Gary Cohn, the White House’s chief economic adviser and its lead advocate for the GOP tax overhaul, got a brutal lesson this week in the difficulty of persuading a skeptical mainstream media that the proposal would cut taxes for the middle class.
In an appearance on ABC News, George Stephanopoulos questioned Cohn about the administration’s plan to kill the state and local tax deduction, which allows taxpayers who itemize to deduct taxes paid by state and local governments on their federal returns. The deduction disproportionately benefits high-income taxpayers, with more than 88 percent of the benefit going to those with incomes over $100,000, according to the Tax Foundation. Forty-five percent of the benefit goes to taxpayers with incomes over $200,000.
Stephanopoulos: In New York City, the city of New York says nearly half the middle-class families earning between $50,000 and $75,000 will get an increase because you eliminate the deduction of state and local tax taxes.
Cohn: If you look at the reality of the country as a whole, less than 25 percent of the families itemize. Only the people that itemize today – less than 25 percent of the family itemize – they’re the only ones taking a deduction for the state. We’re solving for the greater good of the country. You have to look at what we did in the entirety. We doubled the amount of income that people can keep at 0 tax rate. That’s a substantial thing. We lowered the 15 percent tax rate to 12 percent. When you look at the first couple tax rates and how much money you can keep at 0 and 12, we’ve done a substantial thing. Then we’re increasing the childcare credit. People will get a much larger credit. That credit is deducted directly from your tax liability.
Stephanopoulos: But you’re not saying how much you’ll increase it. If I’m hearing you, you can’t guarantee no middle-class families will get a tax increase, correct?
Cohn: George, there’s an exception to every rule.
Stephanopoulos: That’s a yes? I can’t guarantee anything. You can always find a unique family somewhere. What we’ve been working on in the white house is create an economic stimulus package
Cohn: I can’t guarantee anything. You can always find a unique family somewhere. What we’ve been working on in the White House is create an economic stimulus package to drive the economy of the United States. That’s what the president ordered us to do, and we’re doing it.
This reasonable admission by Cohn that some exceptional middle-class Americans might possibly see their taxes rise even while most middle-class Americans get a large tax cut was given a starkly misleading headline. “Trump adviser says he can’t guarantee middle-class families won’t see tax increase under new plan,” ABC News declared. There was no mention that this was presented as something that might apply to a “unique family.” The exceptional case was presented as the general case.
The headline was so misleading that it caused other reporters and editors to travel even further from reality. “Trump economic adviser Gary Cohn admits tax plan doesn’t guarantee middle-class help,” read a headline in New York’s Daily News. Misleading stories based on the interview appeared from CBS, New York magazine, and Business Insider.
Long Island’s Newsday was the odd-man out, giving the story the more accurate headline: “Cohn can’t guarantee tax cuts for all middle-class families.”
Later on Thursday, Cohn appeared at the White House press briefing to elaborate on the tax overhaul–and again had his statements distorted by misleading headlines.
“Based on our assumptions, a typical family earning $100,000 with two children that has been a standard deducter, has used the standard deduction and continues to use the standard deduction, they can expect a tax cut of about $1,000,” Cohn said.
CNBC’s headline: “Cohn says a typical American family earns $100,000 a year–here’s how much they really make”:
In actuality, the average American family makes $74,000 a year before taxes, or about $30,000 less than that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The median American family income is roughly half of Cohn’s estimate, or only about $55,000.
That headline was later changed, and the story itself completely revised. A correction was appended to the story, explaining that Cohn was using a family earning $1,000 a year as an example rather than asserting that this was the income of a typical American family.
The uncorrected version, however, lives on in syndication to CNBC’s partner websites.