August 18, 2008

Whatever Happened to David Cay Johnston? Former NYT Business Journalist’s Leftiness Is In Full Bloom

DavidCayJohnston0808.jpegA former New York Times investigative journalist who wrote primarily on business and taxation will soon be speaking at a “progressive” gathering.

Further, in his inaugural column at a post-Times gig, he misrepresented the nature of the 1980 and 2000 tax-cut proposals by the Republican presidential candidates.

Finally, in another post-Times tax column, he used vitriolic class warfare-based language in analyzing matters relating to tax compliance.

Surprised? If you’re familiar with the work of David Cay Johnston from when he toiled at the Times, probably not.

About a year ago, yours truly and Mr. Johnston had a bit of a dust-up (at NewsBusters; at over his questionable use of IRS tax return data in this Times article (August 21, 2007; “2005 Incomes, on Average, Still Below 2000 Peak”). To make a tediously long story very short, Johnston used the IRS data, which sort of approximates “gross income,” to reach erroneous and broad conclusions about what Americans “had to make ends meet” (i.e., after-tax income).

Johnston’s article and my posts created a bit of a blogospheric stir. He posted comments at the original BizzyBlog post (here and here). Johnston gets credit for responding, but other commenters generally gave him demerits for his responses. While I made a relatively small mistake in our back and forth and acknowledged it, Johnston made at least six, a couple of them real doozies. As far as I know, Johnston has never admitted to any mistake of significance.

But rather than rehash the numbers battle, I’m more interested in Johnston’s assertions within his comments that he played his reporting straight, assertions he in essence repeated to me in phone discussions:

  • (Comment 4) The idea that in the most scrutinized news report in the world I could twist facts for some venal purpose is laughable. We fire reporters who do that and we should.
  • (Comment 4) I did not get into this line of work more than 40 years ago to make things up or twist them. If I wanted to I would have become a novelist or a screenwriter.
  • (Comment 74) Next year, whatever the numbers are and assuming I am still walking around, I’ll report whatever they show, too.

If Johnston is going to report on this year’s IRS data, he won’t be doing it for what remains of the Times. His last article was on March 18. Wikipedia says that he took a buyout, and is now an “independent reporter.”


August 26, 2008 Update: Johnston unexpectedly made a comeback appearance at the Times and wrote up this report based on 2006 IRS AGI data. As noted here without detailed delving (none is really necessary, as it flunks the smell test in the first sentence), it’s right up (really down) there with last year’s. A more accurate and meaningful rendering of the income situation during the decade thus far is here (“The Pernicious ‘No Real Economic Progress’ Myth”).


So what is David Cay Johnston up to?

If three items I’ve recently come across are any indication, it would seem that Mr. Johnston has become quite a bit more agenda-driven and fact-free. Either that, or he’s been that way all along, but can now operate without a mask.

The first item: Johnston is speaking at a BuzzFlash Conference in late September (bolds and links in excerpt are mine):

David Cay Johnston and Jeffrey Feldman to Speak at BuzzFlash Sep. 27 Philly Conference

We’re slowly revealing the all star and diverse line up of progressives, labor, and working class speakers (and this will be interactive, not just speeches). First we were proud to let you know that Richard Trumka, second in command at the AFL-CIO, will be addressing the group. And we also revealed that Joe Bageant, author of “Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War,” will be speaking at the conference. Today, we wanted you to know of two more speakers (and we will be announcing more in the near future): David Cay Johnston, Pulitzer Prize winning author of “Perfectly Legal” and “Free Lunch,” will discuss why the working class should be concerned about government economic policies of the last few decades. And Jeffrey Feldman, “framing” expert and author of “Outright Barbarous: How the Violent Language of the Right Poisons American Democracy” will also be offering his insights. bills itself as “Progressive News and Commentary with an Attitude.”

It’s so nice to see that “objective investigative journalist” David Cay Johnston has found a venue such as this where he can “objectively” present his work as a “progressive, labor, and working class speaker.”

The second item: Johnston began writing a column for Tax Notes called “Johnston’s Take.” His inaugural offering was posted at the TaxProf blog in late June, complete with “objective” statements such as this one (bold is mine):

….. this is not 1980 or 2000, when the candidates whose vague but grand promises of lower taxes carried them to the White House.


