By:
June 9, 2021

The big buzz in the media world on Tuesday was a story by ProPublica’s Jesse Eisinger, Jeff Ernsthausen and Paul Kiel with this provocative headline: “The Secret IRS Files: Trove of Never-Before-Seen Records Reveal How the Wealthiest Avoid Income Tax.”

The story, just the first of a series, reveals how some of America’s wealthiest people — such as Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk — pay little in income tax compared to their rising fortunes.

ProPublica looked at the 25 wealthiest Americans and wrote, “According to Forbes, those 25 people saw their worth rise a collective $401 billion from 2014 to 2018. They paid a total of $13.6 billion in federal income taxes in those five years, the IRS data shows. That’s a staggering sum, but it amounts to a true tax rate of only 3.4%.”

To be clear, those featured in the ProPublica story are not believed to have done anything illegal. And Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Charles Rettig said the IRS is already investigating how ProPublica was able to obtain such records. (ProPublica says they came from an anonymous source.) As The Wall Street Journal’s Richard Rubin wrote, “Taxpayer information is confidential, and there are potential criminal penalties for IRS employees or others who release such information. Mr. Rettig told lawmakers that there were internal and external investigations beginning, with potential prosecutions to follow.”

So if Buffett, Bezos and the like aren’t doing anything illegal, you might ask why it’s a story. Why should anyone, even if they are super wealthy, have their taxes exposed? Is this nothing more than just juicy gossip about the lifestyles of the rich and famous?

The main ProPublica story says, “Taken together, it demolishes the cornerstone myth of the American tax system: that everyone pays their fair share and the richest Americans pay the most. The IRS records show that the wealthiest can — perfectly legally — pay income taxes that are only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions, if not billions, their fortunes grow each year.”

ProPublica’s top brass also addressed the reason for writing about this in a separate story titled “Why We Are Publishing the Tax Secrets of the .001%.”

ProPublica editor-in-chief Stephen Engelberg and president Richard Tofel wrote, “Many will ask about the ethics of publishing such private data. We are doing so — quite selectively and carefully — because we believe it serves the public interest in fundamental ways, allowing readers to see patterns that were until now hidden.”

ProPublica says it isn’t just looking into the taxes of one individual who might be working the system to his advantage, but of many in various industries — and that shows a widespread problem with how the tax system works. ProPublica writes, “We also believe that disclosure of specific figures about the tax returns of people like Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg, Warren Buffett and Elon Musk will deepen readers’ interest and understanding of this complex and arcane subject.”

As far as the anonymous source, here’s what Engelberg and Tofel wrote: “We do not know the identity of our source. We did not solicit the information they sent us. The source says they were motivated by our previous coverage of issues surrounding the IRS and tax enforcement, but we do not know for certain that is true. We have considered the possibility that information we have received could have come from a state actor hostile to American interests. In particular, a number of government agencies were compromised last year by what the U.S. has said were Russian hackers who exploited vulnerabilities in software sold by SolarWinds, a Texas-based information technology company. We do note, however, that the Treasury Department’s inspector general for tax administration wrote in December that, ‘At this time, there is no evidence that any taxpayer information was exposed’ in the SolarWinds hack.”

ProPublica admitted that it’s possible that not everything in their database is accurate, but that every name mentioned in the piece was given a chance to respond before publication. It added, “We have gone to considerable lengths to confirm that the information sent to us is accurate.”

The wealthy figures in the story would likely prefer that their taxes were not exposed, but this doesn’t damage them in any real way except for (possibly) slight embarrassment. However, ProPublica does show, in detail, why we should at least examine how taxes work for the rich. And that gives its investigation journalistic value.

Report on what happened on Jan. 6 filled with questions

The insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6. (JT/STAR MAX/IPx)

The other big story Tuesday was a new report from two Senate committees about the Jan. 6 insurrection. The report found that the U.S. Capitol Police had intelligence that Trump supporters planned to attack the Capitol, but because of miscommunications, that intelligence never reached the law enforcement officers on the scene that day.

