In the first month following the opening of healthcare exchanges -- a key component of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) -- broadcast news programs have largely ignored the role of expanded health care in reducing economic insecurity, instead placing overwhelming focus on glitches in the Healthcare.gov website.
Cable and broadcast nightly news programs have remained completely silent on pending automatic cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) -- formerly known as food stamps -- which will have negative impacts on the economy and low-income groups.
In the week following the end of the 16-day government shutdown, major print media outlets shifted their attention to upcoming bipartisan budget negotiations. This coverage of budget priorities was far more likely to mention the need for deficit and debt reduction than economic growth and job creation, despite economists warning that growth is the more pressing concern.
Wall Street Journal editorial board member Stephen Moore altered his previous position on the effect of Obamacare on the growth of part-time jobs to push the dubious claim that health care reform will increase part-time work in the future.
On the October 23 edition of Fox News' America's News HQ, co-host Bill Hemmer interviewed Moore on the potential effects of Obamacare implementation on the growth of part-time work. When asked by Hemmer if the law has already played a role in increasing part-time work, Moore responded, "We are going to probably see that number [of part-time employment] rise next year, because that's when the Obama requirements really take effect. In January."
Moore's position, that Obamacare is not currently increasing part-time work, reverses his previous stance on the subject. Moore has played a significant role in creating and perpetuating the myth that the reform is the driving force behind increasing part-time work.
Since the beginning of 2013, the Wall Street Journal editorial board -- of which Moore is a member -- has published as least four editorials claiming that Obamacare is directly linked to the growth of part-time work at the expense of full-time employment.
Indeed, Moore has repeated these claims directly. In a July 5 WSJ Live segment on the "ObamaCare Jobs Report," co-editorial board member Mary Kissel asked Moore what was behind the rise in part-time work in the June jobs report. Moore responded, "clearly Obamacare."
Moore's decision to finally acknowledge facts that have long been noted by professional economists is a welcome change. Unfortunately, his admission came while pushing yet another unsubstantiated claim; that part-time work will increase when the employer mandate -- penalties for which were delayed until 2015 -- takes effect.
In an analysis of the effect of Obamacare on employer practices, economists Dean Baker and Helene Jorgensen noted that initial indications of an increase in part-time work resulting from Obamacare would have materialized by January 2013, "since under the original law employment in 2013 would serve as the basis for assessing penalties in 2014." Jorgensen and Baker conclude by noting that that in the first few months of 2013, before the mandate was delayed on July 2, "employers [did] not appear to be changing hours in large numbers in response to the sanctions in the ACA." If this evidence has any implications for the future, there will be no part-time work shift as a result of Obamacare, as Moore suggests.
Indeed, after previously suggesting that the law may cause part-time job growth, Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's Analytics, said recently of the part-time work claim: "I don't see it in the data."
The lackluster September unemployment report highlights the need for a focus on job creation, a priority that is likely to be ignored by media.
On October 22, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its unemployment report for the month of September, which found that payrolls rose 148,000, edging the official unemployment rate down from 7.3 to 7.2 percent. While the report found positive gains in the labor market -- a welcome change from losses sustained after the financial crisis -- job creation fell far short of economists' expectations, which predicted 180,000 to 200,000 jobs would be created in September.
The underperforming labor market, identified in this month's report, presents an opportunity for the media to focus on job creation and economic growth.
Unfortunately, this opportunity is likely to be squandered in favor of promoting discussion on spending cuts and deficit reduction, as evidenced in past reporting.
Media's focus on deficits and debt instead of economic growth and jobs has long been criticized by economists. Previous coverage of budget negotiations show that media place overwhelming focus on the need to reduce spending, often leaving the more pressing need for economic growth largely unmentioned.
Indeed, this issue has already been raised by economist Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. In a post on The New York Times Economix blog, Bernstein expressed fears that after concluding the 16-day long government shutdown, the media will undoubtedly pivot focus to deficit and debt reduction. Bernstein explains that the debate over spending and deficit reduction will crowd out discussion on the more immediate jobs crisis:
Imagine instead that the politicians turned not to the budget deficit but to the jobs deficit, the infrastructure deficit, to poverty, wage stagnation, immobility and inequality. Along with a budget conference -- and don't get me wrong; I'm glad they're talking -- imagine there was an economic conference to make recommendations on what's really hurting the country, which I assure you is not our fiscal situation. That's taking care of itself for the short term, as is always the case after a recession (deficits go up in recessions, for obvious reasons).
I'm surely going to jump into the budget debate myself any minute now, but before I do, I wanted to point out that this is not the debate we should be having. It's the preferred debate of those who seek to shrink the role of government, to undermine social insurance, to reduce needed investments in public goods and human capital, and to protect the concentrated wealth of the top few percent.
Bernstein's fear of undue focus on debt and deficits has already been realized.
Reacting to the deal that ended the recent government shutdown, Fox News host Megyn Kelly claimed it wasn't a "win for the American people" because it didn't reduce the national debt. CNN reported that the shutdown deal shouldn't be celebrated because it "kicks the can [of budget negotiations] down the road." Wall Street Journal editorial board member Stephen Moore immediately declared the preservation of sequestration cuts -- which will continue to reduce spending and deficits -- the "winner" of the shutdown, and the Journal preemptively told Republicans to stand firm on sequestration cuts in any budget deal in an October 13 editorial.
If history and early reports are any indication, media will continue their habit of promoting deficit reduction as budget negotiations take place.
The New York Times indicated that it will take steps to more accurately present numbers-based stories, a change that will ensure readers are better informed on economic issues.
