In the first week of cable and broadcast nightly news coverage of the ongoing government shutdown, networks largely failed to report the effects on low-income Americans, instead opting for discussions of political leverage and national park closures.
Major media outlets are pushing the narrative that the United States Department of the Treasury could prioritize payments to bond holders and select groups of recipients in lieu of an increase of the federal borrowing limit, also known as the debt ceiling, beyond October 17. This ignores Treasury Department officials and other experts who explain such prioritization is unworkable and legally dubious, and that default would still happen.
Fox Business host Stuart Varney believes that the ongoing government shutdown, while presenting no real threat to the economy, offers an opportunity to "punish" federal workers for "living on our backs."
On the October 2 edition of AM 560's The Big John & Amy Show, co-hosts John Howell and Amy Jacobson interviewed Fox Business' Stuart Varney and asked him about the government shutdown and its effect on workers and the economy. Varney stated, incorrectly, that the shutdown was not having an impact on financial markets or the greater economy before launching into a tirade against federal employees. When asked if federal employees deserved to be recompensed for lost wages during the shutdown, Varney had this to say:
HOWELL: Do you think that federal workers, when this ends, are deserving of their back pay or not?
VARNEY: That is a loaded question isn't it? You want my opinion? This is President Obama's shutdown. He is responsible for shutting this thing down; he's taken an entirely political decision here. No, I don't think they should get their back pay, frankly, I really don't. I'm sick and tired of a massive, bloated federal bureaucracy living on our backs, and taking money out of us, a lot more money than most of us earn in the private sector, then getting a furlough, and then getting their money back at the end of it. Sorry, I'm not for that. I want to punish these people. Sorry to say that, but that's what I want to do.
After co-host Amy Jacobson responded that "it's not the federal employees' fault" and that she hates to see them victimized by a political fight, Varney complained that in "the big picture" he is "getting screwed" by government workers who are "living large":
JACOBSON: But it's not their fault. It's not the federal employees' fault. I mean, that's what I'm sick of, I hate and it makes me anxious, to see people who are victimized because of a political fight.
VARNEY: I take your point Amy, it is not directly their fault, but I'm looking at the big picture here. I'm getting screwed. Here I am, a private citizen, paying an inordinate amount of money in tax. I've got a slow economy because it's all government, all the time. And these people are living on our backs, regulating us, telling us what to do, taxing us, taking our money, and living large. This is my chance to say "hey, I'm fed up with this and I don't miss you when you're on furlough." Sorry if that's a harsh tone, but that's the way I feel.
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Right-wing media are accusing President Obama of using "scare tactics" to score political points with the upcoming debt limit deadline, but professional economists agree that debt limit brinkmanship could end in disaster.
On October 2, President Obama sat down for an interview with CNBC correspondent John Harwood in which he said that Washington's political posturing was "different" this time, and that major financial institutions "should be concerned" by Republican threats to not raise the debt ceiling before October 17. But the right-wing media response to President Obama's caution has been to downplay the looming deadline while accusing the president of engaging in "scare tactics."
On the October 3 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends, co-hosts Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmeade questioned if the president was hoping to "trigger a stock market sell-off":
In a later segment, the Fox & Friends crew was joined by Fox Business host Stuart Varney to discuss the effect the president's statements might have on financial markets. Varney and the hosts agreed that the president's rhetoric was designed to drive markets down and thus provide him with "extra leverage" in the debt ceiling fight:
Cable and broadcast television outlets, driven largely by Fox News, promoted the myth that the Affordable Care Act is forcing employees into part-time work and killing full-time jobs, while ignoring serious discussions of the labor market and the effect of policy proposals on job growth.
Media Matters research, which looked at economic news coverage over the past three months, revealed an overwhelming bias in news coverage of the effects of health care reform on the American job market. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) was identified as a primary driver of slow job growth and increased part-time employment in 90 recorded segments concerning the economy. More than three-quarters -- 69 -- of those segments came from Fox News, which has invested considerable time and attention to attacking President Obama's signature health care law.
The claim that ACA has a negative effect on the job market has been addressed and debunked by independent economists, but the myth persists as a talking point in the media. At Fox, the myth is a central theme of economic discussions.
Meanwhile, the negative effect of spending cuts on reducing economic growth and labor market demand went relatively unmentioned in the media. Only 37 recorded segments concerning the economy mentioned the harmful impact of spending cuts, the majority of which -- 27 -- came from MSNBC.
Economists agree that the austerity measures enacted over the past several years have dragged down economic growth. Nobel Prize-winning economists Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz have written and commented about the effect of depressed spending at length, as have many others. However, cable and broadcast news coverage of the economy consistently ignore the views of economists in favor of discussions centered around optics and political horse races. Only 3 percent of featured guests in these segments during the past three months have been professional economists.
