On Oct. 4, 1974, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Harry Reid held a news conference at Reno’s Riverside Hotel where he released his tax returns and those of members of his family who had business dealings with him. Politicians releasing tax returns was all the rage that year, President Nixon’s dubious personal finances having made it popular. Reid called on his Republican opponent, Paul Laxalt, to do the same.
After serving a term as governor, Laxalt and some of his family members had built a Carson City casino hotel, the Ormsby House, prompting wide speculation about its financing, much of that speculation involving reclusive billionaire and casino owner Howard Hughes.
As governor, Laxalt’s sweetheart relationship with Hughes—who once planned to make Laxalt president of the United States—had come to the attention of Watergate investigators. They took particular interest in Laxalt allegedly intervening with the U.S. Justice Department to protect Hughes from anti-trust charges and Hughes’ use of the Nevada governor to deliver a briefcase containing $50,000 to Richard Nixon.
In an effort to neutralize the issue, in September Laxalt began accusing Reid of having made a deal with his Democratic primary opponent, Maya Miller, in exchange for her endorsement. What Miller wanted, Laxalt claimed, was for Reid to make an issue of Ormsby House financing in the fall campaign.
An angry Reid immediately accepted an offer to debate the Hughes/Ormsby matters and began asking the question that Nevadans had been asking for several years: “How did a small town attorney parlay one term as governor into a $7 million hotel?” Reid also scheduled the Riverside news conference.
At that event, I was standing against the back wall. Near me was Laxalt’s brother Robert, sent to monitor the proceedings. After Reid took questions and began leaving the room, Robert Laxalt blocked his way. I heard him say, “You’ve practically accused us of criminality.” Reid responded, “We didn’t bring it up, so let’s finish it.”
It backfired on Reid. Although he had limited his request for financial information to family members who were in business with Laxalt, Laxalt portrayed it as a case of Reid trying to get financial information from a Laxalt sister who was a nun under a vow of poverty. It wasn’t true, but reporters loved the nun angle and ran with it. The public reaction cost Reid the election and delayed his entrance into the Senate until 1986.
It was a storied moment in Nevada politics, but Reid had carefully stayed within the available information and documentation about Laxalt, though that caution had not protected him.
So I was surprised last month when Reid, this time without documentation or substantiation, again tore into a Republican about his personal financial information.
It came in an interview with Sam Stein and Ryan Grim for Huffington Post. Reid claimed an investor in Mitt Romney’s former firm Bain Capital told him, “Harry, he didn’t pay any taxes for 10 years.” Reid then went on: “He didn’t pay taxes for 10 years. Now, do I know that that’s true? Well, I’m not certain. But obviously he can’t release those tax returns. How would it look? You guys have said his wealth is $250 million. Not a chance in the world. It’s a lot more than that. I mean, you do pretty well if you don’t pay taxes for 10 years when you’re making millions and millions of dollars.”
Note that the third sentence invalidated everything else he said.
In the Huffington interview, he said his source was a Bain investor. In comments to Nevada reporters it was “a number of people.” In another statement on the Senate floor—he was criticized for using an official setting for a political attack—he said that “the word is out.” The best thing that could be said about this last is that he was quoting himself.
The inflammatory words crackled across the political world.
Romney flatly denied Reid’s hearsay. “I did go back and look at my taxes and over the past 10 years I never paid less than 13 percent. I think the most recent year is 13.6 or something like that. I paid taxes every single year. … Harry Reid’s charge is totally false.”
Democrats, who for years had whined about unsubstantiated attacks by Republicans, decided they had been too finicky. They now found they had no objection to such attacks when made by Democrats. Although invited to do so, Democratic National chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and President Obama all declined to repudiate Reid, this is in spite of the admirable example set 13 days earlier by Republicans John McCain, John Boehner, Marco Rubio, Ed Rollins and Scott Brown, who repudiated a Michelle Bachmann smear of an Obama administration official. (McCain, whose 2008 presidential campaign examined Romney’s finances when he was being considered for vice president, said he “can personally vouch” that there was nothing in Romney’s taxes that would be disqualifying for a candidate.)
Pelosi’s comments were particularly striking—“Harry Reid made a statement that is true. Somebody told him. It is a fact.” The word “it” appears to be referencing the fact that someone told Reid, not the accuracy of what he was told. In other words, she attested to his using genuine gossip, though how she knows Reid has a real live source is anyone’s guess. Maybe she has a source.
“In allowing Reid to air an unsourced allegation from the floor of the United States Senate and then to argue that the burden of proof lies with the accused and not the accuser, Democrats have set a new low for modern political campaigns,” wrote RealClearPolitics founder Tom Bevan.
In Republican circles, meanwhile, Reid was characterized as “a dirty liar” (Republican National chair Reince Priebus) and “making things up” (Sen. Lindsay Graham).
The poisonous term McCarthy began to be heard, and Reid did his best to help it along, as with his comment on the Senate floor: “Let him prove that he has paid taxes—because he hasn’t.”
