Print media coverage of Social Security finances overwhelmingly favors reporting figures in raw numbers that lack relevant context, a trend that reflects cable and broadcast news coverage's push for reducing the cost of the program over strengthening benefits for recipients.
A Media Matters analysis finds that three major print sources -The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Washington Post - are more likely to report figures on Social Security revenue, spending, and funding gaps in terms of raw numbers that lack relevant context, such as previous years' figures. Fifty-nine percent of total mentions of Social Security's finances throughout the first half of 2013 relied strictly on raw numbers:
According to economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research Dean Baker, the overreliance on reporting economic figures in raw numbers only serves to confuse and mislead readers:
It is understandable that people who want to promote confusion about the budget -- for example convincing people that all their tax dollars went to food stamps -- would support the current method of budget reporting. It is impossible to understand why people who want a well-informed public would not push for changing this archaic and absurd practice.
Fox News is continuing its push for government spending cuts despite broadcast and cable news outlets largely shifting toward advocating economic growth in their coverage.
Media Matters research revealed that throughout the second quarter of 2013, broadcast and cable nightly news programs were more likely to advocate economic growth over deficit reduction. Of the total 280 segments on the economy, 97 had the host or guests advocate economic and job growth as an economic priority, compared to 80 that pushed for deficit reduction.
Fox News, however, stands out in its continued and overwhelming focus on deficit reduction, dedicating 61 segments to the topic, nearly double the number of segments it afforded to discussions of economic growth. Moreover, the network accounts for 76 percent of segments that advocate deficit reduction across all networks.
Fox's continued focus on deficit reduction occurs despite a broad shift in economic coverage in television news. In the month of April, cable and broadcast nightly news advocated deficit reduction over economic growth by 45 segments to 35. The latest data shows a reversal of this trend.
More importantly, the network's continued focus on reducing spending and deficits ignores economic reality and the opinions of economists.
Deficits over the past few years have been declining rapidly, and current Congressional Budget Office projections show falling deficits in coming years. Furthermore, both the Congressional Budget Office and the Office of Management and Budget recently reduced estimates for this year's deficit.
Media coverage of economic news has declined sharply over the past three months.
Media Matters research reveals a roughly 80 percent cumulative decline in segments dedicated to economic issues from April 1 through June 30. The week of the Boston Marathon bombings yielded zero news segments dedicated to economic coverage. Media diverted from its traditional lineup to cover the attack and ensuing manhunt. Even after accounting for this outlier in the data, economic coverage across the three major cable and broadcast networks displayed a strong negative trend.
According to a Gallup survey released June 28, Americans are most concerned about the economy when thinking about this nation's future. Economic issues remain at the forefront of American public interest polling, while media focus elsewhere.
American's concerns about the economy are not unfounded. Through the first quarter of 2013, the United States economy is on pace to produce $843 billion less than its ideal economic potential. This "output gap" is estimated to have cost the economy more than $4.6 trillion since the onset of the recession.
One major story consistently overlooked in the media is the pervasive negative effect of a weak economic recovery. Television pundits are often quick to pronounce that individual monthly job growth is insufficient but rarely discuss why those numbers are insufficient or what policy changes might be enacted to spur growth.
The primary factor holding back economic growth has been so-called "fiscal drag," or the economic policies out of Washington that emphasize austerity and deficit reduction ahead of stimulus and growth. Economists agree that fiscal austerity harms growth and has slowed economic recovery, but television news has largely ignored these expert opinions.
Despite the emergence of internet-based alternatives, television remains the primary news source for most Americans. According to a recent Gallup survey, 55 percent of Americans rely on television for current events. With finite time and resources to report developments, and with an industry-wide focus on alleged Washington "scandals," huge portions of the American public are not exposed to valuable economic coverage.
Broadcast and cable evening news coverage touched upon a variety of economic topics, including deficit reduction, economic growth, and entitlement reform throughout the second quarter of 2013. A Media Matters analysis shows that many segments lacked proper context or input from economists, while some topics went largely underreported.
Cable and television news outlets have overwhelmingly presented Social Security as a program that should be cut, giving little to no airtime for proposals that would instead strengthen the program for beneficiaries.