The lack of serious discussions of economic policy, in favor of politically driven talking points, has had a tangible effect on the economy and government. The vitriol directed at health care reform from the right-wing reached its peak on October 1 when House Republicans, emboldened by supportive media, opted to shut down the government rather than concede their demand that Democrats dismantle the ACA in exchange for a temporary extension of current spending.
The ACA was signed into effect on March 23, 2010, and has been subject to constant media scrutiny for more than three years. Calls to have the law repealed, or to have significant portions delayed, have been pushed by right-wing outlets for the past several months in preparation for the start of enrollment for state-based exchanges on October 1.
Broadcast and cable evening news coverage touched upon a variety of economic topics, including deficit reduction, economic growth, and effects of the Affordable Care Act throughout the third quarter of 2013. While coverage of certain issues improved, a Media Matters analysis shows that many of these segments lacked proper context or input from economists, with Fox News advancing the erroneous notion that the Affordable Care Act is the purported cause behind poor job growth.
CNBC analyst Michelle Caruso-Cabrera incorrectly argued that there is "next to zero" threat of default at the debt ceiling deadline, accusing White House press secretary Jay Carney of "fear mongering" on the issue.
On the October 1 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe, Caruso-Cabrera joined a panel discussion of the government shutdown to provide an outlook on its projected effects on financial markets and the greater economy. After downplaying the impact of the shutdown, Caruso-Cabrera addressed comments made by Carney concerning the October 17 debt ceiling deadline. Caruso-Cabrera disregarded the administration's concerns that failing to raise the debt ceiling presented a threat to the American and global financial system, stating:
CARUSO-CABRERA: There is a strong school of thought out there that says if we hit the debt ceiling, that it's not Armageddon, that we don't see skyrocketing interest rates. They keep saying "default on our debt," we just heard Jay Carney say that. The chances of that happening are next to zero because you can prioritize your payments. Defaulting on debt means the U.S. government would not make an interest payment [to] the U.S. Treasury. Highly unlikely, and the other thing is, if you pay that late, if it were even to happen, that is not default. And for investors to suddenly sell U.S. treasuries, because there's going to be a three-day payment late? Highly unlikely, because there aren't many other choices in the world.
Caruso-Cabrera closed the segment by accusing Carney of "fear mongering."
Fox Business host Stuart Varney argued that the potential nomination of Federal Reserve Vice Chairwoman Janet Yellen to succeed Chairman Ben Bernanke would be based in part on her gender, making no mention of her aptitude or qualifications for the position.
On the September 26 edition of Fox Business' Varney & Co., host Stuart Varney was joined by Fox Business host Melissa Francis and Fox News contributor Juan Williams to discuss the current and continuing role of the Federal Reserve. The panel largely focused on the recently politicized nature of the nomination process and who is expected to replace Ben Bernanke as chairman. Varney ended the segment by arguing that the potential nomination of Janet Yellen as the next Fed chair would in part be driven by her gender.
VARNEY: Would you agree with me that the lady in question here, Janet Yellen, is a shoo-in to be the next Fed chair because she's female, she's academic, and it is assumed that she would keep on printing money. That conforms with everything that President Obama wants in a Fed chair. She's a shoo-in, agreed?
Varney's contention that gender would play a role in the nomination process reveals a troubling development in right-wing media. Rather than discussing Yellen's qualifications as an economist, her history of accurate econometric predictions, or her broad base of support among economists, conservative media instead focus their attention on Yellen's gender.
On September 18, the Institute for Women's Policy Research sent a letter to President Obama supporting Janet Yellen, signed by more than 500 economists from across the country. The signatures included several former White House economic policy officials and Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman also expressed his support for Yellen's candidacy in The New York Times. From Krugman's article:
Janet Yellen, the vice chairwoman of the Fed's Board of Governors, isn't just up to the job; by any objective standard, she's the best-qualified person in America to take over when Ben Bernanke steps down as chairman.
Fox News downplayed the immediacy of the upcoming debt ceiling deadline, giving credence to congressional Republicans' plan to use the threat of default as a means of gutting the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
On September 25, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew sent a letter to congressional leadership in the House and Senate regarding the state of government finances. Lew specifically emphasized the consequences of failing to lift the federal debt limit by October 17. From the letter:
Treasury now estimates that extraordinary measures will be exhausted no later than October 17. We estimate that, at that point, Treasury would have only approximately $30 billion to meet our country's commitments. This amount would be far short of net expenditures on certain days, which can be as high as $60 billion. If we have insufficient cash on hand, it would be impossible for the United States of America to meet all of its obligations for the first time in our history.
On the September 25 edition of Fox News' Happening Now, host Jenna Lee and Fox Business host Neil Cavuto discussed the upcoming October 17 deadline to raise the debt limit. Cavuto recognized the fact that a failure to lift the debt ceiling would have far more dramatic consequences than a simple government shutdown, but also specifically rebuffed the nature of a firm deadline, claiming:
CAVUTO: Never believe those figures, Jenna, because every Treasury Secretary, be it a Republican or Democratic administration, has always cried panic and always attached a date that is really just made up.
