ACTION ALERT: “Political Dynamite” Fails to Explode Extreme proposals of Treasury’s O’Neill mostly unreported

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.

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 accurate.'”

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 Tax Repair?”).

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 Coming,” 5/21/01.)

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
Peter Jennings
mailto:PeterJennings@abcnews.com

NBC News
DC Bureau Chief & Host, “Meet the Press”
Tim Russert
mailto:mtp@msnbc.com

New York Times
mailto:nytnews@nytimes.com
Toll free comment line: 1-888-NYT-NEWS

Washington Post
Deputy National Editor (Domestic Policy)
Leonard Bernstein
mailto:bernsteinl@washpost.com

Los Angeles Times
DC Bureau Chief
Doyle McManus
mailto:doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

Author: FAIR

News Service: Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting

URL: http://www.fair.org