Will the media consistently tell the truth about the Bush tax cuts?

Way back in March of 2009, I wrote a column about President Obama's budget outline that is increasingly relevant as the scheduled expiration of the Bush tax cuts for those making more than $200,000 a year approaches:

Obama's tax rate proposal merely allows the Bush tax cuts to expire as they were designed. See, when the Republican Congress passed, and President Bush signed, the tax cuts in 2001, they decided not to make them permanent, scheduling them to expire in 2010. Obama's proposal simply allows that to happen for the top rates -- it makes no change to what is already going to happen under current law.

If the expiration, on schedule, of tax cuts that were always scheduled to expire is described as a policy of raising taxes, that makes a mockery of the entire tax policy debate of the past decade. It rigs tax debates in favor of Republicans, who find it easier to argue for tax cuts for the wealthy if they can argue that the cuts won't cost very much -- by making them “temporary” -- but who then get to argue that the scheduled expiration that they included in order to make the cuts look affordable would constitute a tax increase. The GOP gets to have it both ways, describing tax cuts as temporary when it helps them, and pretending they were intended to be permanent when it helps them. It's no great surprise Republicans want to have it both ways -- but that doesn't mean the media should go along.

The actual change the Obama proposal makes to the Bush tax rates is making permanent the cuts for those who make less than $200,000. The proposal doesn't actually increase income tax rates for anyone compared to current law, and it reduces them for the vast majority of taxpayers. Yet the “increase” -- mandated by a law signed by President Bush, and scheduled to occur for nearly a decade -- has gotten all the attention, while the cuts have largely escaped notice from the major media.

Now, it's correct to say that if the tax cuts for those who make more than $200,000 expire, then people who make more than $200,000 will be taxed at a higher rate than they had been for the previous ten years. But it's important for the media to be clear about the cause of that higher rate: Legislation signed into law by President Bush. Congressional Democrats and President Obama will not be “raising taxes.” (It is also important for the media to make clear that only people who make more than $200,000 a year would be affected.)

TPM's Christina Bellantoni has a good article today spelling out the dishonesty of GOP attempts to blame the expiration on President Obama:

Somewhere between approving a massive tax cut plan with an expiration date and President Obama's election, Republicans seem to have decided that it's Obama's fault the tax cuts aren't permanent. ...

Let's roll tape.

It's May 26, 2001, and the Senate, with just 12 Democrats on board, passes the Bush tax cuts. The House approves the tax cuts too, and 28 Democrats vote “yes.” They cost $1.35 trillion and were set to expire to comply with Congressional rules, triggered by the GOP's use of reconciliation, that required they either expire within 10 years or not increase the deficit. So, the “tax increase” was written that way -- by Republicans.

It isn't enough for news organizations to occasionally explain that the expiration was written into the tax cuts in the first place, by Republicans. Unless they want to mislead their readers and viewers, they have to spell that out every time they report on the topic -- and especially every time they report on Republican attacks on President Obama and congressional Democrats. And those explanations shouldn't be a throwaway paragraph three-quarters of the way through the report. The truth should be the frame around which the report is built, not an accessory to it.