Print media regularly overlook issues of structural economic inequality in stories concerning low wages, poverty, or disadvantaged groups at the local level, a lack of coverage that aligns with similar documented trends in national cable news.
A Media Matters analysis of print coverage from 12 major newspapers over the past three months found that economic inequality received inadequate attention. Only 19 percent of print coverage of impoverished and low-income Americans highlighted the widening wealth and income gap in the United States. Of the selected print outlets, The Boston Globe performed the best in its coverage, with 28.6 percent of stories making significant mention of economic inequality. The Denver Post performed the worst, with just 4 percent of stories making significant mention of inequality.
Media coverage of poverty often goes no further than a passive acknowledgement of disadvantaged groups; little attention is paid to the mechanisms that trap Americans in poverty.
Despite the deficiency in media coverage, economists have frequently warned about the widening gap between the rich and the poor. The Economic Policy Institute detailed the effect that a decade of wage stagnation has had on the shrinking middle class and swollen ranks of working poor.
The negative relationship between stagnant wages and growing economic inequality is well-established. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has tracked and categorized this relationship for several years. In 2004 and 2007, CBPP economists noted that the share of economic productivity going to wages and income was at record low levels. By 2010, a CBPP analysis of Congressional Budget Office data revealed how decades of wage stagnation and top-heavy tax cuts drove economic inequality to new heights.
According to the CBO, from 1979 to 2007 the top one percent of income earners have seen their after-tax share of total income rise by more than 120 percent, while the bottom 20 percent of earners have seen that share decline by almost 30 percent. From Mother Jones:
This sort of analysis is missing from the vast majority of mainstream newspapers.
Over the past three months, major print outlets throughout the country largely failed to discuss rising structural inequality and poverty in the United States while reporting on policies and programs that affect low-income groups.
Fox News compared the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) prediction of job losses due to sequestration to recent job growth reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), falsely suggesting that the across-the-board cuts have had no negative effects on job creation.
On the August 23 edition of Fox News' Your World, host Neil Cavuto was joined by Fox News contributor Mike Huckabee to address the impacts of across-the-board budget cuts commonly known as sequestration. In response to recent comments made by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Attorney General Eric Holder regarding the damaging effects of sequestration on the economy, Cavuto claimed, "I think he just made that up."
Cavuto then attempted to bolster his claim with a misleading graphic, which suggested that continued job growth since the onset of sequestration proves that the budget cuts had no real economic effect.
In fact, the best CBO estimates of the effects of sequestration through the 2013 calendar year predicted slower economic growth and fewer jobs created. Cavuto's graphic correctly listed the number of new jobs created during the first six months of sequestration but incorrectly compared that with the CBO's estimate that 750,000 fewer full-time jobs would be created under sequestration. The two jobs figures are entirely unrelated. According to the CBO report cited by Cavuto (emphasis added):
In the absence of sequestration, CBO estimates, GDP growth would be about 0.6 percentage points faster during this calendar year, and the equivalent of about 750,000 more full-time jobs would be created or retained by the fourth quarter.
Contrary to what Cavuto claimed, the CBO did not predict that the economy would experience a net loss in jobs, rather that sequestration would result in fewer jobs being created. An accurate presentation of the data would make it clear that while jobs growth has been present, absent budget cuts it would be much greater.
While the discussion between Cavuto and Huckabee attempted to downplay the effects of sequestration, cuts are being continuously rolled out, affecting a number of crucial government programs. Unless policy is changed through new legislation, such across-the-board budget cuts will be scheduled every year for the next decade, further weakening ecnomic growth.
Right-wing media are promoting a flawed study that claims it is more lucrative for low-income Americans to accept government benefits than take low-paying jobs, a notion that reveals the conservative sphere's ignorance on how anti-poverty programs work.
On August 19, the libertarian Cato Institute released a report titled "The Work Versus Welfare Trade-Off: 2013." The new study updates a much-maligned version by the same name released in 1995. Both reports claim to analyze welfare benefit levels nationwide and state-by-state and push the misleading notion that "[t]he current welfare system provides such a high level of benefits that it acts as a disincentive for work."
Breitbart.com was among the first right-wing outlets to promote the study, arguing that in New York state, a "mother of two is eligible for $38,004 in welfare benefits -- a sum more than the annual salary of a New York entry-level school teacher." The Washington Examiner joined in as well, with an uncritical review detailing the study's claims that a proverbial mother of two would be better off on government assistance than she would be working for as much as $15 per hour in some states.
