NEVADA — Last week, The Huffington Post’s Sam Stein and Ryan Grim reported that Harry Reid told them that a “Bain investor” told him that Mitt Romney “didn’t pay any taxes for ten years.” (And: breathe).
That unsubstantiated claim (Reid wouldn’t identify his source and even told HuffPost he was “not certain” the claim was true), as the savvy Senate Majority Leader surely anticipated, has returned to the headlines for a week now the subject of Romney’s tax returns and his refusal to release more of them (as presidential contenders have done for decades).
What have those headlines—and, of course, the stories below them—looked like here in Reid’s home state? Did reporters highlight—up high in each story—the untrustworthiness of Reid’s claim (an approach my editors argued for here last week and Brendan Nyhan elaborated on here yesterday)? Or did that key point get lost in the increasingly shrill back and forth over the claim and Romney’s refusal to release more returns?
On August 1, in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, reporter Steve Tetreault didn’t write anywhere in his own words that Reid’s claim was unsubstantiated (there’s no hint of that fact at all in the headline, first or second paragraphs). In the story’s third paragraph, Tetreault repeated Reid’s “I’m not certain [it’s true]” comment to HuffPost, but then moved on in the next graph to “Democrats cheered as the Senate majority leader from Nevada focused new attention on a perceived Romney weak spot” and, two graphs later, “Republicans, meanwhile, cried foul at an accusation that they complained lacked any supporting evidence.” That the claim lacked any supporting evidence is not merely a Republican complaint (to be therefore easily dismissed by some portion of Tetreault’s readers). It’s a fact, and one that Tetreault should have written up high in the story and in his own words.
In the same piece, Tetreault reported that Reid got on the phone with Nevada reporters the day after HuffPost’s report and told them what they should be writing. Said Reid:
What if [Romney] has paid no taxes, like I am saying he hasn’t. What if he has all these moneys as we already know in the Cayman Islands, Bermuda, Swiss banks. I mean, gee whiz, rather than ask me why I should do this, that is a story you should be writing.
In other words: don’t emphasize Reid passing along evidence-free claims. Write about Romney and his foreign bank accounts and (what) if he hasn’t paid taxes.
The Review-Journal’s Laura Myers hasn’t exactly followed Reid’s reporting advice. Her first mention of the matter came in the third graph of an August 3rd piece reporting on Romney’s “quick visit to North Las Vegas” and how Romney “rejected [Reid’s] unsubstantiated charges” (there, she said it in her own words!) in a news conference there.
In a blog piece Monday, Myers managed to get into her first sentence the fact that Reid’s claim is “based on no public evidence.” Myers also reminded readers that Reid “threw out all sorts of unsubstantiated charges” in his first US Senate race many years ago. Myers’s lede:
Anyone shocked by U.S. Sen. Harry Reid accusing GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney of not paying taxes for 10 years based on no public evidence, doesn’t know the political knife-fighter from Searchlight.
In the Democrat’s first bid for the U.S. Senate, Reid threw out all sorts of unsubstantiated charges against Paul Laxalt, the former Republican governor of Nevada who went on to defeat Reid by 611 votes in a recount .
.including the charge that “there were years Laxalt had paid no income taxes and people should know why.”
(The Huffington Post, in its initial story last week, suggested Reid’s launching of unsubstantiated charges was something unusual, something that Reid wouldn’t normally be willing to do. “Reid is known more as a back room brawler than a public flamethrower,” wrote HuffPost’s Stein and Grim. “So his willingness to throw this private conversation into the media frenzy over Romney’s taxes underscores the low opinion he has of the Republican candidate.”)