For the record, Reagan’s “vague” promise (scroll to July 29, 1981 at link) consisted of three consecutive annual 10% across-the-board cuts in federal income tax rates, or a total of 30%. He accepted 25% instead (5% in 1982, and 10% each in 1983 and 1984), but also included indexing the tax brackets for inflation. This prevented further inflation-driven automatic tax increases caused by “bracket creep.”

It wasn’t only Reagan’s promise that was “grand,” it was the result — namely, “The Seven Fat Years.”

President Bush’s promise was a “vague” $1.3 trillion in tax cuts over 10 years. The second result listed at this Google News Archive search on “$1.3 trillion” (not in quotes) shows that this is the amount Bush promised. This fourth result at this search on “$1.3 trillion signed” (again, not in quotes) shows that a $1.3 trillion tax cut is what Bush signed into law in June 2001.

Bush’s “grand” result was 44% growth in federal receipts in 4 years; too bad he and the GOP Congress didn’t sufficiently control spending when they had the chance.

Vague, schmague, David.

The third item: At his August 4 Tax Notes column posted at, Johnston appears poised to do his annual “analysis” of IRS data. In preparation, he rails about possibly large unpaid taxes by the super-wealthy. Fair enough, but along the way he gets awfully strident for a supposedly playing-it-straight reporter:

  • “….. the Bush administration, which came into office with a nine-figure budget surplus.” (Those were pre-Internet bubble projections, David.)
  • “The pressure to end this divide between the wage slaves and the ownership class should be intense …..”
  • “Congress treats Americans who work for wages ….. the way Ronald Reagan said we should treat the Soviets on arms reduction: Trust, but verify.”

I have a difficult time buying into the idea that David Cay Johnston was not similarly agenda-driven and fact-challenged when he was at the Times.

Cross-posted at



  1. So Mr. Blumer, what is your contribution to the public’s understanding of government and business. Mr. Johnston is a highly respected, highly accomolished, and highly honored reporter and author.

    And what have you done to distinguish yourself? Anything even remotely close to the recognition given to David Cay Johnston?

    It seems clear that you are seeking to promote yourself by a mad dog attack on a person who has great accomplishments in order to enhance your image.

    Cheap Trick!

    Why don’t you contribute something, rather than attacking someone has contributed much?

    “Fact-Challenged” indeed! Where are your facts that prove Johnston’s are wrong?! He has facts, while you have only self serving opinions!

    Joe Seeber

    Comment by Joe Seeber — August 25, 2008 @ 5:59 am

  2. #1, my goodness, Mr. Seeber, you would think that DCJ is Mother Teresa.

    My narrower focus is on ONE article by Mr. Johnston which is inarguably riddled with errors in fact and judgment. My broader focus is on his post-Times choice of speaking venues and the content of his post-Times writings that might lead a reasonable observer to believe that he played it less than straight when he was at the Times.

    You asserted, “Where are your facts that prove Johnston’s are wrong?”

    My response: What is it from the above about….

    Johnston made at least six (errors), a couple of them real doozies.

    ….. that you don’t understand?

    Perhaps next time, before spouting off about “self-serving opinions,” you’ll actually follow the link(s) provided in a blog entry.

    Comment by TBlumer — August 25, 2008 @ 7:09 am

  3. #1 is engaging in an Imprimatur agrument of his standing to justify not questioning Mr. Cay on his faulty information. Imprimatur arguments are nothing more than circular reasoning. All facts are assertions of Truth, but not all assertions are based on fact. Mr. Cay’s conclusions are based on his assertions and as we all have learned when they come from liberals they are usually false because the agenda is what their assertion is based upon, not fact.

    Because Mr. Cay chose to distort the record to prove his assertions, he is guilty of the worst kind of journalism, agenda based propaganda. He has engaged in an elaborate circular reasoning piece and if he is so clever at doing it, then by all logical reasoning this is not the first time he has done so. So contrary to #1s assertion of Imprimatur based on his long journalistic history, this article discredits Mr. Cay’s professionalism and ethics not the other way around of Mr. Cay’ record vouching for his own piece.

    Comment by dscott — August 25, 2008 @ 8:22 am

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.