“By challenging Romney to prove his innocence, Reid has turned the traditional American standard of ‘innocent until proven otherwise’ on its head, just like [U.S. Sen. Joseph] McCarthy did,” wrote Peter Roff in U.S. News & World Report.
The strangeness of these ethical backflips was highlighted when liberal columnist Frank Rich argued that Romney should prove his innocence and Human Events magazine—long a defender of Joseph McCarthy—sanctimoniously criticized Democratic leaders for “endorsing Reid’s twisted McCarthyite reasoning.”
Reid consistently refused to defend his claims by responding to questions, instead turning each time to the issue of Romney’s taxes, and reporters were unable to hold his feet to the fire. Several leading fact-checking sites examined Reid’s comments and all found, in the words of one, “an extreme claim with nothing to back it up.” When Reid was confronted with that finding, by the Pulitzer Prize-winning site PolitiFact, he denounced the site without addressing the substance of its finding—a non-denial denial.
Some reporters tried to come up with Reid’s source—if there was one—and David Axelrod and Jon Huntsman Sr. were the prime candidates. Both denied it.
Journalism takes a dive
In 1972, without any evidence, Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern accused the Republican campaign of trying to suppress the Latino vote. James Naughton of the New York Times asked him, “As a student of history, how do you distinguish what you are doing from what Joseph McCarthy used to do?”
No reporter put it that bluntly to Reid, who could not have been happier about the way most journalists behaved. It began with the original interview. There’s a scornful term in journalism—stenographer. It refers to a reporter who does nothing more than write what s/he’s told and then passes it along raw to readers, no matter how irresponsible the content.
That kind of stenographic reporting helped empower U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1940s and 1950s. As a result, new reporting techniques were developed, of providing analysis and context, to guard against such manipulation by politicians.
But Sam Stein and Ryan Grim didn’t use those techniques. They wrote down what Reid said and put it out there, doing no other work except adding information on Romney’s response.
The big question is why they reported Reid’s words at all. Reid himself gave them no substantiation, so why didn’t they ignore his attempt to plant an unsourced rumor? Huffington Post received one of the most dreaded awards in journalism—a “Dart” from the Columbia Journalism Review—for running the gossip. CJR said it was unfortunate that “there are reporters willing to write up” hearsay and distribute it to a wide audience.
Syndicated columnist Jules Witcover wrote, “It’s part of the plague of new-media laxness these days for sources, named or unnamed, to make allegations without specifically substantiating them, and for news organizations, print, audio or video, to run with them.”
Even if they decided to go ahead and report Reid’s remarks, CJR argued, Stein and Grim should not have buried their lead—the new fact that a major Democrat was spreading unsourced rumors instead of the old news of Romney’s taxes. They could have “foregrounded … the untrustworthiness of Reid’s account,” according to the journal.
Imagine if the lead sentence had dealt with what was new: “In a Democratic turn to new tactics, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid made a hearsay accusation against likely Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney while admitting the accusation may be false.” That would have set a very different tone for everything that followed. Instead the two reporters wrote the story in exactly the way Reid would have.
But CJR, Witcover and a few others were in the minority. Most journalists gave heavy coverage to the controversy, and did it badly, fostering the impression that national political reporting has been overtaken by amateurs.
Reporter Richard Reeves once wrote “The press is a child, essentially an immature institution. It’s a lovable little thing, distracted by bits of color and light, eager and irresponsible, honest in its simple way. And it has trouble concentrating on more than one thing at a time.” Never was this truer. Few kept straight for voters who—accuser or accused—had an obligation to provide proof, much less addressed privacy. Most reporters were unable to separate the issues of Reid’s conduct and Romney’s taxes. One was an ethical issue, the other financial, but like someone unable to chew gum and walk at the same time, reporters jumbled them together, accommodating Reid. He played them like a violin.
Many reporters did not look at the substance of either issue—Reid’s ethics or Romney’s taxes. Instead, they treated it as a contest between the two men and focused on who was “winning.” The Los Angeles Times’ James Rainey, the Christian Science Monitor’s Linda Feldman, and the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza all ran stories like that.
A CJR writer showed how the story could be handled by reporters willing to invest a little work. Brendan Nyhan compared the original Stein/Grim story for Huffington with a report on Reid’s claim by William Douglas for McClatchy Newspapers. In an online presentation, he overlaid “credulous” reporting with red and analytical, skeptical reporting with green. The Douglas story was mostly green. The Stein/Grim story was mostly red. Douglas’s story contained reactions from scholars on civility in politics and fact-checking and information about Reid’s own refusal to release his tax returns. Stein and Grim’s story provided no reaction except from Romney and nothing on Reid’s own tax bashfulness.
Because reporters use unnamed sources all the time, some may have been uncomfortable calling a U.S. senator on doing the same. But most reporters will do backup research on information provided by confidential sources before printing or broadcasting. They look for documentation and red flags.
