Media outlets including NPR and Fox News are targeting federal disability benefits programs through a campaign deceptively portraying these programs as wasteful and unsustainable. In reality, these programs have low fraud rates and help the rising number of Americans with severe disabilities survive when they are unable to work.
A wide swath of media figures have cited economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff's January 2010 finding that a country's economic growth becomes impaired when its debt level exceeds 90 percent of gross domestic product. But the Reinhart-Rogoff paper is premised on an Excel error, revealed when other researchers reviewed the data underlying the commonly-cited debt-to-GDP threshold claim.
Austerity proponents, such as House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), frequently claim that a debt-to-GDP ratio of 90 percent signals economic doom, using Reinhart and Rogoff's work as leverage for imposing sharp cuts that economists agree would do serious harm to economic growth. Media coverage of budget and economic policy throughout the past three years has also repeated that claim, often without a direct connection to the Reinhart-Rogoff work from which the notion derives.
But that work, arguably the lynchpin of the case for imposing austerity in order to deliver economic growth, is crippled by basic errors, as the Roosevelt Institute's Mike Konczal explains:
From the beginning there have been complaints that Reinhart and Rogoff weren't releasing the data for their results (e.g. Dean Baker). I knew of several people trying to replicate the results who were bumping into walls left and right - it couldn't be done.
In a new paper, "Does High Public Debt Consistently Stifle Economic Growth? A Critique of Reinhart and Rogoff," Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst successfully replicate the results. After trying to replicate the Reinhart-Rogoff results and failing, they reached out to Reinhart and Rogoff and they were willing to share their data spreadhseet. This allowed Herndon et al. to see how how Reinhart and Rogoff's data was constructed.
They find that three main issues stand out. First, Reinhart and Rogoff selectively exclude years of high debt and average growth. Second, they use a debatable method to weight the countries. Third, there also appears to be a coding error that excludes high-debt and average-growth countries. All three bias in favor of their result, and without them you don't get their controversial result. [...]
So what do Herndon-Ash-Pollin conclude? They find "the average real GDP growth rate for countries carrying a public debt-to-GDP ratio of over 90 percent is actually 2.2 percent, not -0.1 percent as [Reinhart-Rogoff claim]." Going further into the data, they are unable to find a breakpoint where growth falls quickly and significantly.
Rogoff and Reinhart responded to the criticism, which has since been criticized as a weak rebuttal. But now that those numbers are known to be wrong, the litany of media outlets which have cited them have an opportunity to reexamine their coverage of the austerity premise. Print media, notably The Weekly Standard, The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and Atlanta Journal-Constitution, have frequently reproduced the Reinhart-Rogoff thesis in covering budget and economic policy. Television and radio media have made frequent use of the Reinhart-Rogoff paper, including prominent mentions on NPR, CNN, and Fox Business.
The Reinhart-Rogoff threshold has long been challenged by fellow economists, such as former Federal Reserve economist Joseph Gagnon, Paul Krugman, and Josh Bivens and John Irons of the Economic Policy Institute, on the grounds that it gets the directionality of causation exactly wrong. These and other economists argue that high debt levels are a consequence of prolonged weak GDP growth, rather than its cause.
As the Center for Economic and Policy Research's Dean Baker notes, however, the newly discovered errors obviate these more intricate economist responses to Reinhart-Rogoff: "we need not concern ourselves with any arguments this complicated. The basic R&R story was simply the result of them getting their own numbers wrong."
From the April 5 edition of MSNBC's All In with Chris Hayes:
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NPR gave undue credence to wind power opponents who claim turbines are "making them ill" with a variety of symptoms. But there is no demonstrated link between wind turbines and health impacts, and studies suggest that psychological factors are behind these symptoms.
In a post titled, "Could Wind Turbines Be Toxic To The Ear?" NPR gave pediatrician Nina Pierpont a platform to promote "wind turbine syndrome," a term she coined. Although NPR noted that her claims "have been met with heavy skepticism from a host of experts in energy and public health," it nonetheless suggested that a recent scientific review supported her "self-published report."
Pierpont's report consisted of telephone interviews with 23 people who responded to an ad asking for people who claimed to experience "wind turbine syndrome," and their anecdotes about 15 family members.
