IS IT A TAX: The pitiful New York Times fails us again!


Part 3—A lack of professional skill: In his new book, Twilight of the Elites, Chris Hayes describes the failures of America’s various elites during the last decade.

We’ve finished three chapters of his book (out of seven). Especially after reading Chapter 3, we’ll describe ourselves as underwhelmed.

That said, one elite which has badly failed is the guild still known as the press corps. Again and again, this elite has failed to function over the past forty years—not just in the last decade.

In what ways has your press corps failed? At the top of the heap, our journalists have pathetically bougie values. They also display a truly remarkable lack of professional skill.

Consider Jeremy Peters’ news report in this morning’s New York Times—a report which sits atop the front page of America’s “paper of record.”

Peters shows a remarkable lack of professional skill all through this news report. He makes errors of commission and of omission—and yes, these errors do matter.

These errors help create a public discourse in which voters will end up being misinformed about the health care law’s so-called “individual mandate.” Peter could have clarified this burgeoning area of pseudo-debate and disinformation. Instead, his prose in today’s Times makes matters a great deal murkier.

Do our journalists have even moderate skill? Let’s start with the headline which sits atop this jumbled, disordered report.

Presumably, Peters didn’t write this headline. But as we’ll see, it closely follows the language of his report:


Really? Has Romney now said that the mandate itself “is a tax?” That would be a strange representation. In itself, the mandate is a command requiring citizens to obtain health insurance. To enforce this command, the health care law creates a “penalty” some citizens will be required to pay if they don’t get insurance.

In that sense, the mandate is supported by a penalty payment—a payment some are now calling a tax. But is the mandate itself a tax?

Actually, that doesn’t seem to make sense. Consider this alternate possibility:

Instead of a penalty payment, the health care law could have prescribed a jail term for those who don’t get insurance. That would have been a harsher penalty, of course.

Question: If the health care law had included a jail term instead of a penalty payment, would anyone be making a statement like this?


No one would say that the mandate itself "was a jail term!" People would say that the health law included a jail term for those who don’t comply with the mandate.

The health care mandate is a jail term? Even someone as unskilled as Peters wouldn’t say something like that! But here’s the way this poorly skilled scribe starts this morning's news report. He attributes his formulation to Romney, but offers no quotation:
PETERS (7/5/12): Mitt Romney declared on Wednesday that President Obama’s health care mandate was in fact a tax, shifting his campaign’s characterization of the law and aligning himself with the conservative voices in his party.

Mr. Romney’s remarks, made in a hastily arranged interview with CBS News on a national holiday, prompted renewed criticisms that he was willing to adjust his views for political expediency. Two days earlier, his chief spokesman and senior strategist had said that Mr. Romney did not believe the mandate should be called a tax.

Mr. Romney was already in the uncomfortable position of standing at odds with the dominant Republican Party message on health care: that President Obama was imposing a burdensome new tax on the middle class by requiring health insurance. His latest statement, while carrying the short-term risk of allowing his opponent to brand him a flip-flopper, helps him square an issue that could be a political liability with conservative voters in November.
According to Peters, Romney declared that the mandate itself “is a tax.” By paragraph 3, we have slid to a more sweeping declaration: According to Peters, the GOP is saying that Obama has “impos[ed] a burdensome new tax on the middle class by requiring health insurance.”

To some ears, that may make it sound like everyone who buys health insurance is somehow “paying a tax.” That doesn’t really make sense, of course. But Republicans want the public hearing claims of this type.

Has Obama imposed a new tax on the middle class by requiring health insurance? Obviously, Justice Roberts said nothing dimly resembling that in his now-famous Supreme Court decision—the decision which touched off this confusing discussion.

But in just the first three paragraphs of his report, Peters throws a ton of gorilla dust into the air concerning last week’s decision. Does he ever clarify the various points of confusion?

Actually, no—he doesn't. In fact, Romney said something even dumber than the statement Peters attributed to him. Below, you see the text of the “hastily arranged interview with CBS News” in which he spoke with Jan Crawford.

On last night's CBS Evening News, substitute anchor Jeff Glor initiated the confusion. Romney and Crawford took things from there:
GLOR (7/4/12): Good evening, everyone, I’m Jeff Glor. Scott is off tonight.

It is the one idea that turned the Supreme Court decision on health care. This week it is the one idea that is front and center on the presidential campaign trail: Whether the individual mandate—the provision that requires every American to have health insurance—amounts to a tax. On Monday, Mitt Romney’s senior advisors sided with President Obama and against other Republicans by calling it a penalty.

Today Romney said not so. Jan Crawford sat down with the presumptive Republican nominee in New Hampshire, where he’s on vacation.

CRAWFORD: Romney has come under fire since the Supreme Court’s decision because his position on this tax issue has been at odds with every Republican—that of course being in their saying that the health care law was in fact just a massive tax hike. Today in his first interview since the Supreme Court’s decision, Romney tried to clear things up.

