Fiscal cliff fear-mongering extends into surprising places. A recent analysis by FactCheck.org begins with the specter that “the U.S. faces the possibility of another recession… if President Obama and Congress cannot find a way to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff.” (That apocalyptic claim, based on a report by the Congressional Budget Office, assumes that Obama and Congress fail to come up with an agreement on taxes or spending. Ever.) While FactCheck.org does present all the contingencies in the budget negotiations, the emphasis is on worst-case scenarios. Rather than acknowledging the reality that middle-class Americans will be shielded from higher income tax rates, FactCheck.org states, “There is less certainty about the other scheduled tax increases—particularly the Bush-era tax cuts.”
Since the early days of USA Today, if not earlier, news organizations have placed a premium on personalizing abstract Washington policy stories in “reader-friendly” ways. As a result, all potential tax increases, even modest ones, trigger major news-you-can-use attention. While a causal link is hazy, I do wonder whether this journalistic habit of emphasizing costs to the individual rather than societal benefits (such as lower deficits and preserving federal programs) has contributed to America’s phobia about all tax increases.
Coverage of the fiscal cliff has also been affected by a usually laudable journalistic instinct: assume nothing unless it is verified. The likelihood that the Bush tax cuts for the middle class will not be continued is remote—but as long as it exists, reporters are treating it as a real possibility. And since respected non-partisan groups like the Tax Policy Center and the Congressional Budget Office have quantified the effects of this remote outcome, these numbers only add to public skittishness over the continued budgetary deadlock.
As the days dwindle down to a precious few before Washington reaches its statutory tax and budgetary deadlines, the news media should spend more time comforting the afflicted rather than scaring them. Readers, for example, should know that their taxes only go up when the IRS adjusts its withholding tables—and not when the ball comes down on New Year’s Eve. What we need are more sherpas from the press to help us get to the summit of the fiscal cliff honestly, realistically, and with a minimum of panic.