The Murdoch Street Journal has been a slow-motion overhaul, and it takes a minute sometimes to realize that things you skim over today would never have appeared a couple of years ago.

“State Death Taxes Are the Latest Worry”

“Death tax” isn’t a neutral word so it shouldn’t be used in the news columns, particularly when others are available. This isn’t even a close call, and yet this Journal story from a couple days ago uses it seven times, not counting quotes.

With the federal estate tax disappearing for most people, state death taxes have emerged as a surprise new worry. This year, the federal exemption rose to $3.5 million per individual, or as much as $7 million per married couple. At the current level, only 5,500 estates a year are federally taxable.

That is down from the 17,500 estates that would have faced death taxes under the previous $2 million limit, the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center estimates.


Keeping track of the constantly changing landscape in state death taxes can be tricky. Delaware just added an estate tax this year, while the estate taxes in Kansas and Illinois are scheduled to disappear at the end of 2009.

Etc.

These things are called an estate tax, or in some cases, an inheritance tax, and they resemble other taxes on property transfers, like the gift tax. You wouldn’t call that a “life tax.” Why go with a tendentious, crude, ideologically loaded word when another is available, and for headline purposes, not even much longer?

Similarly:

”Politicians Butt In at Bailed-Out GM”

The story is actually subtler than the red-meat headline indicates. In one case, GM changed its mind on a dealership closing after politicians pleaded on its behalf. In other cases, the company dissolves a contract in bankruptcy court despite the imprecations of both Montana senators, including Max Baucus, head of the Finance Committee.

A good story: so why use a jackhammer when a chisel will do?

No one accused the old Journal’s news department of being a bastion of liberalism. Well, Michael Wolff gave it a try, but he can’t be serious. The difference was that it chose words carefully. It didn’t hit readers over the head. It used understatement and wit. That’s one reason it was so credible, not to mention a pleasure to read.

This is less about ideological creep in the news columns; that’s a whole ‘nother post. It’s more a style question. More is needed.

If you'd like to help CJR and win a chance at one of 10 free print subscriptions, take a brief survey for us here.

Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.