Subject: "Political Dynamite" Fails to Explode:
Extreme proposals of Treasury's O'Neill mostly unreported
Forwarded by Jack Kolb via Varda Novick:
Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting Media analysis, critiques and news reports
June 13, 2001
When a high-level government official calls for drastic
changes in U.S. law, it ought to be big news. But in an interview
reported by the Financial Times' Amity Shlaes (5/19/01 & 5/22/01),
treasury secretary Paul O'Neill called for sweeping changes in U.S. tax and
social policy, and some three weeks later, those statements have made
hardly a ripple in the U.S. media. Most Americans have probably not heard a
word about them.
In the interview, O'Neill called the current U.S. tax
system "an abomination" that required changes to its "very
structure." His preferred changes? O'Neill "absolutely" supports the elimination
of taxes on corporations-- and the shifting of the tax burden to
individuals, saying government would work better if it "collected taxes in a
more direct way from the people."
He also called for the abolition of Social Security and Medicare, on the
grounds that "able-bodied adults should save enough on a regular basis so
that they can provide for their own retirement, and, for that matter,
health and medical needs." In fact, O'Neill believes the U.S. should
reconsider the whole purpose of taxation: "National defense is a federal
responsibility," Shlaes paraphrases O'Neill as saying, "but all other
outlays need review."
And O'Neill assured Shlaes he was not speaking only for himself: "Not only
am I committed to working on this issue, the president is also intrigued
about the possibility of fixing this mess."
The Financial Times described O'Neill's comments (approvingly) as
"radical" and "political dynamite." Yet the story has so far failed to
take hold in the U.S. press.
Three columnists at New York's Newsday noted O'Neill's remarks: Robert
Reno (who said the Treasury Secretary "comes across as a man who has paid
a lot of taxes and clearly resents it"-- 5/27/01) Marie Cocco (5/31/01)
and Paul Vitello (5/24/01). An obviously irked Vitello took it the
furthest, actually calling O'Neill's spokesman at Treasury to confirm that
these were not "made-up quotes":
"The secretary didn't really mean to say that no matter how old, no person
who has paid into the Social Security system all his or her life would be
entitled to benefits until he or she is physically no longer able to work?
He didn't really mean to say that ExxonMobil and Time Warner should be
treated as we treat the church-- as tax exempt?
"'Yes,' said the spokesman, 'that is our position. The quotes were all
Thomas DeFrank of New York's Daily News also reported O'Neill's comments
(5/22/01), but he apparently got a different response from the Treasury
Department. "Treasury spokesman Rob Nichols said O'Neill's comments on
Social Security reflected his personal views, not the Bush
administration's," he noted.
Outside of local New York papers, the story was harder to find. Cox wire
service reporter Scott Shepard filed a story (5/20/01), which noted only
O'Neill's description of the tax system as an "abomination" and the claim
that the president was "also intrigued" about major changes, including
cutting corporate taxes. A short piece in the May 22 Investor's Business
Daily ("A Whiff of Reform in the Air") did the same, and was echoed in its
approving tone by a column in the May 23 Washington Times ("Signals for
O'Neill has made several television appearances since the Financial Times
interview, but a search of the Nexis.com database turned up just two TV
references to the remarks, neither on a Big 3 network. The Financial Times' own Robert Thomson teased his paper's interview
at the end of a May 18 appearance on CNNfn's "The N.E.W. Show" whose main
subject was the Lucent/Alcatel merger. And Fox News Sunday host Tony
Snow asked O'Neill about the idea of "getting rid of the corporate income
tax" on June 3. (O'Neill declined to answer, saying only that "we need
to fundamentally look at the way our tax code works.")
What about the country's major outlets, the place one would look for a
story of such import? So far, O'Neill's radical statements have made it
into the New York Times only in an op-ed by Democratic partisans James
Carville and Paul Begala (5/27/01). USA Today ran an Associated Press
column (5/22/01) that placed O'Neill's calls for eliminating taxes on
corporations at the end, after discussion of estate taxes and "simplification" of the tax system, and noted only that
the Treasury Secretary has plans for "reform" of Social Security.
(AP's original headline on the piece: "O'Neill: Further Tax Relief
Washington Post columnist John O. Fox used O'Neill's "abomination" quote
to shore up his own argument about the U.S.'s "monstrously complicated"
tax code, but ignored the rest of his statements. And the Post's David
Broder made no reference to the Financial Times interview in his June 6
column, which referred to Bush administration plans to "open [Social
Security and Medicare] up to market forces."
Broder did note congenially that "as Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill...reminded me the other day, what makes the task
so difficult is the need to educate people about the current system, before they can be
persuaded that it needs to be changed as the administration proposes."
Indeed, the American people could use "educating" about just what the Bush
administration and its Treasury Secretary propose. But where will they get
it if not from the mainstream news media?
ACTION: Please write to national and local media outlets and ask them why
Paul O'Neill's calls for eliminating corporate taxes and Social Security
were not a major news story.
Some suggested contacts include:
ABC World News Tonight
Anchor and Senior Editor
DC Bureau Chief & Host, "Meet the Press"
New York Times
Toll free comment line: 1-888-NYT-NEWS
Deputy National Editor (Domestic Policy)
Los Angeles Times
DC Bureau Chief