Media Matters research revealed significant media selection bias in the Social Security debate. Through the first six months of 2013, the three largest broadcast and cable news networks dedicated nearly 300 segments to discussions of Social Security. More than two-thirds of those segments framed the entire Social Security debate as a problem of long-term solvency and the national debt, which can only be solved through drastic cuts to beneficiaries.
Media's heavy focus on "fixing" the solvency of the program belies the fact that Social Security is funded for at least the next two decades.
On May 31, the Social Security Board of Trustees submitted its annual report to members of Congress and the White House, which concluded that Social Security "does not face an immediate crisis," as noted by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities' summary of the report. The report recommends that lawmakers prudently address long-term solvency concerns, but need not immediately adopt deep benefit cuts.
The Economic Policy Institute argued, contrary to most news coverage, that the challenges facing Social Security are "modest and manageable." Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman had a similar reaction to the latest Social Security report, noting "the system will be able to pay most of its scheduled benefits as far as the eye can see." Krugman also recognized the irrationality of arguments made by those who claim to want to save Social Security from eventual collapse:
The risk is that we might, at some point in the future, have to cut benefits; to avoid this risk of future benefit cuts, we are supposed to act pre-emptively by...cutting future benefits. What problem, exactly, are we solving here?
While media coverage of Social Security paints the debate of the program as one-sided, members of Congress have put forth plans that would expand the program through need-based benefit increases and tax reform.
The most prominent Social Security expansion proposal involves raising the payroll tax cap from its current $113,700 annual limit. The payroll tax is the primary source of revenue for Social Security. A report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research revealed that placing a cap on taxable income causes low wage workers to pay higher effective rates than high wage workers. Eliminating the payroll tax cap would more evenly distribute payroll taxes to all workers while extending the life of the Social Security trust fund indefinitely.
In January 2013, the National Academy of Social Insurance conducted a comprehensive survey of American attitudes toward various Social Security reform proposals. The data revealed overwhelming support for lifting or raising the payroll tax cap, while respondents reported significant opposition to benefit cuts, including raising the retirement age and decreasing cost of living adjustments through chained CPI.
The Center for American Progress has also argued in favor of expanding Social Security through tax reform and increasing outlays to those beneficiaries who most rely on the program.
News segments devoted to the alleged demise of Social Security and other benefit programs consistently overlook these alternative proposals aimed at strengthening -- rather than cutting -- the program for beneficiaries.
Throughout the first half of 2013, broadcast and cable nightly news overwhelmingly discussed Social Security in an unbalanced and negative light by repeatedly insisting that the program is insolvent, must be cut, or poses a risk to long-term fiscal security.
Evening cable and network news have almost completely ignored the Supreme Court's sweeping decision in American Express v. Italian Colors, a 5-3 decision that further privatizes and restricts access to justice for everyday Americans by allowing corporations to immunize themselves from judicial review.
Despite the fact that American Express was a highly contentious pro-business opinion by the conservative bloc of the Supreme Court - even by their extremely corporate-friendly standards - a Media Matters search of Nexis transcripts reveals that with the exception of one brief non-primetime mention on PBS, not one cable or network evening news show addressed the decision.
Contract law has long held that certain unconscionable agreements are unenforceable. Contractual clauses are traditionally voided if they eliminate victims' ability to enforce their statutory rights, making Justice Antonin Scalia's American Express opinion to the contrary "a betrayal of our precedents, and of federal statutes like the antitrust laws," according to Justice Elena Kagan's scathing dissent.
In this case, American Express used its monopoly powers over a group of small business owners to force them to accept exorbitant credit card fees in a seemingly blatant violation of antitrust statutes. When these small businesses grouped together to pursue a class action protecting their consumer rights, American Express pointed to a clause in the card agreement that not only blocked access to the courts in favor of forced arbitration, it also prohibited plaintiffs from joining together in this mandatory forum.
