Today's Washington Post contains a textbook example of how not to report on economic policy: An article full of anecdotal “evidence” that passes along the sweeping claims of far-right advocacy organizations as though they are unvarnished truth, all under a headline more appropriate for a Heritage Foundation press release than a news article.
Post staff writer V. Dion Haynes begins with an anecdote about a local business owner who says his revenue doubled in 2009, but that “his taxes rose sevenfold.” But Post readers expecting an explanation of how this business's total tax burden increased by such massive amount would be disappointed: No such explanation was forthcoming. But the assertion, presented by the Post as fact and combined with the headline “Small businesses feel squeezed by Obama policies,” clearly suggests that Barack Obama has enacted massive tax hikes on small businesses.
That suggestion is intensified by the next paragraph: “As small businesses try to plot their recovery, attention is turning to what many owners consider burdensome policies -- higher taxes, new accounting procedures and health-care mandates.” And a few paragraphs later: “The White House appears poised to respond to a growing backlash from businesspeople about the crush of higher taxes.”
“The crush of higher taxes” ? A sevenfold increase in taxes? What in the world is the Post talking about? It's a mystery -- at no point in his nearly 1,200-word article does Haynes identify a single specific Obama tax increase.
Instead, Haynes moved on from passing along vague, unconfirmed, anecdotal implications of massive tax hikes to some 'expert analysis':
Some business owners and advocates complain that some of the programs contradict one another. Stephanie Cathcart, spokeswoman for the National Federation of Independent Business, said benefits from the payroll tax exemption business owners use when they hire unemployed people are mitigated by provisions in the health-care overhaul law that reduce a tax credit when businesses hire.
The Post never explained what Cathcart is talking about, leaving readers to research it for themselves. Of course, few readers will actually do that; many more will read that passage and conclude that the health care reform law penalizes businesses who hire new workers -- all businesses, all the time. Even NFIB's web site doesn't make that claim; it instead complains about the credit phasing out based on business size -- a different and more nuanced criticism than the broad claim the Post passed along to its readers.
Nor did the Post article mention that NFIB is a hard-right advocacy organization that has given more than 90 percent of its campaign contributions to Republican candidates over the past 30 years. Here's how the Post's own Jeffrey Birnbaum described NFIB in 2007:
The National Federation of Independent Business is a bastion of Republicanism. Its staff has for decades been a farm team for GOP operatives and its campaign giving has been notably one-sided. Of all major lobbying organizations last year, NFIB gave the lowest share of its political action committee money to Democrats, a mere 8 percent.
Birnbaum went on to note that, in the wake of the Democrats' takeover of Congress, NFIB was making noises about becoming more bipartisan. Turns out, they didn't really mean it: In the 2008 election cycle, 83 percent of NFIB's PAC contributions went to the GOP, and this cycle, that figure is back up to 90 percent.
Nor did the Post article mention that NFIB has filed suit to stop the health care law -- an move from which even the Chamber of Commerce distanced itself.
Surely the Post balanced NFIB's claims with the views of an organization or expert that isn't in the tank for the GOP and philosophically opposed to health care reform? Well … no. The Post does also quote a spokesperson for the National Small Business Association -- which, like NFIB, opposed the health care reform legislation (and which the Post misidentifies as the “National Small Business Administration.” )
And while passing along the complaints of the likes of NFIB, at no point did the Post attempt a broader assessment of the question of whether “Obama's policies” taken as a whole have been good or bad for small businesses. There is no mention, for example, of recent analysis indicating that last year's stimulus package boosted GDP and employment, which presumably has left small business better off than they would have been without it.