On Fox News' Your World, host Neil Cavuto brought on the lead author of the study, Cato Institute senior fellow Michael Tanner, to discuss his findings in more depth. What followed was three minutes of self-promotion that forwarded the tired and debunked right-wing narrative against government assistance and the minimum wage. From Your World:
TANNER: There is no evidence to suggest that poor people are lazy, and every survey suggests that people on welfare say they would like to work, that they are not happy being on welfare. But just because they're not lazy doesn't mean they're stupid; if you pay people more not to work than to work, well, a lot of them are going to choose not to work.
Unfortunately, neither Cato's Tanner nor his counterparts in the right-wing media seem to have any clue how anti-poverty programs function.
The argument that government assistance and benefits are too generous and thus drive recipients out of work has been thoroughly debunked by experts, and Tanner's calculations have been the subject of scrutiny in the past. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities highlighted nearly two decades ago, Tanner is still basing his calculations on the assumption that recipients take full advantage of every single benefit program that is potentially available to them. From CBPP:
Cato's conclusions are striking. They also are inaccurate -- the Cato report is replete with analytic errors. For the nation in general and for California in particular, the report paints a misleading picture both of the amount of benefits most [Aid to Families with Dependent Children] families receive and of the supposed advantages from relying on welfare rather than working.
Both the 1995 and 2013 reports also fail to account for differing costs of living or the per capita income of the states surveyed.
Tanner is willing to accept that survey data suggests "that people on welfare say that they would like to work," but then attributes their continued reliance on benefits to the generosity of the system. This logic completely disregards the economic realities faced by low-wage job-seekers amidst a catastrophic recession and years of limited recovery.
Tanner is proud to report that welfare recipients can make more than the minimum wage in more than thirty states, but he ignores how the value of their benefits have eroded over time. According to the CBPP, "cash assistance benefits for the nation's poorest families with children fell again in purchasing power in 2012 and are now at least 20 percent below their 1996 levels in 37 states, after adjusting for inflation."
If, in fact, welfare recipients would rather work than receive benefits, the logical first step toward reducing reliance on government assistance should be to stimulate robust public and private sector job growth. Instead, Tanner and his right-wing allies argue that the only way to reduce reliance on government assistance is to cut programs and force people onto an ailing job market to survive.
Both Tanner and Cavuto agree that raising wages would be a bad anti-poverty policy and would increase unemployment. This conclusion, of course, flies in the face of all evidence to the contrary and simply furthers the conservative attacks against living wages.
The Wall Street Journal touted Ohio Gov. John Kasich's so-called success when it comes to creating jobs, dismissing data that shows the state is lagging in private sector job creation and that added jobs are often low-wage positions.
From the August 14 article profiling Kasich, who "boasts about his state's financial outlook":
Job growth is up. The Republican governor just signed what he calls "the biggest tax cut in the country" after converting a looming $7.7 billion budget deficit into a $2.5 billion surplus. Such success, he says, "would probably get a global CEO a giant bonus."
In fact, Ohio ranks ranks 47th in private sector job creation according to a Pew Research survey, and over the past year, the state has shown almost no job growth at all. Further, most of those created jobs have been in low-paying positions, with wages less than $15 an hour. Kasich, who made millions working for the doomed Wall Street titan Lehman Brothers, is no stranger to giant corporate bonuses, but in this case self-congratulation is premature.
It is unclear whether Kasich's policies have had a demonstrable effect on positive employment trends that developed long before he took office in January 2011. The auto bailout orchestrated by the Obama administration in 2009 is largely credited with delivering the state to the president in the 2012 election. Kasich opposed the auto bailout at the time, stating on the December 19, 2008, edition of The O'Reilly Factor that "Americans will say we don't mind helping them if they're going to be viable. If they're not going to be viable, we shouldn't throw good money after bad."
Even if credit is given to Kasich for his stewardship over the past two years, the Journal completely misses the mark in reporting his budget policies.
Kasich has seen a budget deficit return to surplus, but only through draconian cuts to state and local government operations -- including severe decreases in funding for education and women's health. Rather than gearing the state's budget surplus toward stimulative policies that would help put Ohioans back to work, Kasich's plan will favor tax cuts for the wealthy while shifting more of the burden onto Ohio families and consumers.
