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Convention Loser: The Media?

Some Readers Tired Of Hearing About Protesters, Lieberman's Religion

Dan Bernard, Staff Writer, The Pittsburgh Channel
August 22, 2000, 10:03 a.m. EDT

LOS ANGELES -- As the Democratic National Convention wrapped up, many of you readers had had enough.

E-mail your questions about the conventions to dan@thepittsburghchannel.com

And you started picking on the media!

Deanna Guthrie of Los Angeles e-mailed:

"I really don't understand something. Discrimination is unlawful and has been for quite a few years. Then why does the press not obey this law? If our constitution refers to persons, not races or religions or nationality, then why can't the press?
"I think it is about time we had an Orthodox politician (Joe from Connecticut). America is great because of people who came here from countries that did not have freedom of religion. How about just once the press run a story without mentioning race, religion, nationality or sex status? Bet it never happens.
"It is against the law in my profession to even mention race, religion, gender, nationality. Why not yours?"

OK, Deanna. I understand your concern. No member of a minority appreciates the perception that the media insist on identifying people by their minority-group affiliation first and by their own accomplishments second.

But: The fact that Joseph Lieberman is Jewish -- and devout, at that -- is the most important part of the historical event of him being named Gore's running mate.

Gore and Lieberman know it, and they said so.

What I mean:

  • In the racehorse of the presidential race, the most critical asset that Lieberman brings to Gore's campaign is his reputation for morality. Lieberman cemented that reputation by scolding Clinton on the floor of the Senate for his affair with "that woman, Monica Lewinsky." He had already built it by joining with conservative moralizer Bill Bennett in handing out "Silver Sewer" awards to the entertainment industry for sleaziness.
  • Yes, Al Gore made certain in his acceptance speech Thursday to declare that he chose Lieberman "for one simple reason: He's the best person for the job." I.e., not because he's Jewish. But he first raised the subject by referring to Lieberman as "a leader of character."
  • Lieberman's moral persona is founded in and inseparable from his religious devotion.
  • For the history books, Lieberman may be most memorable as the first Jewish person to be nominated to a major party's national ticket. For the ages, who was Jackie Robinson -- a baseball player, or "the first African-American to play in major-league baseball"?

Don't take my word for it. Ask Joe. The theme of his speech accepting the vice presidential nomination was his amazement that he, the grandson of a Central European Jew, could be a vice presidential nominee. Opening sentence: "Is America a great country, or what?" Concluding sentence: "Only in America," just after a repetition of "keep the faith" (Message: He's religious. He's morally upright, unlike some other Bill Clintons we could mention).

So it's part of the story. If we didn't state the important facts, we, the media (if I may speak for us -- that cool, Cokie? Sam? Brit?), would not be doing our job, which is to tell it like it is, straight-out, no mumbling, no mincing words.

As for your suggestion that a law should be passed forbidding the press from mentioning certain facts about people such as their ethnicity -- yeesh. Wrong country, beb. The basis of our First Amendment freedoms is that more truth, not less, is good for democracy.

Enough About The Protesters

Linda Duncan of Newcastle, Calif. was sick of seeing the tape of rowdy hippies and anarchists rumbling with police officers after Monday's Rage Against the Machine concert:

"Why is the media focusing on these worthless human beings at a drug and alcohol-infested gathering rock concert? What a shame when we have a great gathering for this Democratic convention in Los Angeles, to see such trash that we the American people have to pay with our tax dollars to keep under control. This is like watching over a group of wild animals.
"What the heck was this city thinking when they allowed this concert to take place next to this convention, I ask?
"Want to solve this problem? KEEP THE CAMERAS OFF THEM! Simple.
"Let's give credit to the delegates and speakers who attended the Republican and Democrat conventions. They deserve the attention, not these have nothing-else-better-to-do lowlifes. What is their contribution to OUR society? ...
"Let's televise what the people watching television want to see during our Repulican and Democrat conventions: delegates and speakers, not parking-lot junkies.
"Have a nice day to all. (: "
A nice day to all -- except the lowlifes, right?

Now, ma'am, is there such a thing a "worthless human being"? I don't think so. And should we be comparing human beings to animals? That's not very nice.

So you're wondering why the TV cameras didn't concentrate more on pictures of people in suits standing still at podiums and speaking in measured, formulaic tones -- and ignore the cool, dramatic pictures of hooded protesters running around, knocking against horses on police with puffs of pink tear gas and squirts of caustic pepper spray streaming overhead?

Covering the confrontation may not be as high-minded as reflecting on the speeches. But the fact of the matter is, conflict is compelling. It demands attention. The protesters know that; that's why they caused a ruckus.

