Fox News' coverage of weekly jobless claims in the first quarter of 2013 overwhelmingly focused on negative aspects of the labor market and broader economy. However, weekly claims numbers have been consistently improving, beating Fox's own standard for signs of a positive labor market.
According to Fox News, economists believe when the weekly number of initial jobless claims filed stays below 375,000, it's a sign the labor market is healthy enough to reduce the unemployment rate.
Fox News host Bill Hemmer cited that threshold on the January 10 edition of America's Newsroom, while showing a chart with a bright yellow line across it at the 375,000 mark: "Economists say that weekly claims must consistently fall below 375,000, shown by that yellow line on the screen right there, to indicate that the job market is strong enough to lower the unemployment rate." When the next week's numbers came out on January 17, Hemmer's co-host Martha MacCallum again touted Fox's chart showing the threshold, noting, "You always want to look at the chart, in terms of the long-time trend here." She continued, "Economists say that the weekly claims number has to consistently fall below 375,000 as indicated by that yellow line."
For the first quarter of 2013, weekly jobless claims have consistently fallen below Fox News' threshold of 375,000, signifying an improving labor market.
The final report of the quarter, released on April 4, represents the first one-week spike over the 375,000 threshold in 2013, but the more telling number - the four-week moving average of weekly initial claims - remains well below Fox's bright yellow line. (Other news outlets report that the economists' consensus about the threshold is 400,000 weekly claims, and economist Frank Lysy says that new jobless claims occur at a rate of 310,000 to 320,000 per week when the economy is at close to full employment.)
Despite consistent signs that the labor market is improving (by Fox News' own standards), Fox was overwhelmingly negative when reporting on weekly jobless claims.
When the weekly claims beat consensus expectations or declined from the previous week, Fox News anchors regularly used the positive news to highlight other, unrelated metrics, such as rising gas prices or federal spending. When weekly claims did not meet expectations or rose from the previous week, anchors regularly used the news to paint a negative picture of the economy.
Overall, Fox News was about 13 times more likely to present weekly jobless claims with a negative rather than positive tone. Furthermore, Fox's negative coverage greatly overshadowed neutral reporting.
Media Matters reviewed every Thursday edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends, America's Newsroom, and Happening Now from January 3, 2013 to April 4, 2013 and recorded the amount of time spent discussing the weekly jobless claims report.
We identified "positive coverage" as that which indicated weekly claims were improving, or made broader positive implications for the labor market and overall economy. Positive coverage of the economy that was introduced in direct relation to the weekly claims report was also counted.
We identified "negative coverage" as that which indicated weekly claims were deteriorating, or made broader negative implications for the labor market and overall economy. Negative coverage of the economy that was introduced in direct relation to the weekly claims report was also counted.
We identified "neutral coverage" as that which directly reported the information in the Labor Department's weekly jobless claims report.
When tone of coverage was unclear, Media Matters chose to err on the side of neutrality.
We did not include coverage of topics that were unrelated to the weekly claims report, even if they were brought up in a segment that was primarily focused on the report. For example, the January 3 edition of Fox & Friends contained a segment that introduced the weekly jobless report and pivoted to discussing the Hurricane Sandy relief bill. In this instance, time spent discussing the Hurricane Sandy relief bill was left out of the analysis. When it was unclear whether coverage of a topic was brought up in relation to the weekly claims report, Media Matters chose to exclude it from the analysis.
In segments where coverage related to the weekly claims report was introduced before the report itself, Media Matters chose to begin time recording when the report was initially introduced.
Fox Business host Stuart Varney claimed that any signs of a weakening labor market cannot be explained by sequestration. However, economists have linked the expected slowdown in hiring to sequestration, and note that any negative impacts are likely to be temporary.
Reacting to an unexpected rise in weekly jobless claims, America's Newsroom host Bill Hemmer asked Varney if any of the rise was due to sequestration. Varney responded by claiming, "No...There's no seasonal factors, it's not weather, it's not sequester, it's just weakness in the underlying economy."