The Chief Medical Officer of Health of Ontario, Canada stated in a report that "no conclusions on the health impact of wind turbines can be drawn from Pierpont's work due to methodological limitations including small sample size, lack of exposure data, lack of controls and selection bias." Pierpont claimed that her paper was peer-reviewed, but it was actually evaluated by people she selected, including her husband, an anti-wind activist who compares his struggle to the civil rights movement:
Dr. Martin Luther King (see below) didn't use lawyers. Neither did Gandhi, who was a trained lawyer. Wrong strategy. If you think the Big Wind Onslaught is not on the scale of a Gandhi and King, but just a minor issue -- think again.
As Rosa Parks did, when she sparked the Civil Rights movement: you need to refuse to give up your seat to the wind bastard on the bus.
NPR also trumpeted the significance of a new scientific review, saying it "showed that outer hair cells of the cochlea respond to infrasound, which could affect the functioning of the ear." But there is no evidence that the outer hair cell response actually does "affect the functioning of the ear." Previous reviews have also noted that outer hair cells respond to infrasound, but nevertheless concluded "[a]vailable evidence shows that the infrasound levels near wind turbines cannot impact the vestibular system."
Under fire for a sloppy report that leaned on anecdotal evidence to make sweeping generalizations about federal disability benefits, NPR has edited portions of that report even as Ira Glass publicly defends the initial reporting.
On March 22, Media Matters highlighted several myths and errors in a report from NPR's Planet Money about Supplemental Security Insurance, a federal disability program for children. The report drew further criticism, and more than 100 organizations that advocate for and support people with disabilities have signed a letter criticizing the piece, saying it "paints a misleading and inaccurate picture of the Social Security programs that serve as a vital lifeline for millions of Americans with severe disabilities."
On March 26, This American Life host Ira Glass responded to Media Matters' criticism by claiming he stood by his program's work, saying "our report on disability programs was fact checked line by line by an outside fact checker, in addition to fact checking by the reporter and her editors" and that "We know of no factual errors. We stand by the story."
But while Glass publicly claimed to stand behind the story, Wired Business senior writer Ryan Tate has noted that the online text version of the radio program has been altered since its original posting.
NPR has since said that the changes were made "for clarity after publication."
This American Life host Ira Glass has been called out by the Center for Economic and Policy Research for citing data with "limited relevance to contemporary policy debates" to defend his misleading report on disability benefits.
Last week, Media Matters detailed how the report, which was also featured on the NPR programs Planet Money and All Things Considered, pushed a series of myths about Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI) -- a Social Security program that supports families that include children with disabilities -- over the program's growth rate, qualification challenges, and successes it has had in reducing poverty among children with disabilities. The report was quickly picked up by right-wing media outlets who used it to advance the false claim that increased disability benefits indicate fraud in the system.
Following harsh criticism that the report presented a false picture of disability programs Glass stood by the story, saying in a statement to the International Business Times that "our report on disability programs was fact checked line by line by an outside fact checker, in addition to fact checking by the reporter and her editors" and "[w]e know of no factual errors. We stand by the story."
Now, CEPR Senior Research Associate Shawn Fremstad has taken issue with Glass' defense of the report, writing that Glass is trying to defend his initial report by telling a story about SSI that has "limited relevance to contemporary policy debates":
Finally, Glass takes issue with an analysis that I did with Rebecca Vallas, one cited by Media Matters, showing that the recent rise in the number of children with severe disabilities receiving Supplemental Security benefits is largely due to economic factors. Glass says: "They [Media Matters] choose data from 2000-2009 to back up that claim.... As we point out in our reporting, when you look at a longer period of time -- at 30 years of economic data -- you see a different story."
But neither Glass nor Joffe-Walt say what that "different story" actually is. Vallas and I have focused -- for example in this paper for the National Academy of Social Insurance -- on the trends over roughly the last 15 years because Supplemental Security's eligibility standards for children have been stable since then (the figure below is from this paper). Before that SSA's eligibility standards for children were expanded (in 1990 by a conservative Supreme Court that ruled 7-2 that SSA's regulations were much stricter than the underlying federal law) and then pared back somewhat (by Congress in 1996 after the Gingrich Revolution). In telling the story of Supplemental Security today, the primary focus should be on trends from recent history that represent a mature, stable program. If reporters want to also tell the story of the implementation and early history of children's SSI, that's fine, but they should be clear it is a much different story that has limited relevance to contemporary policy debates. They should also go back and read this 1995 Forbes Media Critic piece, "Media Crusade Gone Haywire," detailing the role that dubious sources and anecdotes fed the last major round of media hysteria on this issue.
