On Vegas reporters on Reid on Romney

How Reid’s evidence-free claims about Romney’s taxes were covered in the Senate Majority Leader’s home state

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.”)

In Myers’s latest print story, she doesn’t tell readers up high or explicitly that Reid’s claim remains evidence-free, instead reporting (third graph) that “Reid said he didn’t know whether this was true” and that Reid on Monday dodged questions (presumably Myers’s) about his mystery source and whether the source would come forward. The Review-Journal also ran on Monday its own wire story on the matter in which, after five paragraphs (and a headline) of he-said, she-said, readers are finally told that Reid “hasn’t offered any evidence to back [the claim] up and even has said he’s not sure it’s true.”

What of Vegas’s other paper?

The first reference I was able to find in the Last Vegas Sun was a six-sentence Associated Press report on August 2 headlined: “Romney: Claim that he hasn’t paid taxes ‘untrue.’” (Third sentence: “Reid isn’t saying just who made the claim and the Nevada Democrat adds that he isn’t certain it’s true.”) In its own, in-house coverage, the Sun has offered mixed treatment of the man who’s clearly Nevada’s most-powerful politician. In Sunday’s print edition, a story by the paper’s DC correspondent, Karoun Demirjian, was headlined: “Reid has little to lose in goading Romney for his tax returns.” However, the online version of the same story carried a very different header that, rightly, put front and center Reid’s refusal to substantiate his claims: “Reid refuses to back up claim that Romney paid no taxes for a decade.”

Demirjian’s print piece is slugged “Letter from Washington,” so it’s perhaps not surprising that the focus is on the strategy behind—and efficacy of—Reid’s claim. Readers get several graphs of Romney-said, Reid-said, Jon Stewart-said, Democratic strategist-said, Republican consultant-said, and little explicit mention that Reid’s claim remains unsubstantiated (well, Demirjian gets at it in the fourth graph, noting Reid “won’t reveal his source.”)

On August 3rd, Reid’s claims were referenced in a Sun piece on Romney’s North Las Vegas campaign stop and right away described as “second-hand allegations.”

Beyond the news pages, Reid’s claim inspired an August 4th opinion column at the Review-Journal. Columnist Jane Ann Morrison declared Reid’s behavior “irresponsible, not to mention embarrassing to his home state of Nevada.” More from Morrison:

Reid used his high-ranking position to force the media to cover a story based on his word without any proven substance. He did it deliberately, as he does most everything.

He quoted one unnamed source at Bain Capital, and only then did he a find a taker. [The Huffington Post].

If Harry Nobody had said the exact same thing, it wouldn’t have been published in legitimate newspapers without some evidence or a second credible and independent source.

One can debate whether or not The Huffington Post was “forced” to print Reid’s claim (see here and here). But reporters can’t be forced—and shouldn’t be hoodwinked, either—into writing up what amount to mere rumors without telling readers right away and in their own words that the claims in question are evidence-free.

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Jay Jones is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer who has covered political campaigns for various media outlets in the U.S. and for the BBC in the U.K.