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ProPublica’s “Secret IRS Files” reignites conversation on US income tax reform

November 8, 2021

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As more individuals are added to the “billionaire’s club” annually, and income inequality gains prominence as part of a global conversation about social infrastructure, the amount of taxes wealthy people should pay (or are not paying) usually accompanies those discussions.  

The tax returns of the wealthy have been shrouded in mystique. Obtaining and scrutinizing them has become a sort of a holy grail for reporters who delve into income inequality and the arguably unfair tax systems that benefit the wealthy.   

For non-profit and independent newsroom ProPublica, that opportunity came when they received, unsolicited, an abundance of tax information for some of the world’s wealthiest people Including Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffet. 

Months sifting through tax documents and other data, and interpreting dry and incomprehensible IRS terms and rules, lead to the revelation of just how little the wealthy pay in taxes and how they legally game the system to their advantage. The findings resulted in the newsroom’s publication of The Secret IRS Files, a series of reports breaking down how the rich avoid paying their fair share of taxes. 

The story garnered the gold for the 2021 Barlett & Steele Awards. The Reynolds Center spoke with Jesse Eisinger, ProPublica’s senior editor and reporter, who, along with ProPublica’s Jeff Ernsthausen and Paul Kiel, reported on the story. 

Eisinger said the team received hundreds of millions of lines of information and raw data going back 15 years. The materials went beyond income and deductions and included stock trades and partnership details on thousands of wealthy individuals in the one percent. 

Deciphering the information and data in the stockpile of materials was daunting and required a concerted effort that included the consultation of accountants, attorneys, and current and former IRS employees to make the data digestible, accessible and usable.

The project involved a collaborative effort that consisted of about ten people on a Zoom call, which was logistically difficult due to the pandemic. However, team members and other individuals involved in the story needed to be diligent about keeping the details of the project secure until the first story came out. 

When it comes to divulging sensitive information, it can be argued that everyone, including the rich and powerful, deserve privacy when it comes to their income and taxes. Eisinger disagrees. 

He remarked that though privacy concerns are legitimate and they did consider it, the public interest outweighed that of private interests when it came to the ultra-rich not paying taxes. 

He also said that it’s important for the public to be aware of and understand the system we have that makes it legal for the richest people in the world to avoid paying taxes. The public has the right to know the names of the wealthy who benefit from a functioning government that provides public benefits such as highways, bridges, laws, and business tax credits, but don’t pay into the system.  

“I don’t think we’re being advocates at all,” Eisinger said, when asked whether the reports could be considered advocacy. “We are exposing the consequences of one of the most important developments in American society over the last 40 years, which is the exploding wealth and income inequality, and the consequences of wealth and income inequality. But we’re not advocates in the sense that we’re not pushing specific policies, we’re writing very little about current policy, certainly not pushing any specific one agenda, one solution.”

As far as words of wisdom for aspiring investigative journalists, he says that every story should be approached fundamentally by asking the question, Is the story good for society? If that answer is yes, then that is their “North Star” and good thing things will flow from it. 


  • Tracy Abiaka

    A native of Phoenix, Tracy has a background in finance, mainly in investment services and taxation. She was also a Peace Corps volunteer in Rwanda. Tracy is currently a graduate student within the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism studying Journal...

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