Liberal Media Redux -- The Washington Post Soft Pedals GOP Extremism in North Carolina

The all-too-frequent failure of political media to report accurately and with appropriate context is an ongoing disaster for our country. Among the adverse consequences of this failure is that political media aid and abet Republican extremism by softening its razor sharp edges and by bending over backwards to lend it respectability and legitimacy even when doing so requires distorting basic facts, apparently driven by the conviction that providing context and independent analysis might smack of liberal bias. The Washington Post this weekend offered a particularly dismaying entry in this regard in an article on the extraordinary developments in North Carolina. The article does note that since Pat McCrory took over the governor's mansion in January, the state GOP has pushed North Carolina "hard to the right." The ongoing legislative session in Raleigh has been a master class in venality, spite and contempt, resulting in, among many other things, the rejection of Medicaid expansion -- thus denying half a million North Carolinians health insurance; extreme attacks on voting rights; proposals that would result in an historic shift in the tax burden away from the wealthy and toward the middle class and the poor; massive cuts in education to the university system, K-12 education and pre-K; and efforts to gut environmental regulations.

Author Michael Fletcher noted some of these proposed cuts, but repeatedly gave Republicans a platform to justify their proposals, while providing none for their Democratic opponents in state government nor offering any independent scrutiny of their claims. Fletcher began his discussion of the policy agenda of the state GOP thusly: "And now, GOP lawmakers are moving swiftly to enact a long list of legislation they say is largely aimed at limiting government debt and snapping the state's economy out of a years-long malaise." Fletcher, setting the tone for the article, offered no specific rebuttal to that assertion, as if Republicans' characterization of their agenda is the beginning and end of that part of the story. Fletcher noted the rejection of Medicaid expansion and then quoted Governor McCrory's rationale for doing so -- that North Carolina needs to fix its existing Medicaid system first in order to serve existing enrollees. McCrory's assertion is a highly dubious one. In fact, under his direction, the state is planning to reduce services for current recipients. But here, too, Fletcher provided no counter to McCrory's claim. Fletcher also neglects to mention that rejecting Medicaid expansion, which would have entailed a massive infusion of federal dollars into North Carolina, will cost the state tens of thousands of jobs, a fact at odds with the claims of state Senate majority leader Phil Berger, whom Fletcher quotes professing to be concerned about boosting the economy and creating jobs. Berger also claims that the GOP is concerned about state debt. It should by now be a basic truism of American politics that the right-wing does not actually care about debt and deficits, despite its professions to the contrary. As has been demonstrated over and over again, debt talk among Republicans is merely a means to rationalize cutting social services for the less well-to-do. Regardless, surely it was incumbent upon Fletcher to note that, in fact, both the NC Senate and House tax plans would likely increase state deficits over the next three years. Since the state must balance its budget, guess where that money is coming from?

Fletcher apparently doesn't want to tell his readers, so he settles for this characterization of GOP tax proposals: "Lawmakers are also considering proposals to reduce and flatten income tax rates while expanding the sales tax, perhaps to even include groceries and prescription drugs." In fact, the GOP's approach is to fund tax cuts for the rich on the backs of ordinary North Carolinians. Folks like Berger have tried to deny this, but their own data proves otherwise. Independent analyses make clear that, when accounting for the proposed increases in sales taxes, including a bump from 2 to 6.5 percent in the food tax, those making under $40,000 a year in North Carolina will see an increase in their taxes. In effect, these will pay for tax cuts worth tens of thousands of dollar per year for North Carolina millionaires. Fletcher mentioned precisely none of this.

Remarkably, he further tried to sanitize this heaping pile of crap by insisting that North Carolinians support these proposals. His source? The North Carolina branch of Americans for Prosperity (AFP), the Koch funded operation, which recently reported that its polling found that a plurality of North Carolina residents supported "massive tax reform" and an end to income taxes. Fletcher misleadingly claimed that the poll came out after the Senate released its tax plans. In reality, as Tom Jensen of Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling (PPP) pointed out to me, AFP's findings, as it acknowledged, were not specifically about the Senate plan, whose details were not made public until after the AFP had completed its survey. And its results are dramatically at odds with those of the aforementioned PPP, which did ask respondents about the specific details in both the Senate and House plans. PPP found that North Carolinians opposed them overwhelmingly, rejecting the Senate plan by a 5-1 margin and the House plan by nearly 3-1. And by an 8-1 margin, Tar Heels oppose the food tax hike, according to PPP. None of this saw the light of day in Fletcher's article.

The only context in which Fletcher quotes those who oppose the GOP agenda is in describing, generally, the rationale behind organized protests against the legislature's actions and one quote about how much of an outlier North Carolina is in terms of regressive policy proposals.

In sum, Fletcher offers not a single factual rebuttal to Republican claims in the article, despite the ample evidence that the premises behind key policy proposals are false or contradictory or both. Nor does he quote a single state Democratic lawmaker in the article opposing the Republican agenda. Surely a Washington Post reporter would have the access necessary to find one Democrat in the legislature who would go on the record. And surely he or a research assistant could spend a few minutes examining whether the claims he does quote stand up to scrutiny -- in other words, to be something other than a stenographer. North Carolina Republicans have launched an all out attack on the less well off, apparently concerned only with the welfare of the already well-to-do. Their job is made easier by work like Fletcher's on Saturday. This is shoddy journalism, as likely to obscure as to inform people about the true state of affairs in North Carolina, serving among other things to paper over the excesses of a broadly unpopular agenda -- from taxes, to guns, to environmental protection to cuts in education and more. When, for the love of all that is decent and fair, are we going to drop the canard about a liberal media?