This American Life host Ira Glass is defending a recent report on his program in the face of criticism from those who say it painted a false picture of disability programs.
On March 22, Media Matters detailed how the public radio segment, which also ran on the NPR programs Planet Money and All Things Considered, promoted several myths to criticize Supplemental Security Insurance over the program's rate of growth, hurdles towards qualification, and successes it has had in reducing poverty. The story drew further criticism from Center for Economic and Policy Research co-director Dean Baker, who said it "got some of the basics wrong," and University of Connecticut law professor James Kwak, who said it suffers from "facile extrapolation from the individual story to national policy."
But in a statement to International Business Times, Glass stood by his program's work. He told IBT that "our report on disability programs was fact checked line by line by an outside fact checker, in addition to fact checking by the reporter and her editors" and that "We know of no factual errors. We stand by the story."
Right-wing media outlets have latched on to the report, which also ran on the NPR programs Planet Money and All Things Considered, and used it to amplify their false message that increased disability benefits indicate fraud in the system.
National Review praised the report as "brilliant" and the Washington Examiner offered it as evidence that disability benefits are "a voluntary life sentence to idle poverty." Breitbart.com praised NPR "for reporting the truth--a truth that conservatives have been highlighting for decades."
A misleading NPR report has become fodder for a right-wing media campaign to scapegoat federal disability benefits, despite the fact that the rise in disability claims can be attributed to the economic recession and demographic shifts, and that instances of fraud are minimal.
NPR reported that the rise in the number of federal disability beneficiaries was "startling" and claimed it was explained by unemployed workers with "squishy" claims of disability choosing to receive federal benefits rather than work. Right-wing media called the report "brilliant," and used it to further the myth that the increase in the number of individuals receiving disability benefits reveals fraud in the system.
Breitbart.com's Wynton Hall wrote that NPR's "eye-opening" piece uncovered a disability program "fraught with fraud." Fox Nation promoted the piece with the headline, "Every Month, 14 Million People Get a Disability Check from the Government..." The National Review Online's blog called the piece "brilliant," while the Washington Examiner's editorial offered it as evidence that disability benefits provide "a voluntary life sentence to idle poverty." The Drudge Report linked to the NPR story and to the Breitbart.com article:
But as Media Matters previously noted, these reports failed to include crucial facts that explain the rise in disability benefits. The recent financial crisis and the rising rate of child poverty have made more children eligible to receive benefits through the Supplemental Security program, while the growth in the number of adults receiving benefits through Social Security Disability Insurance since the 1970s is largely explained by increases in the number of women qualifying for benefits. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explained, as women have joined the workforce in greater numbers over the past few decades, more women are eligible for disability benefits, resulting in higher numbers of beneficiaries.
Furthermore, in a report published in March 2012, the Government Accountability Office found that improper payments of disability benefits are not a widespread problem, and accounted for less than four percent of total improper payments made by federal agencies in fiscal year 2011.
Public radio program This American Life pushed a series of myths about Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI), a Social Security program that supports families that include children with disabilities. The piece ignored that the recent rise in disability benefits is tied to the recession and higher rates of poverty, that qualifying for benefits is difficult, that SSI encourages employment, and that the current program has significantly reduced poverty among children with disabilities.
Now that the Obama administration and Congress are engaged in a debate over immigration policy, a Media Matters review of major news outlets has found that when it comes to immigration coverage, anti-immigrant commentator Mark Krikorian continues to be the media's preferred conservative voice. Krikorian heads the Center for Immigration Studies, a group associated with notorious nativist John Tanton and whose research has been called into question -- but these facts are routinely ignored in coverage of his remarks.