Cavuto outlined the means by which congressional Republicans could use the threat of breaching the debt limit to extract concessions on the ACA, commonly known as Obamacare, which could range from delaying to defunding key initiatives of the law. In fact, The Hill reported that Republicans in the House of Representatives plan on tying any increase of the debt limit to a one-year delay of Obamacare. From The Hill:
Moving to the debt ceiling fight, which Republican leaders have long seen as stronger ground, could be a way to convince rank-and-file Republicans to fight their spending and healthcare battles there rather than on a government funding bill.
Cavuto's caution that listeners should "never believe" Treasury Department deadlines, and the claim that these deadlines are "really just made up," directly contradicts the facts presented by Lew.
According to Treasury estimates, the United States government will have merely $30 billion in liquid assets on hand by October 17. By Lew's own admission, this sum, equivalent to roughly 0.75 percent of annual federal outlays, would be insufficient to meet the obligated expenses of certain individual days. Contrary to Cavuto's claims that the government could use flexible accounting to sustain itself for months without a debt limit increase, those so-called "extraordinary measures" have been in place since May 17 and are now at their limit.
If the debt ceiling is not lifted by October 17, the United States government will be unable to finance the payment of its pre-existing expenses through the continued sale of Treasury bonds. This would have all of the effects of a government shutdown -- outlays to certain program beneficiaries, employees, the military, etc. would cease or be delayed -- while also initiating a global financial crisis among corporate and sovereign wealth funds that own or purchase American debt.
According to The New York Times, the Treasury makes more than 80 million individual payments each month, and would miss nearly one-third of those regular payments every day until the debt ceiling was lifted. A $12 billion Social Security payment is due on October 23 and a $6 billion interest payment on public debt is due October 31. These alone would virtually exhaust the Treasury's remaining resources if Congress fails to act.
The notion that Republicans might be able to string a debt limit increase along for months as they negotiate attacks against Obamacare ignores both the economic consequences of a debt default and the political reality in Washington. The last legitimate Republican threat to breach the debt ceiling resulted in the first ever downgrade of the United States Department of Treasury bond rating -- from AAA to AA+. This downgrade marginally increased the cost of future American borrowing and, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center, will cost taxpayers an additional $18.9 billion over the coming decade.
Increasing the debt limit does not increase the national debt, but manufacturing a crisis by using the debt limit to leverage political concessions has already cost taxpayers.
Fox News is resorting to dishonest misrepresentations of President Obama's record of deficit reduction by cherry picking data and completely disregarding Bush-era deficit levels.
On the September 24 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends, co-hosts Steve Doocy, Elisabeth Hasselbeck, and Brian Kilmeade were joined by Fox Business anchor Stuart Varney for a falsehood-laden discussion of the federal budget and budget deficit. Varney argued that President Obama first ran up the deficit before hemming it down, claiming that in the president's "first full year in office" the federal budget deficit was approximately $1.4 trillion.
Fox provided a graphic of deficit spending from 2008 to projected 2013 levels, claiming that the deficit is up 137.7 percent since 2008.
The 137.7 percent deficit increase cited by Fox is ostensibly calculated by comparing the 2012 deficit to that of 2008. This figure, however, completely misrepresents deficits under the Obama administration, by picking erroneous start and end dates.
The federal budget deficit in fiscal year 2009 was $1.4 trillion. However, fiscal year 2009 began on October 1, 2008, months before President Obama was sworn into office. Attributing the 2009 budget deficit to President Obama is simply incorrect.
According to the Congressional Budget Office's (CBO) budget and economic outlook report for 2009 -- released prior to President Obama's first inauguration -- the federal budget deficit was projected to be $1.2 trillion for the 2009 fiscal year. Citing turmoil in the housing and financial markets, the CBO projected deficits to rise to their largest percentage of GDP since the Reagan administration. From the report:
A drop in tax revenues and increased federal spending (much of it related to the government's actions to address the crisis in the housing and financial markets) both contribute to the robust growth in this year's deficit.
The report noted that the projected deficit also included the initial $180 billion cost of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and the estimated $200 billion takeover of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Choosing 2012 deficits as the end point for analysis of deficit growth is also erroneous. Why Fox didn't choose the most recent data -- projected levels for fiscal year 2013, which ends on September 30 - as the end point remains a mystery.
If Fox had chosen the correct starting and end points for its analysis of deficits under President Obama, a completely different picture of deficit reduction would emerge. Indeed, according to the latest CBO budget and economic outlook released in May, deficits are projected to fall to less than 3.4 percent of GDP in 2014, the lowest level in years. Current deficit projections for 2017, President Obama's final fiscal year, are estimated to fall to just 2.4 percent of GDP. None of these facts were featured in Fox's reporting.
Fox & Friends has dedicated three segments in one week to a discussion of the debt, debt ceiling, and deficit. Each time their reports have been plagued by misunderstanding or mischaracterizing the facts.