Taking the ZZZZs Out of a Taxing Story

How is it possible to make a story about the alternative minimum tax compelling? One intrepid congressional reporter set out to do that this week. She tells how she went about it.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

I'm going to name a news topic now. See if you perk up. The alternative minimum tax, or AMT. Doesn't quicken a lot of pulses. And that has been the problem for NPR congressional correspondent Andrea Seabrook this week, how to make a story about a complicated federal tax compelling. Here's a look inside a Reporter's Notebook.

ANDREA SEABROOK: Have you been hit by the AMT?

I'm on the corner of 7th and Pennsylvania Avenue in downtown Washington. It's cold and snowing, the kind of glop that is produced by the dreaded wintry mix. My frozen hands clench the microphone, and the trusty intern, Nora Accod(ph), holds up a sign that reads, Have you been hit by the AMT? Here's the most common response.

Unidentified Man: AMT, what is that?

SEABROOK: Alternative minimum tax.

Unidentified Man: Who is the head of it?

SEABROOK: It's a tax by the government...

Most people have no idea what I'm talking about. The AMT is a tax originally meant to trap the rich but is now increasingly snaring the middle class. But when you're fishing for a certain type of person, there are a few tricks a reporter can use. As this guy, Scott Givens(ph) of Fairfax, Virginia, figured out.

Mr. SCOTT GIVENS: I think it's interesting that you're standing outside of Starbucks. I think you're sort of self-selecting your interview pool.

SEABROOK: I am looking for people who make a certain amount of money and deduct a mortgage and kids.

In 45 cold minutes, I attracted a lot of odds looks, quite a few passersby seemingly thinking, I'm ignoring you, I'm ignoring you; one sandwich shop manager who was worried we were boycotting his store; and yes, one person who had actually paid the AMT. Good. There I had the opener to my story.

But I still wanted to dig into a family's finances and get a sense of the kind of middle-class people who are now being slapped with this tax. Well, I worked my contacts and every family I found had either been hit by the AMT because of a rare circumstance or didn't really want to have their family finances broadcast across America on NPR. Go figure.

It was a shot-in-a-dark e-mail I sent out to a local parent's listserve that finally returned results. The family of Amy and Dino Afanta(ph).

(Soundbite of Afanta home)

SEABROOK: Three kids, a mortgage and a great story to tell about their solidly middle class cars.

Ms. AMY AFANTA: And the minivan's new. For the last five years we've driven a 1989 Hyundai Sonata. That just finally died. And we...

Mr. AFANTA: Literally died.

Ms. AFANTA: ...donated it (unintelligible).

Mr. AFANTA: Yeah, we did. Sorry. Sorry, NPR.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: Perfect. These were the people to take my story from huh to oh.

SIMON: NPR's Congressional correspondent Andrea Seabrook.

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