For instance, Reid could have obtained the one Romney tax return that had already been released plus his financial disclosure and had them analyzed for evidence of whether they showed that what the “Bain investor” said was true. Reid could also have considered the red flag—the improbable notion that a mere investor in Bain would know anything about Romney’s personal taxes. Nothing Reid has said indicated that he did any of that.
But others did. Salon asked prominent tax attorneys and accountants to examine Romney’s 2010 return and analyze whether the document suggested what Reid was claiming. Their conclusions ran under the subhead “Several tax attorneys believe Harry Reid’s claims are nothing short of ludicrous.” PolitiFact examined IRS studies and interviewed a Stern School of Business economist and found the possibility of Romney paying no taxes unlikely: “Romney has denied the claim, and tax experts back him up, saying that the nature of Romney’s investments in Bain make it highly unlikely he would have been able to avoid paying taxes altogether—especially for 10 years.”
These were conclusions that mattered only if reliable analysis based on facts has a claim to credibility over hearsay.
Long before Reid’s comments, Romney had released his 2010 income tax return and promised to release 2011 (release is scheduled for Oct. 15). The 2010 return showed the Romneys paid about $3 million in federal income taxes. Their estimated taxes for 2011 are in the same range.
Reid convinced some national reporters (who didn’t bother checking this claim, either) that Romney’s father George, running for president in 1968, had set “three decades of precedent” by releasing a dozen years of his tax returns. “His poor father must be so embarrassed about his son,” Reid said. (George Romney died in 1995.)
If reporters had checked, they would have found that while George Romney released multiple years, it did not become precedent. According to the Tax History Project, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and George Bush I did not release their tax returns when they were presidential candidates. Bill Clinton and Bush II released a single year when they were running for president. McCain released two years. Not until Barack Obama came along did anyone join the elder Romney—and even he released only nine years. (On the subject of fathers, sons, and embarrassment, the right-wing Investors Business Daily published a claim that Reid’s father’s 1972 suicide was caused by embarrassment over his son, who was then lieutenant governor. It was despicable, but Reid had put himself in no position to complain about the newspaper’s tactics.)
Moreover, Romney has complied with federal law on disclosure, giving a financial statement to the Federal Elections Commission—plus release of two years of tax returns. Reid, by contrast, has filed a Senate financial disclosure and no years of tax returns.
Romney has said he has no intention of releasing additional years only to have the Democrats manipulate what they find. Given the fact that during the Reid/Romney contretemps, an Obama-supporting SuperPAC was running television commercials that accused Romney of helping kill a woman, that is not an unreasonable position. In addition, in one of his most effective responses, Romney said that when he ran against Ted Kennedy, Kennedy refused to release his tax returns, citing privacy. Romney said he came to believe Kennedy was right, and says his religious contributions should remain private. But Democrats, except for situations of political advantage like the Bork hearings or issues like abortion, have been contemptuous of personal privacy issues for decades. Reid himself as a state legislator cosponsored legislation to require the use of social security numbers on driver licenses. Privacy is not an argument that resonates with Democrats so they have trouble understanding it.
While some analysts, such as Kathleen Hall Jamieson, said release of Romney tax returns would help determine how “his tax plan could affect people like him,” in fact that can already be done—and has been done—with the returns and financial information he has disclosed.
There is one side note concerning Romney’s taxes that is of interest, though it never came out during the Reid dispute. Romney, as part of his tactic of kissing up to the far right of his party, said that no one who pays more taxes than he owes is fit to be president. “I pay all the taxes that are legally required and not a dollar more,” he said.
By contrast, in June 1977 President Carter said that because of investment credits and deductions, he owed no tax on his 1976 gross income of $55,000. Nevertheless, “because of my strong feeling that a person should pay some tax on his income,” Carter paid $6,000.
Ronald Reagan biographer Lou Cannon told us last week, Reagan “directed William French Smith, then his personal attorney, to make sure he paid taxes … whether he owed them or not.”
In addition, when a leader of the party of Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy implies that the great wealth of a candidate has some negative meaning in a campaign context, it is fair to question that automatic linkage.
One of the best pieces of journalism to come out of the Reid dispute was written by James B. Stewart, author of financial best sellers Blood Sport and Den of Thieves (one of his books is subtitled How False Statements are Undermining America). After reviewing the laws that allow wealthy people to go without paying taxes and pointing out that of the 400 individual income tax returns reporting the highest incomes the United States, six paid no taxes at all, Stewart pointed out, “Mr. Romney didn’t make the law, and he’s called for broadening the tax base, which presumably means eliminating some of the breaks that benefited him. He could easily speak to that issue, since who would know better than he does which loopholes should be closed?” It’s the same argument once used for Roosevelt and Kennedy.
But during the entire Reid clash over Romney’s taxes, not a single reporter asked the senator why he had not, if he felt so strongly about wealthy people not having to pay taxes, reformed the system that allows it—particularly during the 2009-2011 Congress when the Democrats held overwhelming majorities in both houses plus the presidency.