The Washington Post’s Karoun Demirjian wrote, “Released Tuesday, the report shows how an intelligence arm of the Capitol Police disseminated security assessments labeling the threat of violence ‘remote’ to ‘improbable,’ even as authorities collected evidence showing that pro-Trump activists intended to bring weapons to the demonstration and ‘storm the Capitol.’”

But, as The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake wrote, it was a “report that raises more questions than it fully answers.”

There is no mention of President Donald Trump’s role in the riot, other than his claims that the election was stolen. Blake wrote, “But it tells us next to nothing about any involvement Trump or the White House might have had in quelling the violence, either in the preparations for that day or once the riot began.”

Blake also points out that the word “insurrection” appears 11 times and “only in direct quotes and in footnotes referencing contemporary reports that used that word.”

CNN’s Zachary Cohen, Manu Raju, Whitney Wild and Lauren Fox wrote, “Sources tell CNN that in order for this report, which was compiled by the Senate Homeland Security and Rules committees, to have support from both parties, the language had to be carefully crafted, and that included excluding the word ‘insurrection,’ which notably does not appear outside of witness quotes and footnotes.”

That’s also why Trump’s role might have not been in the report. A Senate aide told CNN, “Did we look at Trump’s role in the attack? The answer is no. The report did not attempt to look at the origins and development of the groups or individuals that participated in the attack on the Capitol.”

Meanwhile, CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy made a fair point when he tweeted, “There is some focus on Trump’s role in the insurrection being excluded from the Senate report. Another key component missing: the right-wing media outlets that pushed the Big Lie. There is no mention of Fox, OAN, Newsmax, and others in the report.”

Considering that many of those arrested for their actions that day have mentioned being stirred up by what they saw on TV, it’s a glaring omission in the report. Actually, it’s just one of many glaring omissions in the report.

Obama speaks

Former President Barack Obama. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Barack Obama is worried about America.

In an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, the former president said, “We have to worry when one of our major political parties is willing to embrace a way of thinking about our democracy that would be unrecognizable and unacceptable even five years ago or a decade ago.”

What has happened? How did we get so divided?

Obama told Cooper, “We occupy different worlds. And it becomes that much more difficult for us to hear each other, see each other. We have more economic stratification and segregation. You combine that with racial stratification and the siloing of the media, so you don’t have just Walter Cronkite delivering the news, but you have 1,000 different venues. All that has contributed to that sense that we don’t have anything in common.”

In an analysis for CNN, Chris Cillizza wrote, “If the last four years of Donald Trump in the White House have taught us anything, it should be this: Democracy is durable, yes, but it is not immune to corruption and collapse. It requires care and maintenance — from all of us. And at the moment, it is quite clearly under attack by Trump and the forces aligned behind him.”

Cillizza added, “Think of American democracy like a marriage. You have to actively work to make it healthy and functional. Neglect those basics — or ignore the forces seeking to pull it apart — and by the time you finally realize or admit you have a problem, it might be too late to fix. That prospect should scare every American — no matter your party affiliation. That it doesn’t suggests we are already in some real trouble.”

MSNBC’s Brian Williams runs ad that Fox News would not

MeidasTouch is a liberal political action committee that was formed mostly to stop Donald Trump. In its latest effort, the PAC produced a video holding Republicans accountable for turning a blind eye to the events on Jan. 6.

MeidasTouch claimed it tried to get the ad on Fox News. It tweeted, “We made a $184,854 TV buy with this ad on Fox News this week. Fox News just denied airing our ad. Retweet and get it out in every corner of the country.”

MSNBC and primetime host Brian Williams did better than retweet. They ran the ad — at no charge — on Monday night. In introducing the ad, Williams said, “We have a pretty good reach too, so we’ve chosen to air it tonight. While you watch, ask yourself what isn’t factual about it, which people in it aren’t real.”

The ad shows Capitol police testifying or talking about their terrifying personal experiences of that day. It then concludes by showing various Republican lawmakers — such as Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy — while Capitol police talk about their disappointment in those who have “whitewashed” or “downplayed” what happened.

Then the words “The GOP betrayed America” appeared on the screen.

