Tuesday, October 4, 2016

One Hand Clapping

The sound you hear of one hand clapping is back slapping. The NYT does this today, congratulating themselves on the "scoop" that comes with receiving a snail mail containing copies of the first page of three tax returns from 1995. You can already imagine the deliberations of the Pulitzer Prize jury - the news people pleasure awarding themselves is only exceeded by Hollywood.

In their latest podcast the NYT drags out the story of receiving the the three pages, called a "bombshell", wondering about the authenticity, bringing in tax experts and the accountant who prepared the 1990s era Trump returns in the most dramatic tones to verify the authenticity of the documents.
But the only dramatic information in the documents is the $916 million figure which we already knew. WaPo provides the legitimate treatment in How Donald Trump and other real estate developers pay almost nothing in taxes. That is the real story - the context. Not "in context", but the context itself. No one in Donald Trump's situation as a real estate developer would be expected to pay much, if anything in taxes. That is more a story about us - the nation and its tax laws - than him, Donald Trump. Unfortunately, reporting in context can only occur on the so-called WaPo Wonkblog, a title that conjures up an image - fasten your seatbelts, average intelligence necessary for the remainder of the flight.
source: delta.com

Reporters, even political reporters, are expert storytellers. They need to bring in the subject matter experts when they have leaked documents. But we already knew all of the key elements of the story:
1. Trump has consistently bragged about making maximum use of the tax laws and bankruptcy laws to his personal financial advantage.
2. The Tax Reform Act of 1986 lowered marginal tax rates as it closed many tax loopholes, but advantages that especially benefit real estate investors were preserved.
3. The $900 million loss figures for Trump due to bankruptcies were floating around in the 1990s, as noted by today's WaPo story.
So it is no surprise if Trump's accountants and tax lawyers were able to finagle a tax saving windfall in the neighborhood of $900 million.

Is it news when the media uses leaked documents to tell us what we already knew?

The headline that "Trump could have paid no taxes for 18 years" could have been written without the "bombshell" disclosure based on the public information without the leaked documents.

In their self-congratulations, the NYT compares the "whistleblower" who leaked the three pages to the whistleblower who leaked the Brown and Williamson internal documents that exposed the tobacco industry years-long campaign to discredit the fact that smoking causes cancer. Hubris anyone? That was a different situation - a matter of potential civil and criminal liability to the tune of many billions of dollars and  a smoking gun that led to smoking policy changes throughout society.

The only question about Trump is whether or not one decides to vote for him based on
(1) the preponderance of the evidence or
(2) the preponderance of the evidence, plus a few tax pages that support the preponderance of the evidence.

So why does this matter? This "revelation" shines a bright light on the other side of the defective "fair and balanced" coin.

At NYT, the storytellers see their job as telling the truth, usually without meaningful interpretation, based on the position that interpretation is a red flag of possible bias. Reporters are led wherever the "facts" take them, which, in politics means, facts or allegations supplied by whichever campaign is most aggressive with accusations about the opposing candidate, as supplemented by whichever news source is most aggressive with their accusations and innuendo, which happens to be Fox News.
As a result, the "bombshell" of the tax form leak is not the revelation about Trump's taxes. It is the permission the NYT needed to remove their "fair and balanced" blinders to report more fully on a story we already knew.

As a profession, the prominent press needs to step back and question a system that relies so heavily on leaks. With the possible exception of Watergate, for the list of leaks below, we probably already understood the backstory pretty well - the reality - but the press used the leak-event as a pretext to treat the reality as fact without shedding their appearance of objectivity.

The Pentagon Papers (Daniel Ellsberg)
Watergate  (Mark Felt)
George Bush National Guard Story (fake source)
State Department documents (Manning)
Romney 47% remark (Carter grandson)
NSA documents (Snowden)
DNC emails (Russian hackers)

The NYT loves leaks to their news department because they have difficulty working with abstract ideas and need a concrete document for the story to coalesce around. Suppose the heart of the story is that Donald Trump is an extremely selfish, extremely narcissistic man. If so, we do not need three pages of 1995 tax documents to understand that reality.

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