It's possible some media played to the sensational and covered the protests more than they needed to. We tried to strike a balance. I think CNN did, too. But we could hardly ignore them.

And you know what? The protesters claimed that the mainstream media covered them too little and spent too much time on the powerful elite inside the Staples Center. Some of the nastier protesters derided us as "corporate media" and refused to talk to us.

As for the concert being "drug and alcohol-infested," I was there: There was no booze. There were definitlely a few joints being roasted, but that's hardly an "infestation." Pot smoke is a quite pleasant fragrance. Really.

Some of the protesters were definitely sociopaths. I saw quite a few who provoked police deliberately, in cutting, personal terms. And there were some malcontents who were on the scene just to cause trouble and to vent a generalized anger at "society."

But the vast majority were peaceful and politically conscientious. Angry, perhaps, but for reasons of conscience: They feel the wealthy are reaping all the benefits of a booming economy. They feel black people are unfairly treated in the justice system.

They're trying to agitate to change those situations. And that, to answer your question, ma'am, is their contribution to our society.

On The Other Hand

You might appreciate this anti-hippy rant by my colleague David Krough.

A Lack Of Trust

Michael Trust of Los Angeles didn't trust President Clinton on one of the assertions in his speech to the Democratic convention:
"The President said, 'The typical American family today is paying a lower share of its income in federal income taxes than at any time during the last 35 years.' I find that hard to believe. Is this really true? And what would the facts be for both a single and married taxpayer -- how does he support this? Thanks."

To repeat the old saying, statistics never lie, but you can fool some of the people some of the time. Or something like that.

I called the White House press office (really!) to ask where Clinton got his info. They said they'd get back to me in a day. Hmph.

Michael quoted Clinton exactly, according to a transcript of the speech. Let's examine Bill's presumably carefully chosen words:

"The typical American family today is paying a lower share of its income in federal income taxes than at anytime during the past 35 years."
  • That's not all American families, but "typical" families. That probably means the average household. But it could be the mean household, or the median, not that I remember the difference offhand.
  • By using the word "family," did Clinton mean that we should include the money Bobby gets from his paper route and Susie's babysitting money? Let's set aside that question for the time being.
  • The sixth word that the President used -- "is" -- what is his definition of this word?

Seriously, his assertion is, families of average income in this country pay a certain percentage of their income in federal income tax, and that percentage is lower that the percentage of total income paid by similar families since 1965.

Clearly, something went wrong during the administration of Lyndon Baines Johnson. This is a thinly veiled slam on the New Society.

The Real Answer

In fact, I'm betting the President's assertion was based on data from the U.S. Treasury Department. Here are excerpts from a speech that Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers made in April to the think tank the Brookings Institution:

  • "[T]he tax burden for most American families is at its lowest in a generation.
  • "For a family with median income -- about $59,000 -- federal income plus payroll taxes are now a smaller share of income than at any time since 1978, and federal income taxes alone are the smallest share since 1966.
  • "Even a family with double the median income -- about $117,000 -- pays less in federal income taxes as a share of their income than at any time since 1974. I note that 90 percent of American families have incomes below $117,000.
Did you catch that? It's just the federal tax on income that's lower, not other taxes like Social Security payroll deductions. And it's not lower in absolute terms, only as a percentage of the household income.

Clinton's statement gives the impression that Uncle Sam is taxing less, or at least raising tax rates more slowly than the national wealth is growing. Not exactly. Summers continued:

  • "It is true ... that tax collections are rising as a share of GDP [gross domestic product, or total wealth produced by a country]. But this does not reflect increases in tax burdens on particular categories of taxpayers."

So, he's saying -- and please don't fall asleep, people, this is important: Federal taxation overall is growing faster than the national wealth is growing; but the portion of federal taxation that comes from the income tax is growing more slowly than the income of households.

What's going on? The stock market. Here's a sum-up from another think tank, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, in a report titled "Taxes on Middle-Income Families Are Declining":

"[T]he overall average federal tax rate has been rising, largely as a result of tax collections attributable to booming stock-market profits. This phenomenon has little effect on middle-income taxpayers, however, because income on these profits is concentrated among people at higher-income levels."

Whew! Enough economics; it's hurting my head. Your second question -- statistics for a single taxpayer vs. a married taxpayer -- will have to wait for the next major-party political convention. But if you're really into this sort of thing, you can read the full text of Secretary Summers' speech on the Web at www.ustreas.gov/press/releases/ps561.htm.

Dan's checking out. Thanks to everyone who sent questions.

Past Columns:

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