How should the press corps react: Should Harry Reid be saying these things about Mitt Romney’s tax payments?
Kevin Drum expressed reservations, and many readers got mad. The GOP has always done this, they said. We should be doing it too!
Meanwhile, on CNN, Howard Kurtz and a trio of guests were trying to figure how the press corps should handle claims of this type.
As a general matter, Bill Press used to play things straight. As you can see in these exchanges, he doesn’t do that any more:
KURTZ (8/5/12): Harry Reid said that he had gotten this from some unnamed person, used to work at Bain. He won't reveal it. He thinks it's true. He told us—he did this original interview with the Huffington Post which reported it straight, except for saying it's impossible to verify because they won't give us the source. Is that the correct way to handle it? Who should be the issue here?In that last exchange, Press makes no attempt to answer the question. For the most part, our old favorite is a hack now.
PRESS: There's only one guy who can clear this up. It's not Harry Reid. I'm sorry, it's Mitt Romney.
KURTZ: Wait, wait, wait.
PRESS: No, no, I think reporters–
KURTZ: That's a Democratic talking point. That's a Democratic talking point. What I'm asking is how journalists should handle an unsubstantiated charge.
PRESS: I'm going to tell you. I'm going to tell you. Journalists should handle it by going to Mitt Romney and saying, “Why only two years, why not 23 years? Why? You gave 23 years of it to McCain—”
KURTZ: So it's perfectly OK, it's perfectly OK in your view, for Harry Reid to throw this out, unnamed source, nothing to back it up, and you just think that's fodder for journalists to attack Romney?
PRESS: I just want to point out, Harry Reid is not a journalist. Harry Reid is a Democratic politician who doesn't want Mitt Romney to get elected. What he is doing may be diabolical, but it's brilliant, because what's Mitt Romney been talking about for the last two days, he's been talking about his freaking tax returns. So Harry Reid is playing hardball.
The analysts are upset.
How should real journalists handle this matter? We can’t say it’s all that hard. But at the very least, we think journalists ought to include some basic background information when they discuss this topic:
First: If you look through Drum’s hundreds of comments, you will see many readers who seem to think that all recent candidates have released more information than Romney is offering.
In the case of Candidates McCain and Kerry, that isn’t exactly true (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/20/12). Journalists should explain those earlier situations. Wherever the ultimate merits may lie, outrage is being expressed this year which wasn’t expressed before.
Second: There is no requirement that a candidate release his tax returns. There are some mandated financial disclosures, with which Romney has complied.
Third: There actually could be “innocent” reasons for withholding tax returns. If Romney released a batch of returns, the press corps and the Obama campaign would go sifting through those returns, looking for three million silly distractions. And yes, it’s likely the press would seek distractions rather than incriminating stuff.
In this piece at Salon, Joshua Holland presented “ten theories” for Romney’s refusal to release more returns. In all ten, Romney is guilty of some offense. This is how liberals stay dumb.
Should Romney release more tax returns? That would be fine by us! But the press corps already has plenty of information about Romney’s weird financial behavior—and the press corps is making no attempt to report those available topics. For the most part, the press corps doesn’t do such things! Such conduct upsets the swells!
Should Romney release more tax returns? For ourselves, we can’t say we hugely care. But despite the angst on Kurtz’s show, it isn’t that hard to report what’s occurring. It’s just that the press doesn’t care.
An unexplored topic: How did Romney come to have an IRA which may be worth as much as $102 million? In this widely-cited report from Vanity Fair, Nicholas Shaxson discusses one possible answer.
In our view, Shaxson's speculation involves unattractive conduct by Romney. But his possible answer is quite complex, as is the case with all these matters. The press corps could be exploring this puzzle right now. But it isn’t.
Should Romney release more tax returns? That would be OK with us! But it isn’t required; it isn’t the recent norm; and the press corps will surely go for distractions, not for any real stuff which may (or may not) be there.
Should Romney release more returns? Should Reid be making poorly-sourced charges? From a journalistic standpoint, this story just isn't real hard.