When President Trump tweeted a criticism of Amazon for not collecting state sales taxes, the New York Times and Politifact "fact checkers" both emphatically rejected the claim as false.
Under the label "Fact Check," and the headline "Does Amazon Pay Taxes? Contrary to Trump Tweet, Yes," the Times' Linda Qiu wrote an article that said, "Mr. Trump's suggestion that Amazon does not pay taxes is false."
It further explained, "If Mr. Trump's point was that Amazon did not collect sales taxes — which are owed by the purchaser and collected by the retailer — it is true that the company once avoided doing so...But that criticism is outdated."
Politifact — "Winner of the Pulitzer Prize," the site brags on each article page — declared, "Trump's statement is inaccurate and ridiculous. We rate it Pants on Fire!"
Now, months later, comes the New York Times business reporter Nick Wingfield to report that Amazon has been charging sales tax "only when the item came from its own inventory, not from the millions of independent merchants who sell products through Amazon's website. Amazon left it up to those sellers — who account for half of all items sold on the site — to collect sales tax on their own. But, according to sellers, tax lawyers and accountants who work with them, most do not."
Mr. Wingfield concedes: "because so many marketplace sellers do not collect sales tax, there is some legitimacy to the idea that Amazon is not doing everything it can to make sure the government gets its cut."
I think Mr. Wingfield has it more right than Ms. Qiu or Politifact do. Mr. Wingfield mentions that South Carolina claims it is owed $57 million in these taxes for just one year. Imagine how much money is involved if you count all 50 states (or all the ones with sales tax, which is the great majority), and all the years Amazon has been doing this. It's hundreds of millions, maybe even billions of dollars that might have been used by the states to pay for better health care for the poor, better public schools, better drug rehabilitation or prisoner re-entry programs, safer roads and bridges, or other worthy causes. Or that might have offset some of the taxes that were paid by other retailers and their customers, or by other state taxpayers in other ways. Or that, to be fair, might have been wasted by state governments.
It illustrates a couple of important points.
First, beware the whole "fact-check" framework. Just because some reporter calls something "false" or "inaccurate" doesn't mean the reporter is right. Sometimes the reporter shouting "pants on fire" actually has his own pants on fire.
Second, there's a weird dynamic with Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, perhaps because he owns the Washington Post, where a lot of journalists would like to work, and he owns the world's largest online bookstore, and lots of journalists write books or would like to. When Republicans in Congress want to cut corporate income taxes or the estate tax they are assailed as greedy and heartless. Individual art collectors have gone to jail for shipping paintings out of state to avoid sales tax. But when Amazon customers don't pay tax on marketplace purchases, or the company and its management resist being forced to collect it, the only one who calls the company out about it is President Trump, and the thanks he gets from the press is to get called a liar.