Demand Full Media Disclosure: What's Your Tax Bracket?

09/13/2010 07:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There's an upcoming debate on taxes and tax cuts which is likely going to define the rest of the 2010 midterm election season. This will be reported on and commented on by a wide array of people in the media, from all sides of the political landscape. But why is it that media "full disclosure" rules seem to be completely ignored during such debate by the punditry? Because by all rights, anyone in the media talking about raising income tax rates on the top two income brackets should have to disclose their possible conflict of interest in the debate. It wouldn't take much, just a simple declaration: "Full disclosure, I fall into the top tax bracket myself, so I would personally be affected by changing this rate."

The professional media's concept of "full disclosure" is an easy one to grasp: if there is any possible shred of even perceived influence or personal gain to be made by any journalist on the subject they are covering, then they must publicly disclose -- in the same article or news piece -- this possible conflict of interest. This means saying something like: "BP is an advertiser with this network" when talking about the BP oil spill, for instance. This alerts the viewer that there may be a possible bias in the reporting, because the station makes money from selling BP advertisements. Personal bias by individuals is also expected to be admitted, up front. Such as saying: "Full disclosure, I used to be an employee of Goldman Sachs" in a business news story on the same company. Or, in politics: "Full disclosure, I was the campaign manager for Senator John Doe in his last campaign," when discussing the same senator on air.

This is supposed to be one of the bedrock tenets of journalism, at least among the Old Media "ivory tower" style journalism (which is supposed to be held to higher standards than all of us riff-raff out here on the internet, I should point out). But I can confidently predict that no one in the media world is even going to consider giving such a full disclosure during the coming months' debate on tax cuts for the ultra-wealthy. There's a very good reason for this -- most of them don't really want to publicly admit that they are part of the richest three percent of Americans. People like Brian Williams and Katie Couric value their "folksiness" and their ability to "connect with the common man," and they really don't want to come out and admit (in every single story they do on the subject -- as journalistic ethical standards demand) that they are part of that top three percent.

But they should. And you know what? If they don't, we should demand it of them.

Imagine a letter-writing campaign to what used to be called the "Big Three" broadcast networks (letters to Fox News would likely be completely ignored, and would barely be worth the price of a stamp), demanding that every on-screen commenter -- whether journalist or politician or "expert" -- disclose what tax bracket they are in. Or, at the very least, say whether they "would personally be affected" by higher taxes on the top two brackets. Flood their websites with emails demanding this. Have people who agree with letting the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy expire also voluntarily disclose whether they are in those tax brackets or not (in other words, have Lefties lead the discussion by bringing the subject up in the first place, whenever interviewed by the media).

Imagine a prominent Lefty being interviewed on NBC, and saying something along the lines of: "Yes, my taxes would go up by around four percent if these tax cuts were allowed to expire. I'd like to ask you, Brian Williams, whether your taxes would also be affected? I think the viewers deserve to know this, in the interests of full disclosure. In fact, I think journalistic ethical standards demand that anyone you have on the air on this subject answer the same question, don't you?"

Or maybe the cause could be championed by some prominent media voice (Keith Olbermann springs to mind), by both prominently issuing their own disclosures on-air, and by calling on all others in their profession to immediately start doing so as well.

I think it would definitely be of service to consumers of news -- when the subject is tax cuts for wealthy people -- to be informed about whether journalists would be personally affected by such tax cuts. This would serve to point out that most of the media (at least, the faces we repeatedly see) are not exactly Joe Sixpack, when it comes to their paycheck. They desperately want to be seen as a "guy you could have a beer with," but they also don't really want everyone to realize that they not only could buy a round of beers for everyone in your favorite watering hole, but that they could also easily afford to buy the entire bar itself. This doesn't fit with the image they like to portray; but in a debate on tax policy, the concept of fairness and journalistic ethics trumps their carefully-constructed-and-nurtured "average guy" persona, I think.

The only way journalists and media giants would ever do so, though, is if their refusal to do so becomes a story on its own. This would mean a viral campaign of bloggers spotlighting the media's refusal to follow their own ethical standards on "full disclosure," pretty much with every story written about the tax cuts debate (snarkiness optional, but always appreciated). It would mean consumers of news -- that's you, folks -- start demanding it of the television networks, newspapers, magazines, and other news outlets with a very loud voice.

Such a campaign might actually work. I say this because of the media's outrageously overinflated sense of their own "gatekeeper journalism" status. They truly see themselves as strong defenders of ethics in journalism. And they can indeed be shamed into acting, especially when the shame is so appropriate (after all, it's their own ethical guidelines we're calling on them to follow).

There really is no excuse for journalists not to include such full disclosures. If tax cuts on the wealthy are extended, they will personally benefit, with every paycheck they receive. This is a textbook definition (a "Journalism 101" textbook, at that) of a conflict of interest. They are talking about a story which -- if it goes one way politically -- will benefit them, their families, and likely most of their immediate circle of friends. There is absolutely no reason why they shouldn't have to publicly admit this -- every single time the subject is discussed -- in a "full disclosure" statement.

But it's only going to happen if we force them to do so. Who's with me? Start sending those emails and letters today, folks! Heck, why not pick up the phone and call the network up right now?

[Full Disclosure: I would not be affected either way by adjusting the two top income tax brackets, as my income falls below the cutoff line. But I thought I'd set a good example for others to follow, by writing this disclosure.]


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