Economists do not support Varney's insistence that sequestration has had no impact on the job market. An April 3 Associated Press report noted economists' opinions on the link between sequestration and hiring:
Jim O'Sullivan, chief United States economist at High Frequency Economics, now expects just 160,000 net jobs in the March employment report, instead of 215,000. Jennifer Lee, an economist at BMO Capital Markets, said her group had lowered its forecast to 155,000, from 220,000.
Ms. Lee said businesses might have temporarily suspended hiring because they wanted to see the impact of $85 billion in government spending cuts, which began on March 1.
Furthermore, while Varney used the rise in weekly jobless claims to paint a thoroughly negative picture of the labor market, the same AP report noted that "most economists say any slowdown is likely to be temporary."
Indeed, when a more stable measure of the labor market is examined - such as the preferred four-week moving average of initial jobless claims - a much less negative picture emerges. While the four-week average rose in the April 4 report, the underlying trend of weekly claims has been positive. Since the beginning of 2013, the trend of initial claims has declined greatly, producing four-week averages at levels not seen since 2008.
Conservative media are again using a European financial crisis to stoke fears about the U.S. economy.
According to many right-wing media figures, the Cypriot government's plan to tax private bank accounts to avert a fiscal disaster provides a dire warning for the U.S. Many have speculated or outright claimed that the same could happen here unless the so-called "debt crisis" is averted
Of course, fears of heavy taxation on private bank accounts occurring in the U.S. are largely unfounded, with many experts noting the comparison between the two countries is ill-conceived. But the facts rarely matter for right-wing media when it comes to exploiting a European crisis.
The Wall Street Journal has repeatedly supported the conservative call for states to cut income taxes in order to foster economic growth, ignoring a large body of evidence that shows cutting or eliminating income taxes is economically damaging.
In recent months, The Wall Street Journal has published opinion pieces in support of Republican governors' push to reduce or eliminate state income taxes.
A January 30 editorial claimed that eliminating state incomes taxes "makes sense," arguing that it would spur economic growth and bolster state revenues. Economist Art Laffer and Wall Street Journal editorial board member Stephen Moore reiterated that thinking in a March 28 opinion piece titled "The Red-State Path to Prosperity," which argues for - among other measures - "pro-growth tax reform" that hinges upon a reduced reliance on income taxes.
Both pieces ostensibly rely on research conducted by the corporate-funded, right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Both Laffer and Moore have published research jointly with ALEC, and the January 30 editorial directly references Laffer's ALEC research. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), ALEC's studies on state-based tax reform are heavily biased toward states with low taxes and often do not comport with broader research findings:
ALEC's studies and reports claim that its agenda would boost economic growth and create jobs, but they are disconnected from a wide body of peer-reviewed academic research on public finance.
In addition, the preponderance of mainstream research refutes core elements of ALEC's argument, showing that state tax cuts or lower state taxes generally do not boost the economy, state tax cuts do not pay for themselves in the form of higher economic growth that generates more revenues, progressive taxes and corporate taxes do not inherently damage the economy, and taxes generally do not cause people to flee a state. (emphasis added)
Indeed, a recent review conducted by CBPP reinforces the lack of validity in ALEC and WSJ's claims -- of the eight peer-reviewed studies on the effect of state-level personal income taxes on the economy since 2000, six have found insignificant effects, and one had internally inconsistent results. CBPP also found that in states that cut taxes the most in the 1990s, average annual job growth fell far below the national average in the following economic cycle.
Fox News host Bill O'Reilly has a long and documented history of pushing economic misinformation on his program, reinforced recently by economist Richard Wolff who said O'Reilly's claims about the economy are false.
On the March 25 edition of the independently syndicated Democracy Now!, former University of Massachusetts, Amherst economics professor Richard Wolff responded to O'Reilly's claim that European countries are going bankrupt because they are "nanny states," stating:
WOLFF: You know, he gets away with saying things which no undergraduate in the United States with a responsible economics professor could ever get away with. If you want to refer to things as "nanny states" then the place you go in Europe is not the southern tier -- Portugal, Spain, and Italy -- the place you go are Germany and Scandinavia because they provide more social services to their people than anybody else. And guess what? Not only are they not in trouble economically, they are the winners of the current situation.