Media coverage of the debt ceiling frequently claims that raising the limit without simultaneous spending cuts would give President Obama a "blank check," repeating a pattern of promoting this false narrative -- or failing to correct it -- that occurred during the unprecedented brinkmanship of 2011. The phrase implies that the debt ceiling governs additional spending desired by the White House, when in fact it is a restriction on the executive branch's ability to borrow money to pay for spending measures already enacted by Congress.
Following Mitt Romney's repeated claims during the presidential debate that he largely agrees with President Obama on foreign policy, mainstream media adopted the narrative that little separates the candidates on this issue. In fact, this narrative allows Romney to disavow extreme positions.
National Public Radio (NPR) recently recycled a false narrative fueled by right-wing media that the powerful U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit neutrally reviews regulatory agencies. But NPR fails to mention that the court, which hears appeals on environmental, health, safety, and other regulations, is dominated by conservative judges, and is under increasing criticism for substituting its ideological opinions for scientific and technical expertise.
In an article detailing the difficulties the next president would encounter if he sought to take "a hard right turn on an environmental rule," NPR downplayed the D.C. Circuit court's importance and ideological composition. The article uncritically presented the conservative perspective that "strict constructionist" judges would prevent a weakening of bipartisan environmental law in such a scenario:
"If you take a hard right turn on an environmental rule -- or for that matter, a hard left turn -- you've got strict constructionist judges who are going to say no, and they're on the federal courts today," says Kevin Book, director of ClearView Energy Partners, a Washington-based energy consulting firm.
Book says the federal judges who oversee EPA rules most likely would prevent big changes, regardless of who wins the election.
That's because the pollution rules at the center of this debate aren't just ideas Obama and his EPA came up with. They can be decades in the making or ordered by the federal courts. They're called for in environmental laws passed by bipartisan majorities in Congress -- laws such as the Clean Air Act, which was first signed by President Nixon and strengthened by the first President Bush, both Republicans.
As described by federal courts expert Professor Carl Tobias of the University of Richmond School of Law, the D.C. Circuit court is known as the "second most important court" in the country not only because it is often the last word on appeals from federal administrative agency determinations, but because its judges are often nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court. Its prominence is one reason it is currently suffering three vacancies, despite the Obama administration's attempts to appoint qualified jurists to a court whose Republican-appointed members outnumber their Democratic counterparts 5 to 3.
The NPR article fails to recognize that this federal court has demonstrated a clear preference for crafting "hard right" policy that defers to business interests, regardless of the bipartisan pedigree of legislation before it. Indeed, The Wall Street Journal's Law Blog has described the D.C. court's view of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as consistent with that of the broader anti-environmental movement, where "[t]he EPA...is a frequent bête noire for conservatives, who feel the agency is strangling industry with excessive regulation." The editorial page of the WSJ, for example, praised a recent opinion that struck down the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which it referred to as "another illegal Obama regulation." The op-ed went on to celebrate that:
According to a scoreboard by the American Action Forum, Tuesday's rebuke from the D.C. Circuit marks the 15th time that a federal court has struck down an Obama regulation, and the sixth smack-down for the Obama EPA. This tally counts legally flawed rules as well as misguided EPA disapprovals of actions by particular states.
Unlike the recent coverage in NPR, other media outlets have increasingly noted the ideological bent of this court willing to substitute its scientific and technical analysis for that of the experts. For example, Floyd Norris, The New York Times' chief financial correspondent, has reported on how the D.C. court has stuck down many of the new rules promulgated to prevent a recurrence of the recent financial meltdown:
[The D.C. Circuit Court] may yet be the institution that dooms many or even most of the Dodd-Frank financial reforms that Congress passed in 2010 and that regulatory agencies have been struggling to put in place since then.
In the area of regulatory law, that court, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, reigns supreme, and it is now controlled by judicial activists who seem quite willing to negate, on technical grounds, any regulations they do not like. The Securities and Exchange Commission has suffered a series of defeats there, defeats that it has chosen to accept rather than risk an appeal to the Supreme Court.
And Steven Pearlstein, The Washington Post's business and economics columnist, explicitly attributes the recent decision striking down the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule to tea party politics, consistent with the D.C. court's pro-business tilt:
The dirty little secret is that dysfunctional government has become the strategic goal of the radical fringe that has taken over the Republican party. After all, a government that can't accomplish anything is a government that nobody will like, nobody will pay for and nobody will want to work for. For tea party conservatives, what could be better than that?