But because of the high cost of bringing actions against this well-defended corporation, individual claims are financially prohibitive, leaving the small businesses without "effective vindication" of their federal rights under antitrust law. Not only are these mandatory arbitration clauses forcing victims of corporate abuse to forego the courts in favor of privatized (and confidential) justice, they are barred from making it remotely affordable. From Justice Kagan's dissent:
Here is the nutshell version of this case, unfortunately obscured in the Court's decision. The owner of a small restaurant (Italian Colors) thinks that American Express (Amex) has used its monopoly power to force merchants to accept a form contract violating the antitrust laws. The restaurateur wants to challenge the allegedly unlawful provision (imposing a tying arrangement), but the same contract's arbitration clause prevents him from doing so. That term imposes a variety of procedural bars that would make pursuit of the antitrust claim a fool's errand. So if the arbitration clause is enforceable, Amex has insulated itself from antitrust liability--even if it has in fact violated the law. The monopolist gets to use its monopoly power to insist on a contract effectively depriving its victims of all legal recourse.
And here is the nutshell version of today's opinion, admirably flaunted rather than camouflaged: Too darn bad.
A study of wildfire coverage from April through July 1 finds that print and TV media only mentioned climate change in 6 percent of coverage, although this was double the amount of coverage from a year ago. While many factors must come together for wildfires to occur, climate change has led to hotter and drier conditions in parts of the West that have increased the risk of wildfires.
Associations representing the OB/GYNs and hospitals of Texas say that a Texas bill mandating new restrictions on on doctors and clinics that provide abortions does nothing to improve women's health care and has no medical basis, but conservative media figures are ignoring that medical opinion to claim the bill is needed to protect the health of women seeking abortions.
A Texas bill that is being reintroduced in a July 1 special legislative session would mandate new regulations that would force all but five of the 47 clinics providing abortions in the state to close and require doctors who perform abortions to have admittance privileges at a local hospital. Texas Republicans argued that they introduced the bill not to restrict access to legal abortions, but to improve the safety of women obtaining them. On the June 30 edition of ABC's This Week, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan parroted these claims, saying "the bill does not specifically try to close abortion clinics, it says they have to meet certain medical standards in order to operate."
But the Texas District of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) has expressed opposition to the bill, which it says imposes requirements on doctors and facilities providing abortions "that are unnecessary and unsupported by scientific evidence" and have no "basis in public health or safety." The organization's June 25 statement further stated:
The Texas District of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) opposes SB 5/HB 60 and other legislative proposals that are not based on sound science or that attempt to prescribe how physicians should care for their individual patients. As a District of the Nation's leading authority in women's health, our role is to ensure that policy proposals accurately reflect the best available medical knowledge.
SB 5/HB 60 will not enhance patient safety or improve the quality of care that women receive. This bill does not promote women's health, but erodes it by denying women in Texas the benefits of well-researched, safe, and proven protocols.
Texas-ACOG further states that the bill creates "over reacting requirements for abortion facilities" that "does not promote the public health objective it claims to enhance," and calls the requirement that doctors who provide abortions have admitting privileges to a hospital within 30 miles "unneccesary."
Additionally, the Texas Hospital Association (THA) issued a statement about the hospital admittance requirement, arguing that it does nothing to improve women's health because emergency room physicians would be the ones to treat a woman who needs emergency care due to complications from an abortion. From the statement:
THA agrees that women should receive high-quality care and that physicians should be held accountable for acts that violate their license. However, a requirement that physicians who perform one particular outpatient procedure, abortion, be privileged at a hospital is not the appropriate way to accomplish these goals.
Should a woman develop complications from an abortion or any other procedure performed outside the hospital and need emergency care, she should present to a hospital emergency department. Requiring that a doctor have privileges at a particular hospital does not guarantee that this physician will be at the hospital when the woman arrives. She will appropriately be treated by the physician staffing the emergency room when she presents there. If the emergency room physician needs to consult with the physician who performed the abortion, the treating physician can contact the doctor telephonically, which is often done in other emergency situations.
Image Credit: Whole Women's Health
In recent weeks, Sunday morning network news programs have virtually ignored economic issues, instead devoting hours of coverage to the September attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya; improper targeting of conservative nonprofits by the Internal Revenue Service; controversial federal investigations of national security leaks; and new revelations about National Security Agency surveillance programs.
Fox News host Greta Van Susteren lamented that "we do nothing about the poor," but has repeatedly hosted guests who have attacked the federal food stamp program, which helps keep millions out of poverty and limits the effects of poverty and unemployment.
On the June 9 edition of ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos, Van Susteren decried a lack of attention to impoverished Americans, saying, "The thing that disturbs me is that the economy I see is a three legged stool: the rich, the middle class, and the poor. And all three have to be winning and surviving, and we do nothing about the poor. You know, we play with all these numbers and look at all the unemployment but we still aren't digging into the inner city and going into the poverty, the huge poverty at the bottom in this city."
