THE BLOG
06/06/2006 02:57 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Washington Post Lets White House, Senator Lie on Op/Ed Page

Most people probably know that the op-ed pages aren't exactly untarnished beacons of truth-telling. That's a given. Still, you'd hope that editors would ask their op-ed writers to at least try not to lie.

At the Washington Post's op-ed section Monday, that was apparently too much to ask.

Key to the page were dueling pieces debating a proposed repeal of the estate tax. This kind of setup, altogether similar to "he-said, she-said" news reporting, isn't uncommon. There's little wrong with the idea, per se, except perhaps for the futility of the exercise -- here, readers: two totally opposing views; now, decide which one is right! But the enterprise depends on the truthfulness of both writers. On that scale the Post, and op-ed contributor Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), failed miserably.

Up against regular Post columnist Sebastian Mallaby, Sessions pulled up a familiar argument: the estate tax -- he refers to it as a "death tax" -- will hurt small businesses and family farms. Indeed, Sessions says,

"The death tax hits hardest at heirs of small-business owners and family farmers. In many cases, the heirs cannot afford to pay the tax and are forced to downsize, lay off employees or even sell their business or farm."

Wonderful that he'd be so compassionate to small-business owners and family farmers; horrible that he'd lie, and reprehensible that the Post, fully aware of his lie, would let him get away with it.

See, what Sessions said -- "the death tax hits hardest at heirs of small-business owners and family farmers" -- well, it's just not true. According to whom, you might ask?

How about the Washington Post's editorial page?

"This assertion," the Post's editorial writers concluded in a July 2005 editorial entitled "Estate Tax Myths," "is more convenient myth than fact ... A new study by the Congressional Budget Office examined estate tax returns filed by farmers and owners of small businesses in 1999 and 2000. The numbers that owed estate tax, the CBO found, were paltry, and the number without enough cash on hand to pay the bill even punier: In 2000, for example, just 1,659 farm estates had taxes due, of which 138 didn't report enough liquid assets to cover their tax liability.

"But at that time the amount of money that could be passed on to heirs free of taxes was just half what it is now. With the current exemption level of $1.5 million, the CBO analysis found, only 300 farm estates in 2000 would have owed any tax at all -- and of those, just 27 would have a tax bill in excess of their liquid assets. At the even more generous exemption scheduled to take effect in 2009, $3.5 million, the ranks of those potentially hit hard by the tax would have dwindled even further; 65 farm estates would owe taxes and 13 would not have enough cash to cover the bill." (The CBO report can be found here. A similar report from Factcheck.org notes that "The Tax Policy Center projects that roughly 440 taxable estates were primarily made up of farm and business assets in 2004. And even considering estates for which farming or business was a sideline, the Center found only 7,090 taxable estates for 2004 that included any farm or business income. That's still just 38 percent of all taxable estates. The fact is that repealing the estate tax entirely... would benefit mostly non-farmers and non-business-owners.")

And here's the best part: the Post's editorial page didn't just explode the myths it allowed Sessions to publish unchallenged not even a year later -- it got preachy about it, chiding anyone who would stoop so low as to, well, do exactly what it did ten months later.

"The image of the grieving heir packing up his hoe as he trudges away from the family farm is just that," the editorial said, "a powerful image but not an accurate one. Over the years, the discussion of the estate tax hasn't exactly been noted for its intellectual rigor. But members of Congress debating the issue now ought to look at the facts assembled by the CBO -- not the misinformation peddled by those maneuvering to make repeal permanent."

...

Sen. Sessions' article wasn't the only truth-challenged piece to appear on the Post's op-ed page Monday. There was also the White House press release.

Well, okay, it wasn't really a press release -- but it might as well have been. Peter Wehner, the director of Karl Rove's in-house politics shop, the Office of Strategic Initiatives, penned "And Now For Some Good News," a column devoted to telling Post readers just how good President Bush has made the country -- despite what that evil media might have told you, of course. And heck, it does read like a press release, hitting many of the same economic points as one the administration put out on June 2.

That the Post allowed what is essentially a press release to run on their pages is bad enough; then they allowed the writer to lie. Wehner's column is filled with distortions, omissions and outright lies.

Let's start with the lies.

As part of his list of reasons why we should all think the economy is doing well, Wehner says, "Tax revenues are at an all-time high." That claim is so easily debunked as to be laughable; indeed, it's not even what the rest of the administration is asserting. Rather, according to the Treasury Department, tax revenues for April 2006 were the second-highest of all-time. And even that number is suspect: it's not in real dollars.

Using an inflation calculator to adjust tax revenue numbers into real dollars, we find that April 2006 wasn't the second-highest. This April's revenues were $3.15 trillion, supposedly second only to April 2001's $3.31 trillion (which in real dollars works out to $3.77 trillion). Then there's April 2000, which at $2.95 trillion works out to $3.45 trillion in real dollars, and April 1999, which at $2.66 trillion works out to $3.21 trillion, and April 1998, which at $2.61 trillion works out to $3.22 trillion.

Then there are the omissions.

"The American economy ... has added more than 5.3 million jobs since the summer of 2003," Wehner wrote. True enough, but not as impressive as Wehner wants it to sound. See, those jobs aren't created in a vacuum: every month, new people enter the work force, and they need new jobs. 150,000 people, to be exact. Now, Wehner doesn't say when in the summer of 2003 he's counting from, but that June 2 press release does -- August. That's 33 months. 150,000 times 33 gets you... 4,950,000, meaning that an honest writer would tell you that in actuality only 350,000 truly new jobs have been created.

Wehner went after social indicators as well. He did no better there, noting that "property crimes are near the lowest levels in the history of the federal survey" without mentioning that property crime rates have, after a long decline, been stable over the past half-decade and trumpeting a lower teen birth rate without mentioning the country's skyrocketing STD rate.

Truth? On the Post's editorial page, we don't need no stinking truth.

This is an excerpt of a column that originally appeared in the online magazine Dragonfire. The full column is here.