Media Emphasis On Tax Returns Overshadows Outrageous Tax Policies
Blog ››› ››› ALEX MORASH
According to Media Matters’ ongoing quarterly analyses of prime-time weekday cable news coverage of the economy, cable outlets more frequently discussed Republican nominee Donald Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns than any economic topic from July through September. Amid the flurry of coverage focused on Trump’s tax secrecy, the major cable networks missed an opportunity to also thoroughly discuss how Trump’s unworkable tax policy proposals would adversely affect the American public.
With just one day left before Election Day, Trump has yet to release his tax returns during his run for president of the United States. According to The Huffington Post, “the writing has been on the wall for months now” that Trump would not release his tax returns before November 8. Trump’s refusal to disclose his tax returns makes him the first major party nominee to do so since 1976. Media have floated many theories for why Trump has refused to release his tax information: He may be hiding the fact that he has not paid federal income taxes; he could be covering up the news that he makes less money than he claims; or he might be trying to disguise the fact that he improperly used funds from his nonprofit foundation for personal expenses.
In the third quarter of the year, evening cable news shows featured 63 segments dedicated to Trump’s tax returns -- more than the number of segments on actual tax policy (49) or any other economic subject. Media Matters tracked the number of segments each of the three major cable news networks -- CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC -- committed to Trump’s tax returns. Then we compared those figures to the other economic topics tracked as part of our quarterly report on coverage of the economy -- economic inequality, economic growth, tax policy, the federal deficit and national debt, health care, and the minimum wage:
Fox News: Least Coverage, Most Spin
Fox News spent much of the third quarter ignoring Trump’s tax returns while promoting his embrace of failed trickle-down economic policies. Fox aired the fewest segments discussing Trump’s tax returns (11) -- fewer segments than the network spent on economic inequality (38), economic growth (33), taxes (29), the debt and deficit (15) -- and the same number as network devoted to health care (11). The only economic topic Fox News had fewer segments on was the minimum wage (5).
Fox’s economic coverage largely pushed economic claims aligned with Trump’s policies. Of the 76 segments Fox aired discussing the economy, almost one-third (24) specifically discussed the supposed benefits of cutting taxes -- a major part of Trump’s tax plan. Fox’s Hannity frequently used persistent economic inequality as a foil against Trump’s political opponents to claim progressive economic policies under President Obama had failed.
Despite airing the fewest segments about Trump’s tax returns, the majority of Fox’s segments actually attempted to defend Trump’s decision not to release his tax returns -- and Fox was the only network that attempted to defend Trump. Out of 11 segments, Media Matters identified seven that were either attempts by the host to defend Trump’s actions or were appearances by Trump where he defended not releasing his tax returns. Five of these seven segments were on Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor.
MSNBC Covered Trump’s Tax Returns More Than All Economic Issues Combined
Coverage of Trump’s tax returns on MSNBC eclipsed all other economic coverage. Much of MSNBC’s relentless drumbeat for transparency came from The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, which accounted for over half of all coverage at the network, with 17 segments, followed by All In with Chris Hayes (10), and The Rachel Maddow Show (3). In total, the network discussed Trump’s tax returns in 30 segments, more than all economic segments combined (25).
While MSNBC dedicated more coverage in the third quarter to Trump’s failure to release his tax returns than any other network, it also provided the least amount of coverage on the economy (25 segments) compared to CNN (35) and Fox News (76). MSNBC did discuss tax policy in relation to Trump's tax returns once and was the only network to do so. As was the case with CNN and Fox, MSNBC could have used more of its segments on Trump’s tax returns to provide more context on how Trump’s actual tax policy plans would increase the deficit and neglect the middle class while giving the largest tax reductions to high-income individuals. Unfortunately, MSNBC covered tax policy only 12 times:
CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 Pressed Trump Campaign To Disclose Tax Returns
CNN featured twice as many segments discussing Trump’s tax returns (22) as Fox News (11). CNN also discussed the economy (35) more than MSNBC (25). Yet, while CNN did have more economic coverage than MSNBC, the network did not produce as many segments discussing tax policy (8) as MSNBC (12). And while none of MSNBC’s coverage on tax policy pushed debunked trickle-down economics, CNN did have three segments promoting the supposed benefits of tax cuts.
CNN covered Trump’s taxes more than any single economic topic: economic inequality (16), economic growth (17), tax policy (8), the debt and deficit (4), the minimum wage (5), and health care (5). Slightly over half of the segments on Trump’s tax returns were from Anderson Cooper 360 (12). In one exchange with Trump senior adviser Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Sanders claimed Trump could not release his tax returns because he is being audited, and host Anderson Cooper answered that “what you are saying doesn't make sense.” From the September 9 edition of Anderson Cooper 360:
Trump’s Tax Returns Outshine Trump’s Economic Agenda
Scrutiny of Trump's missing tax returns was necessary given the possible reasons for his unprecedented breach of political norms. Trump has tried to falsely claim that he cannot release his tax returns while under audit by the IRS, but even President Richard Nixon released his tax returns during his re-election campaign in 1972, when he was under audit by the IRS.
Trump’s tax returns are just one aspect of the concerns media and experts have had with his extreme and unconventional campaign. Trump’s economic plan has been blasted as “pie in the sky” and “magical thinking” by experts on both sides of the aisle. The conservative-leaning Tax Foundation found Trump’s proposed tax cuts will explode the deficit by $2.6 to $3.9 trillion. Media Matters identified 19 economic myths Trump has spread during this election cycle. Trump’s actions even moved 370 economists, including eight Nobel laureates, to sign a letter denouncing his repeated lies about the economy.
Media Matters conducted a Nexis search of transcripts of network broadcast news and cable prime-time (defined as 8 p.m. through 11 p.m.) weekday programs on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC from July 1, 2016, through September 30, 2016. We identified and reviewed all segments that included any of the following keywords: econom! or jobs or growth or debt or deficit or minimum wage or inequality or taxes or poverty or low income or low-income or obamacare or aca or affordable care act or health care.