ROMNEY (videotape): Well, the Supreme Court has the final word, and their final word is that Obamacare is a tax. So it’s a tax. They decided it was constitutional, so it is a tax and it’s constitutional. That’s, that’s the final word. That’s what it is.
In fact, Justice Roberts ruled that the so-called penalty supporting the individual mandate “may for constitutional purposes be considered a tax.” (There are two or three separate qualifications just within those eight words.) He made it very clear—he was talking about that penalty payment, not about the law itself, not about the mandate. (Roberts: “[T]he shared responsibility payment may for constitutional purposes be considered a tax, not a penalty.”)

Please note: Roberts didn’t say the payment is a tax. He actually said that, for constitutional purposes, it may be considered a tax. He had more to say about this matter; we’ll look at his fuller remarks tomorrow.

That said, Roberts was explicitly talking about “the shared responsibility payment.” He wasn’t talking about the mandate itself. He wasn’t talking about the entire health law. He wasn’t talking about those things until the unskilled scribes of the mainstream press interacted with the disinformation machines of today’s GOP.

Journalists are supposed to challenge and clarify the statements made by the two major parties. But your press corps rarely serves this function. In this case, the incompetence started with Glor, then spread to Crawford, who has built a career from her close ties to several conservative justices.

In a rational world, it would fall to Peters to straighten out the spreading confusion. But Peters works for the New York Times—and the Times is one of the pseudo-elites which has repeatedly failed.

A tremendous amount of confusion flows from Peters’ unskilled report. A skillful journalist would have made it a point to clarify the basic facts at play in this matter. Those basic facts include these:
Some of the basic facts:
Roberts said the penalty payment “may be considered a tax.” He wasn’t talking about the mandate itself. He wasn’t talking about the entire health law.

That payment will only be made by people who don’t obtain insurance—and it’s only required for some of those people. The payment "which may be considered a tax" won’t be made by anyone who does have insurance.

According to current estimates, only one percent of the population will end up making the payment which "may be considered a tax." Very few people will be taxed, if that’s the way you regard this payment.

According to current estimates, those payments will amount to $27 billion over ten years. Even if you choose to call that a tax, that is a very small sum in the context of the federal budget.
Those are some of the basic facts about the area under discussion. As a skilled journalist would understand, partisans players are trying to shape the way this matter is viewed. Inaccurate and misleading claims are being tossed all about.

In a world with functioning elites, the journalistic elite would swing into action, clarifying the nonsense which is currently flowing. But Peters doesn’t seem to have those professional skills. He’s part of a pseudo-elite.

Go ahead—read his full report! It appears at the top of the Times front page. But it spreads enormous amounts of confusion, while making no attempt to clarify basic points or challenge the claims being made. By paragraph 4, he's actually typing this:
PETERS (continuing directly): A debate over whether a requirement to carry health insurance can be considered a tax—as the Supreme Court last week ruled it could—has consumed the presidential campaign since the decision. Conservatives, despite their deep dismay over the ruling, have pounced on the tax issue, saying Mr. Obama deceived the American people by disguising a huge tax increase as a health care reform bill.
By now, the gorilla dust is thick; truly, that’s just awful. Quite plainly, the Court did not rule that “the requirement to carry insurance” can be considered a tax; it ruled that the penalty payment can be so considered. And by the end of this paragraph, Peters is floating a set of aggressive claims—that a “huge tax increase” is somehow involved; that it was somehow “disguised” within the health law; that it thereby has “deceived the American people.”

Those are very serious notions. At no point does Peters make any attempt to challenge or clarify these claims, or to explain what is true.

Tremendous amounts of confusion are swirling around in the Peters report. Yesterday, we discussed some of the ways Americans voters are getting misinformed as part of this general process (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/4/12).

At no point does Peters attempt to clarify these points of confusion. One example: Is a “huge tax increase” somehow involved in the mandate? Having given voice to this idea (on page one!), he makes no attempt to say.

The broken elite still called a press corps has functioned this way for a very long time. In Chapter 3 of his new book, Hayes tells us all about the broken elite known as major league baseball. (He goes on, and on and on about this broken elite.) He has still told us nothing at all about this other elite—the hapless, unskilled, plainly broken elite to which he himself belongs.

By the way, how much is Hayes paid? How much will he be paid if he makes the next rung on the ladder?

Tomorrow: What Roberts actually said


  1. How could the penalty possibly be a tax if the Anti Injunction Act didn't apply to the suit the Supremes were hearing?

    1. Because it's not a tax, but instead is a penalty that the SC (well, Chief Justice John Roberts anyway) just ruled Congress could levy under the same Constitutional authority it has to levy taxes?

      Congress has the power to levy taxes on cigarettes. That tax only affects people who buy cigarettes. If you don't buy cigarettes, you don't pay the tax.