But Van Susteren's concern for the poor is inconsistent with attacks by guests on her show on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the federal food stamp program that is designed to keep people out of poverty.
Cable and network news outlets barely covered the announcement that General Motors will return to the Standard & Poor's 500, a landmark achievement for the company that was booted from the index after filing for bankruptcy four years ago.
Media coverage of the effects of across-the-board spending cuts has narrowly focused on Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) furloughs, largely ignoring the broad effects of cuts on other programs and agencies.
On April 26, the House of Representatives approved legislation to end furloughs at the FAA, which had caused significant flight delays. The agency had previously warned that automatic spending cuts would force rolling furloughs of roughly 15,000 air traffic controllers and other staff.
In the week leading up to the House vote, media was heavily focused on the effects of FAA furloughs. A Media Matters analysis found that in the week of April 22 to April 28, 49 cable and broadcast evening news segments mentioned the automatic budget cuts. These segments offered little analysis beyond highlighting the long lines and flight delays expected at airports.
Media's focus on the effects of budget cuts in the past two months has largely been confined to discussing effects on the FAA. On May 24, "Furlough Friday", four federal agencies -- the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) -- forced 115,000 employees to take a day of unpaid leave. As reported by Politico, this forced closure represented the "largest nonweather related partial government shutdown in recent memory."
Despite the impact of "Furlough Friday" on the ability of federal agencies to operate, media remained largely silent. Broadcast and cable news segments were seven times more likely to cover sequestration during the week of FAA furloughs than the week of EPA, HUD, IRS and OMB furloughs. The disparity comes despite the latter round of forced leave affecting nearly eight times more workers across a broader range of government.
Despite the media's lack of coverage, sequestration is still in place and all federal agencies are being forced to cut corners. The budget cuts even altered Memorial Day celebrations across the country over the holiday weekend.
The long-term effects of fiscal austerity can be seen from low-income school closures to impaired military readiness. Another 700,000 federal employees -- mostly in the Department of Defense -- will be forced to take unpaid leave through the remainder of the year.
Media coverage of the automatic spending cuts commonly known as sequestration has tapered off since the policies went into effect on March 1. This drop in coverage comes as more Americans report having personally felt the effects of the cuts.
The news that electric carmaker Tesla Motors has repaid its federal loan early is being ignored by some of the same outlets that tried to make the bankrupt solar company Solyndra the face of the Obama administration's green initiatives -- including ABC, which suggested Tesla wouldn't be able to repay its loan.
On Wednesday, Tesla announced that it was paying back its $465 million Department of Energy loan with interest. The move came about nine years ahead of schedule and is expected to net taxpayers somewhere in the range of $15 to $26 million. Once derided as a "loser" by then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney and a "failure" by Fox News, Tesla is now profitable and critically-acclaimed.
Yet many in the media have ignored Tesla's loan repayment, which flies in the face of the media narrative that Solyndra was representative of the Department of Energy's loan guarantee program. Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, ABC and NBC have so far failed to cover Tesla's loan repayment (CBS gave a news brief on its morning news show). An analysis by Media Matters showed that those same outlets (excluding CBS) devoted 188 segments totaling over 10 hours to Solyndra in the month after the company suspended operations, as seen in these charts comparing coverage to that surrounding a government corruption case at the Minerals Management Service and a report on military contracting waste and fraud:
The bout of positive news surrounding Tesla follows several skeptical media reports about its fortunes. In 2011, ABC suggested that "Tesla's business plan doesn't work" and thus it wouldn't repay its loan:
Since that segment, a Nexis search shows that neither Nightline nor any other primetime ABC News show has followed up with a report on the company's fortunes.
UPDATE (5/31/13): On the May 30 edition of The Last Word With Lawrence O'Donnell, MSNBC covered Tesla's loan repayment in a report on the successes of the clean energy loan programs. The only other coverage of the loan repayment from the networks above came on the May 25 edition of Fox News' The Journal Editorial Report, when Wall Street Journal editorial board member Kimberly Strassel mentioned it while suggesting Tesla might not be "sustainable" in the long run.