With little more than a month to go before Election Day, voters need the news media to cut through the clutter of the candidates' competing sound bites and spin. They need clear and concise explanations of what, exactly, the candidates would do if elected. And they need the media to provide this every day, not just once in a while.
Unfortunately, they aren't getting it. Instead, they are faced with countless news reports that simply repeat charges and counter-charges or obsess over minor details while failing to provide the big picture - news reports that obscure rather than clarify the candidates' proposals and positions.
Take, for example, tax cuts.
Three weeks ago, The Washington Post ran an article headlined "Mixed Impressions on Taxes; Gaps Exist Between Candidates' Positions, Public Perceptions" -- an article that offered a perfect example of why voters don't correctly understand the candidates' positions. As I noted at the time in a post on Media Matters' blog:
The Post tells us the "average tax cut" for "middle-income families" under McCain's plan: $321, according to the Tax Policy Center. Is that more or less than such families would get under Obama's plan? That's a fairly basic question, and one you would think an article about the candidates' tax plans would answer. But the Post says only that under Obama's plan, "lower- and middle-income workers would see large tax cuts." Well, great. How large? More than under McCain's plan? Less? The Post doesn't tell readers. Is it any wonder that voters don't understand the candidates' tax plans?
Nor did the Post article give any indication of the total costs of the two candidates' tax plans. In an article about the fact that the public lacks clear understanding of the candidates' positions, the Post failed to spell out clearly and simply the most basic facts about their tax plans.
It shouldn't be at all difficult to answer some basic facts: How much does each candidate's plan cost? How does each candidate's plan distribute tax cuts (and increases)? How much would the average taxpayer at various income levels save under each plan? Which plan would give a larger tax cut to middle class taxpayers? At what income level, if any, does that change? How much would the candidates save under their own plans -- and each other's?
But the Post article didn't even attempt to answer those questions -- none of them.
Well, that's not quite true: the Post revealed that under Obama's plan, "families in the top 1 percent of the income scale would see an average annual tax increase of nearly $100,000" and under McCain's plan they "would see an average tax cut of nearly $49,000." So, readers whose income places them in the top 1 percent got some sense of how they would be affected by the two plans. But the Post didn't indicate what the income threshold is for the "top 1 percent," so many readers presumably thought (incorrectly) that those figures applied to them -- or incorrectly thought they didn't. Most people presumably do not know in what percentile their income places them -- but they do know what their income is. So the one direct comparison the Post made was rendered nearly useless by poor wording.
But that's just one article. Sure, it's more than a little absurd that the Post failed to make clear the most basic facts about the candidates' tax plans in an article about the public's lack of understanding of those plans. Maybe the Post has done a better job since then?
No. Not at all.
In the three weeks since that article, The Washington Post has not run a single news article that directly compared the total costs of the candidates' tax plans. Not a single article that directly compared the distribution of the tax cuts. How much would the average middle class family save under Obama's plan, and under McCain's? The Washington Post won't say. How much would the typical millionaire save under each plan? The Washington Post won't say. How much would John McCain and Barack Obama save under each plan? The Washington Post doesn't tell you.
It isn't like the Post is just ignoring tax cuts as a campaign issue: the paper regularly quotes or paraphrases the candidates' claims and counterclaims. It just doesn't tell you what's true; it doesn't give voters the most basic information they need to assess how they would fare under the plans.
Well, that isn't totally fair. On September 23, the Post ran an article accompanied by a chart showing "change in yearly taxes" under both candidates for several income ranges. Here's how the article began: "The U.S. economy is complicated. It even stumps many adults!"
You guessed it: that was a KidsPost article, on page C-12. It seems the Post's children's section has done a better job of clearly reporting essential information about the candidates' tax plans than has the rest of the paper. Sadly, not even KidsPost indicates the total costs of the respective proposals; the words "deficit" and "budget" do not appear in the article.
There's no reason to single out The Washington Post, though. The New York Times has done a better job of comparing the candidates' tax plans, but has still fallen far short of clearly and consistently laying out the basics. Over the past three weeks, five Times articles have, with varying degrees of specificity, indicated that middle-class taxpayers would receive a larger cut under Obama's plan. But none has spelled out how the wealthy would fare under each plan, or indicated the total costs of the plans. And it probably goes without saying that the Times hasn't told readers how the candidates themselves would do under their plans.
And tax cuts are only one example. News reports about the candidates' health care plans, their views on executive power and global warming and energy and a whole host of other issues suffer from the same lack of clarity.
It would be easy for the news media to spend the next month recounting the latest campaign sniping and petty distractions; easy for them to fall back on he-said, she-said reporting; easy to obsess over the minutiae of policy proposals. But that isn't what voters need. They need clear and concise explanations of what the candidates have done, and of what they plan to do. And they need it every day, not just every once in a while, in between dozens of news reports that confuse more than they clarify.
Jamison Foser is Executive Vice President at Media Matters for America.