[O'Reilly's] just making it up as he goes along to conform to an ideological position that is harder and harder for folks like him to sustain, so he has to reach further and further into fantasy.
O'Reilly's misinformation on economic issues, however, is not just contained to commenting on the European experience. Here are 10 other examples of O'Reilly's failure to accurately understand economics:
10. O'Reilly Falsely Compared The U.S. Debt Situation With That Of Greece. In an effort to force Congress to enact deep spending cuts, O'Reilly claimed that "like Greece, Ireland, and Spain...the USA has bankrupted itself." However, economists agree that the U.S.-Greece comparison is misguided and ignores the structure of the countries' economies.
9. O'Reilly Dismissed The Recession's Effect On Gas Prices. O'Reilly expressed doubt over the economic downturn's effect on gas prices, claiming that President Obama's explanation for low gas prices was "totally bogus." In reality, gas prices dropped precipitously during the recession, a fact that many news outlets -- including Fox -- reported at the time.
8. O'Reilly Claimed That Food Stamps Have No Economic Value. In a discussion about President Obama's stimulus bill, O'Reilly claimed that increasing spending on food stamps has "nothing to do with stimulating the economy." However, economists largely disagree, and studies have indicated that food stamps are among the most stimulative of government programs.
7. O'Reilly Suggested Bush Tax Cuts Increased Revenue. In an interview with former President Clinton, O'Reilly claimed that because of "the tax cuts under Bush, more money flowed into the federal government." However, when tax revenues are expressed as a share of the economy, the Bush tax cuts resulted in the lowest level in any decade since the 1950s, a fact noted by many economists.
6. O'Reilly Dismissed The Causes Of Income Inequality. In a discussion with Fox News contributor Kirsten Powers, O'Reilly brushed aside income inequality, claiming, "Income inequality is bull. Nobody gives you anything, you earn it." However, O'Reilly's statements ignored the fact that, at the time he said them, taxes on top income earners are at historic lows, and that, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, "typical middle-class households face higher rates than some high-income households."
5. O'Reilly Blamed Undocumented Immigrants For California's Budget Problems. In a segment on California's budgetary problems, O'Reilly claimed that an "enormous amount of money" was being spent on the "illegal alien problem." However, O'Reilly ignored that fact that a majority of undocumented immigrants pay taxes, and that granting them legal status could have a positive impact on the economy.
4. O'Reilly Repeatedly Suggested That "Irresponsible Behavior And Laziness" Cause Poverty. O'Reilly has consistently characterized the poor as "lazy" and "irresponsible," ignoring the consequences of the recent economic downturn and the rise in income inequality in recent decades.
3. O'Reilly Claimed That The Economy "Would Be Fine" If We Cut Spending To 2008 Levels. In a segment discussing sequestration, O'Reilly called for a rollback in spending to 2008 levels, claiming that the economy "would be fine" if spending was cut to that level. However, this proposal that has been repeatedly criticized by economists as economically dangerous, costing as many as 590,000 jobs.
2. O'Reilly Claimed That The Stimulus Was A Failure. O'Reilly has repeatedly stated that President Obama's stimulus package was a failure, ignoring the fact that, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, it increased employment by over 1 million jobs and raised GDP by between 0.8 and 2.5 percent.
1. O'Reilly Repeatedly Claimed That Economy Is Worse Off Than It Was When Obama First Took Office. O'Reilly has consistently stated that the Obama administration's policies are hurting the economy, even going so far as to claim that it is worse off than it was prior to Obama's first inauguration. However, by almost every measure of economic health, including unemployment, net job creation, and GDP, the economy has improved greatly since 2009.
Media figures have repeatedly forwarded the notion that the United States is currently facing a debt crisis. However, leaders of both parties agree there is no immediate crisis, and by focusing attention too heavily on deficit and debt reduction, the media distract from the more imminent problem of growth and jobs.