The Journal also quickly glosses over what it calls "new abortion restrictions that drew sharp criticism from Democrats," which are actually among the harshest in the country. In its rush to promote a Kasich "prescription" for the Republican Party going forward, and promote the governor's own ambitions for higher office in 2016, The Wall Street Journal failed miserably to tell the true story.
President Obama has given three high-profile speeches in July and August outlining an economic policy agenda for his remaining term in office as part of the White House's attempts to refocus the national media on pressing economic issues. An analysis of live coverage found that these speeches received unbalanced coverage across cable news outlets, with Fox News devoting by far the least amount of time.
After dedicating his opening segment to attacking the alleged dependency culture of younger generations, Fox News' Eric Bolling waded into an error-filled tirade against food assistance.
On the August 8 edition of Fox News' Your World, Bolling, who was filling in for host Neil Cavuto, was joined for a panel discussion of "food stamps" (officially known as the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP). Fox contributors Jedediah Bila and Julie Roginsky debated the merits of the food assistance program, with Bila often making wildly inaccurate claims in her attempt to smear recipients and chastise alleged waste.
Bolling and Bila parroted numerous demonstrably false claims over the course of just a few minutes. First, Bolling falsely claimed that the budget for food assistance is $80-100 billion. In fact, the SNAP budget for fiscal year 2012 was $74.6 billion.
The cost of the program has increased significantly since the onset of a catastrophic recession in December 2007, but official data from the Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service reveal that the growth is due to increased participation driven by economic factors. From the Department of Agriculture:
SNAP participants declined steadily through 2000 but began to rise in 2001 and increased each year through 2011, except for a slight dip in 2007. The increase was substantial from fiscal year 2010 to fiscal year 2011. Average monthly participation increased from 17.2 million individuals in fiscal year 2000 to 40.3 million in fiscal year 2010, and to 44.7 million in fiscal year 2011. Fluctuations in the number of SNAP participants in the last 16 years have broadly tracked major economic indicators
When challenged to do as others have and take the SNAP Challenge for a week, Bolling deflected the subject. Previously, Fox News' Andrea Tantaros referred to the prospect of living on just over $130 each month as a diet plan.
It is not out of the ordinary for right-wing media figures to bemoan the growth of SNAP registers as some form of vote buying, dependency culture, or expansionist nanny state. Food assistance is a common and easy target for the right-wing media, which need not provide evidence to support baseless claims. Bolling in particular is not shy about attacking those in dire need of adequate nutrition.
However, the Fox host leapt into "trutherism" territory during the following exchange:
BILA: We wasted $2.2 billion just in waste, in fraud
ROGINSKY: According to their auditor, 1 percent fraud.
BOLLING: One percent? Julie, you and I go way back, we're very good friends, right? Where in the world is there 1 percent waste and fraud?
When challenged to provide a statistic to back up his claim that food stamps are wrought with corruption and waste, with recipients using assistance to buy alcohol and drugs, Bolling contended the following:
BOLLING: I'm going to have to push back on your "one percent".... I'll throw something out there. I'll bet you it's closer to 50 percent than 1 percent.
According to the Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service, the fraud and waste rate is roughly 1 percent. Bolling's claim is not just wrong, it is wrong by a factor of 50, or nearly 5,000 percent.
Fox News is alone in casting a negative light on the latest weekly jobless claims update from the Department of Labor, continuing its false narrative that positive labor market developments are somehow linked to workforce dropouts amidst a weak recovery. In doing so, the network completely ignored that the average number of new unemployment claims is at its lowest point in nearly six years.
On August 8, the Department of Labor released its weekly jobless claims report. The data show a marginal week-to-week increase on jobless claims, increasing 5,000 from the previous week to 333,000 for the week ending August 3. This slight increase, less than two percent, is less than many economists had anticipated. Just one week after the weekly unemployment claims figure hit a five-year low, the rolling average for the past four weeks is at its lowest level since November 2007.
From Maddow Blog:
Other news outlets highlighted that despite a slight uptick the single week jobless figures remained near the five-year low reached last week. Most highlighted that the continued, steady decline in unemployment claims put the rolling average at its lowest point since before the recession. On the August 8 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe, CNBC correspondent Kelly Evans called the news "a big beautiful report" and stated that the jobless report showed that "the pace of layoffs has slowed."