Nowhere has this strategy been pursued with more fervor, or more success, than the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, where a new breed of activist judges are waging a determined and largely successful war on federal regulatory agencies.
The prospect that some balance might be restored to the nation's second-most powerful court has long since faded after Senate Republicans successfully filibustered every nominee put forward by President Obama for the three vacant seats on the D.C. Circuit. The only hope now is that Chief Judge David Sentelle and some of the court's more intellectually honest conservatives will move to rein in the judicial radicals before they turn the courts into just another dysfunctional branch of a dysfunctional government.
The EPA recently appealed the D.C. Circuit's recent pollution decision arguing the court had "developed 'regulatory policy out of whole cloth' in violation of their role of review." Media outlets should note this trend when evaluating whether "hard right" environmental policies can pass judicial review. This frame buys into the conservative myth of a "monster" regulatory state and misses the bigger picture: the D.C. Circuit is crafting "hard right" regulatory policy on its own.
An NPR report today about the Obama administration's deferred action program for young undocumented immigrants quoted Americans For Legal Immigration PAC president William Gheen, who yesterday claimed that the program "will allow illegal aliens who are willing to lie about coming to the US as children to be given 'deferred status' and work permits starting immediately."
On June 15, the Obama administration announced a plan that will give eligible undocumented youth a chance to avoid deportation and work in the country legally. That program went into effect today; and thousands have reportedly started the application process.
Gheen -- who went on to write that President Obama's action "will rapidly increase the number of illegal aliens feloniously voting in US elections, stealing your jobs and expecting future benefits" -- posted his screed on the website of ALIPAC, an anti-immigrant organization supported by the Federation for American Immigration Reform and allied with former Minutemen groups. The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated FAIR a hate group.
In light of this, it's hard to understand NPR's decision to lend Gheen credibility on the issue of deferred action for immigrants. And not only did NPR quote Gheen, it also failed to inform viewers of Gheen's extreme views of immigrants.
Indeed, ALIPAC is not known to hide its extremist views or what it thinks of policies that seek to help the undocumented population. In fact, the front page of the organization's website contains a hoard of inflammatory rhetoric that NPR should have been aware of.
Headlines that include "amnesty" or "illegals" or such phrases as "Obama releases violent illegal aliens upon American citizenry in mass dream amnesty" don't induce honest debate, let alone encourage meaningful discussion. They're red herrings meant to attract similar xenophobic rhetoric.
Following criticism from Media Matters and other sources for quoting National Federation of Independent Business member Joe Olivo without disclosing his NFIB membership in stories exploring how health care and minimum wage laws could affect small businesses, NPR ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos wrote that Olivo should never have been interviewed for NPR's stories.
The blog Balloon Juice first brought attention to the fact that Olivo, owner of a printing company in New Jersey, appeared on NPR on June 29 to criticize the Affordable Care Act and claim it could harm his business. On July 9, Balloon Juice noticed that Olivo appeared in another NPR story, this time to criticize proposals to raise the minimum wage. NPR did not disclose Olivo's affiliation with NFIB in either of the stories -- even though the organization opposes both the health care reform law and increases in the minimum wage.
In response to this criticism, the NPR ombudsman wrote on Friday that Olivo "shouldn't have been interviewed at all":
Joe Olivo, the articulate owner of a printing company in New Jersey, has become a poster child for the National Federation of Independent Business in its campaign against the government's new health care program. He has appeared in one of the organization's videos and testified before House and Senate committees.
So, when he was interviewed in two recent NPR stories as a typical small business owner--following interviews of him over the past few years on NBC, Fox (repeatedly), Associated Press and Financial Times and on NPR itself in 2009--a howl went up among liberal media critics and scores of listeners that NPR reporters and editors were either leaning right or lazy.
Didn't do your homework is the right answer. What we have here is not a matter of ethics or accuracy, but of sluggish journalism. I don't want to say lazy, because the reporters and producers did hustle; they just didn't hustle enough.
In addition to being an ombudsman, I also teach at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. What we have here is not an ombudsman issue of ethics or standards, but a journalism school issue of good practices and competitive originality. Olivo shouldn't have been interviewed at all.