      The ACA penalty only affects people who don't have health insurance. If you have health insurance, you don't pay the penalty.

      So that's how it's like a tax. But unlike a tax, it's not assessed for doing something; it's assessed for not doing something. The law says that Stop signs require you to stop before proceeding through an intersection. If you don't stop and the cops catch you, you must pay a fine. That's a penalty. The ACA requires you to have health insurance. If you don't have health insurance, at some point it will be detected and you will be assessed a penalty.

      That's my understanding of the Roberts ruling. The ACA mandate is like a tax, but it's not a tax.

  2. [idiocy]

    -Bob's just splitting hairs. It doesn't matter.

    -If you think the NYT report is bad, you are a Bobette. Or maybe a Bobinista. I may settle on Bobbian. I'll get back to you on that.

    -Chris Hayes is teh awesome. It's easy to sit in Bob's ivory tower and say "too much baseball, not enough media." Besides, baseball is a window into our nation's broken soul, and stuff.

    -Speaking of books, Rachel has a fabulous, fabulous book. I know it's fabulous because she wrote it and I like it. Bob ignores it, not because it has nothing to do with media performance, but because he doesn't want to acknowledge Maddow is actually super!

    -Bob says the NYT should clarify, but he's always saying *he* doesn't know stuff. Therefore, he shouldn't criticise the Times. Logics -- I haz dem!

    OK, those are my points. Now all you people who can't think for yourselves like I can, can just agree with Bob like the sheep you are.


    JK, the idiocy will continue unabated!

  3. Hayes is beginning to slide down the same slippery slope that Maddow is near the bottom of. He's got those $$ in his eyes.

  4. It's a tax that is an incentive to encourage "free riders" to take responsibility for themselves.

    Two more words to argue about.

  5. I've been very critical of Bob on many of his pet issues lately. But this discussion of "mandates" and "taxes" harks back to the good old days of the Howler. The Republican counterattack is very openly to make people think that the money spent on health insurance is A Tax, creating a blatant obfuscation and a perversion of what Roberts was analyzing, which was the fee/penalty/charge for NOT paying for health insurance, as opposed to the cost of paying for it. No one calls a state mandate to carry a minimum of car insurance a tax. No one calls the cost of securing a business license a tax. No one calls the rabies shot for their dog a tax. It's a blatant warping of language, and major media are falling down on their job attempting to explain it.

    1. flipyrwhig, the govt does not mandate anyone to drive a car or to own a business or a dog.

      I think the best analogy for the distinction of the mandate from the penalty is Somerby's one using jail time as the penalty.

      In actuality, jail time can also be the penalty for not complying with the draft, but no one would argue that even conscripted military service is the same as being put in prison.

      However, the mandate will cost taxpayers and the penalty for not abiding by it will cost taxpayers. THAT makes for confusion among even the most well-intended and honest critic of the new health care law. (Yes, they do exist...)

      I don't think the use of analogies is the best means of defending the mandate as tax conflation/argument. (That is not to suggest that our lovely media shouldn't elucidate upon such issues.)

      In an argument that can quickly grow confusing and circular, I think the best policy would be to stick with talking about how much the law will do for people and the health care industry.

      For the life of me, I can't understand why this has not been done for four years.

      I'm not arguing that the policy is a good one, just that this is a better political strategy.

      Leave the abstract arguments (about freedom, unintended consequences, future deficits or tax increases) to conservatives and libertarians, where they have always been in issues of govt entitlements and mandates.

      That's just one conservative Republican's advice.

    2. I had written a long reply and lost it. But here's the shorter version: governments quite commonly set policies that take the form "If you're going to do X, you'd better cut us a check first, or we'll punish you financially." No one who wants to build a garage calls the building permit a tax, or would call the fine for being found not up to code a tax. It doesn't sound like it's all that hard to explain. And yet the media is failing, and allowing Republicans to slant and pervert language in the process. Aside from the debate over whether this is good policy, it's very frustrating to watch people misuse language either willfully or ignorantly trying to describe it.

    3. No one is mandated to build a garage. It is NOT that straight forward of an argument, and it becomes perilously confusing.

      The way to less frustration is NOT to spend too much time on this sort of back and forth.

      Again, the best thing proponents of this law can do is to tell Americans exactly how it will make their lives better.

      Force us dastardly Republicans to have to issue abstracts in the face of THAT.

    4. That may be why it's a different kind OF MANDATE, or why it's a policy you don't much like, but that is not why "it" is A TAX, which is what we're damn well talking about, isn't it? Just stick to the point at hand.

    5. Oh, I'm not arguing that the mandate is a tax.

      Didn't mean to offend. Sorry.

  6. Finally Bob averts his laser like focus from Maddow to briefly look at the work of one of the most conflicted so-called reporters working today (crawford). Bob mustn't arise very early or he might notice the clown show on msnbc or the absolute disaster that is CBS Early Morning.