Fox opted instead to portray the latest Department of Labor report as yet another indication that the weak economy is driving discouraged workers out of the workforce. On the August 8 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends, Fox Business contributor Nicole Petallides recognized that jobless claims have "been in the right direction overall," but failed to recognize landmark achievements of the past few weeks before launching into an unsubstantiated claim about workforce participation, particularly that the labor force is "dwindling":
Fox has a long history of downplaying positive economic news while focusing on negative spin. Completely ignoring positive employment trends is standard for the network. Just last week, Fox entirely failed to cover the Department of Labor claims report that established a new five-year low.
Fox Business host Stuart Varney falsely claimed that policies outlined in President Obama's housing speech will inflate a new housing bubble by "coercing" private banks to provide low interest rates and easy money to unfit borrowers, ultimately setting the stage for another financial collapse.
On the August 7 edition of Fox News' America's Newsroom, Varney argued that the president's call to wind down government involvement in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, perhaps dissolving the two mortgage giants altogether, was in fact a ploy to over-regulate private industry. According to Varney, Obama eventually planned to force other banks to lend to the "poor credit borrowers" currently served by Fannie and Freddie. Varney and Fox host Heather Childers agreed that it was a policy of lending to so-called "poor credit borrowers" that caused the financial collapse more than five years ago. They went on to state that the president's proposal would set the precedent for another crash.
Varney continued his attack on the president's housing initiatives on the August 7 edition of Fox Business' Varney & Co. with senior legal analyst Andrew Napolitano who agreed that the president "wants to transform them [Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac] ... into something more sinister" through federal regulation of the banking industry for his own political gain.
Fox is once again attacking the president for policies he does not actually support. Furthermore, they are once again blaming the financial collapse on bad borrowers who were extended loose credit through government regulation, even though economists conclude otherwise.
On August 6, President Obama spoke at Desert Vista High School in Phoenix, Arizona, on the merits of "responsible homeownership." The president outlined a vision to build upon stable growth in the housing market without burdening American taxpayers with the failures of risky borrowers and lenders. From the speech:
We've got to give more hardworking Americans the chance to buy their first home. We have to help more responsible homeowners refinance their mortgages, because a lot of them still have a spread between the rates they're paying right now on their mortgage and what they could be getting if they were able to refinance.
And we've got to turn the page on this kind of bubble-and-bust mentality that helped to create this mess in the first place. We got to build a housing system that is durable and fair and rewards responsibility for generations to come. That's what we've got to do.
The president specified that his plan will not bail out risky lenders and borrowers at the expense of the public, and that it would take steps to curtail some of the rampant market speculation that helped drive the housing bubble before the 2008-09 crash. The president indicated support for winding down the two government-backed mortgage giants; meanwhile, legislation to gradually dissolve Fannie and Freddie over the course of five years is already proceeding through the House and Senate.
President Obama also outlined a multi-step program that would allow borrowers to refinance at today's low rates, make more credit available to well-qualified borrowers, rebuild hard hit communities, and ensure affordable rent to families who opt not to buy a home.
The president also commented on the prospect of immigration reform providing a boost to the housing industry. According to The New York Times, a study by the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals estimates that the Senate's bipartisan immigration reform bill could generate up to $500 billion in mortgage lending to new citizens and documented legal residents.
Contrary to Varney's continued accusations, economists argue that loose private sector lending, rather than government-sponsored loans to "poor credit borrowers," precipitated the housing market's collapse. While Government-Sponsored Enterprises (GSEs) including Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac did contribute to the market's overall instability, a Brookings report finds that "Fannie and Freddie did not catalyze the market for subprime MBS [Mortgage Backed Securities]; rather, they started to hold such mortgages in the pools they purchased, perhaps because of shareholder pressure or to regain market share."
According to Brookings senior fellow Alice Rivlin, it was the private sector's "extraordinary decline in lending standards" that caused the crisis, and GSEs do not deserve the blame. Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research notes that GSEs began buying junk bonds "late in the game" as a response to pressure from private market, citing a Moody's investor document. Data comparing GSE lending to the private sector indicates that GSEs took fewer risks than the private sector.
In an effort to downplay the necessity of increasing the minimum wage, right-wing media figures have forwarded the notion that minimum wage jobs are primarily for teenagers and are a "stepping stone" to higher paying future employment. However, the prospects for upward mobility among minimum wage workers remain grim.