CNET News today published a surprisingly, though subtly, biased article about online sales tax—particularly surprising coming from the well-respected Declan McCullagh. In the guise of news, he builds an argument against the Main Street Fairness Act through word choice, misleading statements, and innuendo.
As an interesting exercise, let’s parse the article to uncover the instances of bias scattered throughout.
We’ll start with the headline: “Democratic senator wants Internet sales taxes.” It’s clever, actually, how the headline introduces bias in so few words. First, it’s completely misleading: Sales tax is already due on online purchases. Second, it plays on the stereotype of the “tax-and-spend” Democratic politician, already setting readers against the senator and the legislation he proposes.
The article itself uses several tactics to create bias against the Main Street Fairness Act:
1. Misleading statements implying sales tax isn’t currently due on online purchases: I counted 3 of these in the first few paragraphs:
A Democratic senator is preparing to introduce legislation that aims to end the golden era of tax-free Internet shopping.
The proposal—expected to be made public soon after Tax Day—would rewrite the ground rules for Internet and mail order sales by eliminating the ability of Americans to shop at Web sites like Amazon.com and Overstock.com without paying state sales taxes.
At the moment, Americans who shop over the Internet from out-of-state vendors aren’t always required to pay sales taxes at the time of purchase.(emphasis added)
Let us point out once again, for the record: Sales tax has always been due on online purchases. All the legislation would do is shift the burden of calculating and remitting that tax from consumers to retailers.
While the “important caveat” that sales tax is already due on online purchases is buried just before the end of the article, the suggestion that it’s not appears several times near the beginning—leaving much more of an impression on readers.
2. Word choice: The author chooses his words carefully throughout to build a negative image of the legislation and its supporters. For instance, he refers to supporters as “pro-tax forces.” It reminds us of the way pro-choice and pro-life supporters characterize each other as “pro-abortion” and “anti-choice.” Let’s be clear: Supporters of the legislation are not in favor of creating new taxes or raising existing taxes. They’re just trying to make it easier for states to collect a tax that is already due.
Other examples are more subtle, but throughout, the author’s choice of words casts the Main Street Fairness Act in a negative light.
3. Quotes: There is one positive quote about the Main Street Fairness Act—taken from a speech Senator Durbin gave in February—compared to three negative quotes. (We’ll spare you having to read all of them here.) Supporters are simply not given the same amount of space to make their case.
4. Attention given to each side: While the author is careful to explain why opponents are against the legislation, he doesn’t give equal time to explaining why supporters are in favor of it.
We were also surprised that although the author argues that collecting sales tax is difficult for online retailers, he doesn’t explain how technology solves the problem—which one would expect to be a natural approach, given that he has an extensive background in writing about technology and is writing for CNET’s tech-savvy audience.
Since that information is missing, we’ll supply it here: Free, comprehensive sales tax management services are available for online retailers, making the collection of sales tax easy and affordable. TaxCloud is one such service, and we’re proud to say that it makes it easy for even the smallest online retailer to calculate, collect, and remit sales tax. It even handles audits, prepares detailed monthly reports, and files tax returns.
By the end of the article, it’s clear that the author is opposed to the Main Street Fairness Act and the collection of sales tax online. Fortunately, against his opinion we can offer those of the editorial boards of the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, and Minneapolis Star Tribune, to name a few, all of which have published editorials supporting the Main Street Fairness Act and/or online sales tax within the last month.