In an October 18 post, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan addressed growing concerns that the outlet relies too heavily on reporting numbers-based stories in terms of raw figures. According to Sullivan:
Many readers have written to me recently, given the federal budget crisis, to make a simple request: Please advocate for news stories that put large numbers in context. If The Times does not do that, they say, it is part of the problem, and if it does do so, other news organizations are very likely to follow suit.
Sullivan explained that she met with Washington bureau chief David Leonhardt to discuss ways in which the Times can direct its reporters to provide relevant context when writing about large numbers, such as the federal budget or national debt.
The Times' decision to begin providing context for large numbers is a welcome change. According to a Media Matters' analysis of major print outlets over the first half of 2013, the paper largely failed to provide relevant context -- such as comparable numbers or addressing figures in percentage terms -- when reporting economic data. The paper failed to provide context in 67 percent of articles that mentioned economic data.*
Many economists have noted concerns over reporting very large economic numbers without relevant context, claiming that it often amounts to little more than scare tactics used to stoke fears about the size of the national debt and deficits. Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research has led the charge against this type of unintentionally misleading reporting, noting that the overreliance on very large raw numbers also increases the likelihood that they will be misreported. Leonhardt acknowledges that pressure to change their economic reporting came from "the left," but explains that it's not a partisan issue:
And while he noted that the recent pressure for change is "coming from the left," specifically the economist-writer Dean Baker and MoveOn.org - which now has more than 18,000 signatures on a petition -- this is not a partisan issue.
"Math has neither a conservative nor a liberal bias," Mr. Leonhardt said.
Leonhardt explained that it is difficult for readers to conceptualize large numbers such as the the dollar amount of the national debt. Additionally, Leonhardt admitted that even he confused the distinction between millions and billions of dollars when reporting a large figure on the front page of the paper.
The Times' move away from relying on raw numbers could go a long way in educating the public about economic issues. Polls consistently show that voters are generally unaware of the size and scope of federal programs, perhaps in part because news outlets rarely put the numbers in context.
According to Sullivan and Leonhardt, directives may take the form of new stylebook guidelines or staff-wide emails, and will be "determined within a couple of months."
*updated for clarity
Fox News completely ignored the role of political brinkmanship over raising the debt ceiling in prompting a credit downgrade warning, erroneously claiming that the warning was prompted by concerns over long-term debt stabilization.
On October 15, credit rating agency Fitch placed the United States on a negative rating watch, threatening to downgrade the country's debt from "AAA" status if the debt ceiling is not raised in a timely manner.
On the October 16 edition of Fox News' America's Newsroom, co-host Martha MacCallum interviewed Fox Business' Stuart Varney regarding Fitch's downgrade threat, asking why the stock market has not reacted negatively to the warning. The conversation eventually turned to the United States' long-term debt prospects, with MacCallum asking if rating agencies have become less concerned about the national debt. Varney responded by claiming that not only are rating agencies still concerned about debt, but also that Fitch's warning was primarily in response to the United States' long-term debt:
MACCALLUM : It used to be that the credit rating agencies were very concerned about the long-term financial stability of the United States of America. Is that no longer the case Stuart?
VARNEY: No, they are still concerned. That's what this warning was all about. We have failed to get our long-term debt under control.
Varney's assessment of Fitch's warning is false.
At no point in their discussion did MacCallum or Varney mention the primary reason Fitch placed the United States' credit on negative watch: brinkmanship over raising the debt ceiling. In its warning, Fitch directly cited political obstacles to raising the debt ceiling as a "high" driver of the rating watch (emphasis added):
The U.S. authorities have not raised the federal debt ceiling in a timely manner before the Treasury exhausts extraordinary measures. The U.S. Treasury Secretary has said that extraordinary measures will be exhausted by 17 October, leaving cash reserves of just USD30bn. Although Fitch continues to believe that the debt ceiling will be raised soon, the political brinkmanship and reduced financing flexibility could increase the risk of a U.S. default.
While Varney contends that debt worries were a primary driver in prompting the warning, Fitch explicitly stated that current and near term debt levels (as a percentage of the economy) are consistent with the agency's "AAA" rating. Fitch did suggest that public debt should be put on a downward trend in the medium to long term, but noted this concern was secondary to the more immediate and potentially disastrous problem of failing to raise the debt ceiling.
Republicans have held firm in their unwillingness to raise the debt ceiling without extracting political concessions, most related to defunding, delaying, or eliminating provisions in the Affordable Care Act.
Virtually every other news outlet noted that Fitch was primarily concerned about brinkmanship and failure to raise the debt ceiling. Instead of noting this fact, Fox chose to continue its history of raising false alarms over the nation's debt load.
Right-wing media figures have repeatedly accused Obama administration officials of using "scare tactics" for correctly pointing out that the U.S. will default if the debt ceiling is not raised by October 17. Economists, however, have echoed the administration's warnings, saying such claims that the U.S. will not default is "crazy talk."
Here's a look at some of the right-wing media's worst accusations:
Right-wing media figures have repeatedly criticized Obama administration officials for claiming that the U.S. will default if the debt ceiling is not raised by October 17, instead claiming the U.S. could prioritize payments to bondholders as a way to avoid default. But economists note that the threat of default is real and that the prioritization alternative proposed by Republicans is not a long-term solution.
Fox News continued to hype the myth that the debt ceiling raises the national debt, smearing President Obama's comments at an October 8 press conference as false. In reality, the debt ceiling does not raise the debt or authorize additional spending, but instead enables the U.S. government to finance existing legal obligations.