When the I.R.S. and New York Times effect a merger, beware: truth suffers. On Saturday we were treated to this headline, strapped across the top of page one of the business section of our newspaper of record, “In Superrich, Clues to What Might Be in Romney’s Return.” Note: This is a news story, not an opinion piece overtly aimed at shoring up the unsubstantiated, unsourced claims of Senate majority leader Harry Reid. Enter the I.R.S., which released a study showing that the 400 members of the “elite ultrarich” earned an average of $202 million in 2009. So far, so factual.
Now comes the kicker: six of the 400 paid no federal income tax. “The I.R.S. has never before disclosed the last fact,” reports the New York Times. Odd that after all these years it should choose to do so now.
There is worse, when the Times’s James B. Stewart, who has won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism, tells us what all this means. Unfortunately, the data aren’t quite on his side, “Not even Mr. Romney, with reported 2010 income of $21.7 million, qualifies for membership in this select group of 400.” Indeed, with income about one-tenth of the average of the superrich, he is a piker by comparison. But that doesn’t bother the editors or Mr. Stewart. Here’s how they make the leap from a group of six taxpayers out of a group of 400 with ten times Mr. Romney’s income—0.015 percent of the “elite ultrarich group”—to the Republican candidate. Despite the fact that Romney has nothing like the income reported by the elite 400, it is somehow relevant that “The data provides a window in the financial lives and tax rates of the superrich.” What that has to do with Mitt Romney is not clear, and how it provides “clues” into whether or not he paid taxes in the past ten years, must elude the nonpartisan, careful reader.
But no one can accuse the New York Times of being unfair. Turn from the first page of the business section to page 6, where the story continues for another six columns above the fold, and you find this from Edward Kleinbard, professor of law at the Gould School of Law at the University of Southern California, “It is possible theoretically that Romney didn’t pay, but improbable. To which Stewart adds, “Far more likely is that he paid a very low rate … [w]hich “the electorate already knows.” Why then, this article, comparing the candidate with a group of which he is not a member? Only the editors and, it seems, the I.R.S. know.