Throughout news coverage of recent budget negotiations, media figures have consistently framed discussions around the notion that the country faces a debt crisis, an assertion that is often presented uncritically and accepted as an indisputable fact. Since discussions are predicated on the assumption that a debt crisis exists, ensuing analysis of budget proposals is often solely focused on how far they go in reducing short term deficits and debt.
While media are convinced that a debt crisis exists, leaders of both parties have made explicit statements to the contrary. In a March 12 interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, President Obama claimed that "we don't have an immediate crisis in terms of debt," a statement that was immediately criticized by conservative media. When asked if he agreed with Obama's statement regarding debt on the March 17 edition of ABC's This Week, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) conceded that there is no immediate crisis. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) made a similar admission on CBS' Face the Nation, saying "we do not have a debt crisis right now."
Furthermore, the media's focus on a "debt crisis" has necessarily steered the debate about budgets toward how the parties will sufficiently address short term deficits. Economists, meanwhile, have repeatedly argued that undue focus on deficits and debt distracts from the more pressing need for economic growth and reduced unemployment.
The bipartisan admission that there is no immediate debt crisis provides media with an opportunity to reframe their budget negotiations coverage around economic growth.
Video by Alan Pyke.
Fox News spent less than 11 minutes highlighting the February jobs report that showed the unemployment rate dropped to 7.7 percent, about half the time the network spent covering the August 2011 jobs report that indicated no net addition of jobs.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics' unemployment report for the month of February revealed that 236,000 jobs were added, causing the unemployment rate to fall from 7.9 to 7.7 percent. This marks the first time the unemployment rate has been below 7.8 percent since 2008, and the lowest unemployment rate during the entirety of the Obama presidency.
Despite the significance of this development in the labor market, Fox News has been noticeably quiet on the subject in their morning programs, especially when contrasted with how they have covered previous negative economic news. On September 2, 2011 when initial reports showed no net addition of jobs for the month of August, Fox discussed this negative news for roughly twice the amount of time as the positive news on March 8, when the February jobs report was released.
Furthermore, the majority of Fox's coverage discussing the drop in unemployment used the news as a foil to bring up unrelated indicators or downplay its significance.
The fact that Fox spent little time discussing the drop in unemployment continues their documented history of downplaying positive economic news.
Media Matters viewed coverage of Fox News from 8:30 AM (when the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases its report) to 12:00 noon on September 2, 2011 and March 8, 2013 and recorded the amount of time spent discussing the unemployment reports. We included teases and straight news segments. The analysis includes the shows Fox & Friends, America's Newsroom, and Happening Now.
Fox News figures downplayed the February jobs report that showed a significant improvement in the labor market, continuing in their effort to diminish economic developments made during the Obama presidency.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics' jobs report for February showed 236,000 total jobs added, edging the unemployment rate down to 7.7 percent. Fox News reacted to the lowest unemployment rate since 2008 by cautioning viewers to take it "with a grain of salt."
While the hosts eventually noted that the numbers are moving in the "right direction," this admission came after an attempt to downplay the report's significance. Meanwhile, other outlets are reacting positively.
Fox's standard deflection of the drop in unemployment being due to people leaving the labor force doesn't hold up. The labor force participation rate remained relatively unchanged, dropping slightly from 63.6 to 63.5 percent.
Media ignored economists in their reports leading up to the initiation of the economically damaging across-the-board spending cuts commonly known as sequestration.
If Congress fails to act by midnight, across-the-board spending cuts of up to $85 billion in 2013 alone will take effect. While sequestration is inherently an economic issue, media are ignoring the last chance to have economists weigh in on the consequences.
Media Matters reviewed news coverage leading up to the sequestration deadline, specifically the February 28 evening news broadcasts; March 1 reports from The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and New York Times; and the March 1 morning news programs on the major cable and broadcast networks. We found that economists have been almost completely shut out. Of 122 total guests and quoted figures appearing in a total of 43 articles or television segments, one lone economist was mentioned, Wells Fargo senior economist Mark Vitner in a report from the Journal.
Right-wing media outlets have advanced a number of myths regarding automatic across-the-board spending cuts -- commonly called the sequester -- in order to hide the facts behind an inherently harmful economic policy.