I recently spoke on the changes in American media during the Trump years. While I continue to be critical of Donald Trump attacks on the media, I also criticized what I view as consistently biased reporting on some networks. CNN was a focus of some of those criticism even though I have many friends at the network and view some of its reporters to be extraordinary journalists. As I was about to fly home, however, I saw a program that summed up my concerns in journalism in the age of echo-chamber news. It was part of John Avlon’s Reality Check series which looked at the elimination of the deduction for the state and local (SALT) taxes under the recent the Tax Cut and Jobs Act (TCJA). Not once in the segment did CNN mention the long-standing economic and policy objections to the SALT deductions. Instead, the entire segment framed the change as penalizing states and voters who did not support Trump. It was wildly unfair and incomplete on the issue and seemed calculated to enrage rather than inform.
The distorted account was set up from the first line of introduction with CNN host Ana Cabrera saying “The old saying goes only two things are certain in life, death and taxes. But you can add a third certainty to that list. Blue states that did not vote for Trump are going to pay more in taxes.”
Avlon then stated “we can expect the tax code to be fair. This year, not so much. Because whether you see your taxes go up or down will depend if you live in a red state or blue state. That’s by design.” He explained correctly that many blue states that did not vote for Trump were hit hard by the elimination of SALT – an issue that we previously discussed. However, rather than noting that many economists and experts were critical of the SALT deduction as effectively subsidizing the high taxes in states like New York, CNN portrayed the change as nothing but vindictive and petty politics.
Avlon then declared:
“AVLON: Guess who does even better under Trump’s tax code? Trump’s own commercial real estate industry. The same industry that Jared Kushner’s company bought a white-elephant of a building at a record price before the market crashed, nearly defaulted on a $1 billion loan and is still worth around $300 million and paid little or no federal income taxes for at least seven years. The loopholes are wider and shelter income easier than ever before. As for the rest of us? Only 17 percent of taxpayers say they expect to see a tax cut this year.
President Nixon said never make this popular but we can make it fair. But with a politically weaponized tax code that punishes blue states, President Trump seems to have failed at both.”
The fact is that some of us who were hardest hit by the elimination of SALT have long recognized the arguments against it as good-faith objections to an effective federal subsidy for high tax states. Texas, California, and other jurisdiction continued to raise taxes while noting that their citizens should simply reduce their federal taxes by the same amount. It became funny money and effectively required low tax states to subsidize the programs and budgets of high-tax states.
State and local taxes have been deductible since the inception of the federal income tax in 1913. CNN did not mention that less than one-third of tax filers itemized deductions on their federal income tax returns and most of the beneficiaries are in the wealthier brackets. Moreover, not surprising, those states with low or lean budgets ended up subsidizing the high tax states. For example, only 17 percent in South Dakota filed for such deductions while 46 percent did so in Maryland in 2016.
So what happened with the elimination? Suddenly New York politicians had to justify their budgets and cut programs for lack of state funds. In other words, rather than support their budgets themselves, states like New York cut programs when the full and true burden was shouldered by the state.
One can honestly object to the elimination of SALT. I have read some compelling arguments against the change and I respect those views. Indeed, it would have been interesting to see a fair segment that explored the debate over tax policy. However, this a long-standing debate with economics not politics at its core. The timing before tax day seemed calculated to trigger animus against Trump and, stripped of its context and history, most would be outraged by the use of tax policy for raw political retaliation.
There was a time when such a one-sided and distorted account would have raised objections from journalistic figures or groups. Now, it is merely par for the course as journalism becomes raw advocacy.
I hold no brief for Trump, who I have regularly criticized. However, the media at times seems eager to fulfill the stereotype that he has painted of a political agenda in the media. That does not justify his attacks but the raw biased shown in such segments only strengthen the arguments of Trump supporters that American media is “fake news” or that media figures have become active players in the “resistance movement.”