The HuffPost’s Ron Dicker reported that a Fox News spokesperson told him that this wasn’t the first time that Fox News rejected a MeidasTouch ad.

Turn way right

In an updated paperback version of his book “Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth,” CNN’s Brian Stelter reports what happened at Fox News as ratings took a downward turn when Donald Trump lost to Joe Biden in the 2020 election last November.

“To fix the problem,” Stelter wrote, “Fox ran even further to the right. And here’s the thing: It worked. It was toxic for the American political system, but it was profitable for Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch.”

One unnamed Fox News commentator told Stelter, “We turned so far right we went crazy.”

Lots of good details and behind-the-scenes stuff in this piece from Stelter, so check it out.

Condé Nast unions picket Anna Wintour’s building

For this item, I turn it over to Poynter’s Angela Fu.

Anna Wintour — or at least her building — received a group of fed-up visitors Tuesday evening.

Members of The New Yorker, Pitchfork, and Ars Technica Unions picketed outside the Condé Nast chief content officer and Vogue global editorial director’s New York City residence Tuesday evening as part of their preparations for a strike.

The three unions have been negotiating their first contracts with parent company Condé Nast for more than a year. The New Yorker workers, who unionized first in June 2018, have been at the bargaining table for two and a half years.

In March, 98% of the unions’ members voted to authorize a strike in the hopes that the threat of one would accelerate contract negotiations. Two months later, they are looking to make good on their threat. The New Yorker Union revamped its website Monday to include ways to support workers when they strike and announced on Twitter that a strike is “imminent.”

Included in The New Yorker Union’s list of demands for its contract are fair pay, reasonable health care costs, work-life balance and job security. The union also alleges that management has not bargained in good faith (Condé Nast has previously denied this). If the New Yorker workers do strike, they will call for a digital boycott and ask people not to produce work for the magazine or share newyorker.com links.

No thanks

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

How toxic is Florida Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz? Even Newsmax wants nothing to do with him. Reuters’ Mark Hosenball confirmed that Gaetz reached out to Newsmax about going to work there earlier this year, but Newsmax turned him down. (Axios’ Alayna Treene broke the story that Gaetz reached out to Newsmax back in March).

A spokesperson for Newsmax told Reuters that Gaetz joining the network was never going to happen.

Should have been a perfect fit, right? Newsmax is the ultra-conservative, very pro-Trump news outlet, while Gaetz is a Trump wannabe who is a favorite among many Trump supporters.

But apparently Newsmax balked when Gaetz became the subject of an investigation involving sex trafficking and prostitution, including possibly a minor.

A spokesperson for Newsmax told Reuters, “Newsmax has had no plans to hire Rep. Gaetz.” Another source said that Newsmax never told Gaetz it was interested in hiring him.

According to The Hill’s Joseph Choi, a spokesperson for Gaetz “refuted” — that’s Choi’s word, not mine — the Reuters story.

Back in the booth

Life in the U.S. is slowly returning to normal after 15 months of lockdowns and social distancing because of COVID-19. That includes sports, where fans are returning to the arenas and stadiums. Now the broadcasters are inching their way back, too.

For the past year, a good portion of televised sporting events has been called by broadcasters in a remote location far away from the stadiums and arenas.

Right now, baseball season is in full swing and while home team broadcasters are in the ballparks, visiting team announcers are mostly calling games from a remote location while watching on TV back in their hometowns. And national baseball broadcasters from Fox, ESPN and Turner have also been calling games remotely.

But that is changing. According to Jon Greenberg’s story in The Athletic, national broadcasters will soon hit the road.

Greenberg wrote, “Fox is the first of baseball’s national partners to send people on the road for its flagship Saturday games. TBS begins airing games June 20 and according to a source, they plan on doing most of their games in person, but they’re waiting on their schedule. ESPN will begin doing ‘Sunday Night Baseball’ in person on July 4, according to an ESPN source.”

Hopefully within the next couple of months, all baseball broadcasters, including TV and radio from the local teams, will be traveling. Many announcers have been professionals and done admiral jobs in the necessary circumstances. But there’s no question that audiences get a better broadcast when announcers are in the arenas and stadiums.

Hot type

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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