Today’s example of what not to do comes from Lindsey Unterberger of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, reporting on a speech Laura Bush gave yesterday to a group of small business owners in Grafton, Wisconsin. Unterberger’s lead: “Rolling back tax cuts that her husband signed into law would have a chilling effect on the economy and small businesses in particular, first lady Laura Bush told a supportive crowd here yesterday.”

That lead begs several obvious questions, none of which Unterberger addresses in her piece: Would rolling back Bush’s tax cuts harm small businesses in particular? If yes, how? If not, why? Or does the answer lie somewhere in the murky middle? As it stands, readers in the swing state of Wisconsin are left to take Mrs. Bush’s words at face value, or dismiss them entirely, or do Unterberger’s work for her and report out the answer for themselves.

As it happens, twice last week Campaign Desk has explained just how this claim (a variation on the Bush camp refrain that Kerry’s plan to repeal Bush’s tax cuts for people with incomes greater than $200,000 would harm small businesses) is misleading.

To recap, with the help of the non-partisan Tax Policy Center (emphasis ours):

“A common claim in recent tax policy debates is that raising or cutting the highest income tax rates would disproportionately affect small businesses … First, few small business owners face the highest marginal income tax rates. Less than 9 percent of returns with small business income are in tax brackets of 28 percent and above, less than 3 percent face rates of 33 percent [the rate on income between $175,000 and $312,000] and only 1.3 percent are in the top bracket [income above $312,000 per year]. Roughly 97 percent of small businesses would not be affected at all by increases in the top two tax rates…”

In other words, given that so few small business owners actually report income over $200,000, the Bush camp’s claim — including Laura Bush’s claim in Unterberger’s lead — is dubious at best.

And it’s not enough to simply get a countervailing remark from the other side, as many journalists do (including Unterberger, who gives two Kerry campaign surrogates the final word in her piece, although neither specifically addresses the point made in the lead).

Sure, readers want to know what “he said” on the one hand and what “she said” on the other. But what they really want to know, and too seldom get, is “Who’s right?” And most of the time, as in this case, reporting the answer is hardly a Herculean undertaking.

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.