The New York Times improved its standards for budget reporting over the past four months, providing readers with more adequate context to understand the size and scope of federal programs, budget deficits, and policy proposals.
On October 18, 2013, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan issued a statement affirming the paper's commitment to improving its numbers-based reporting. Sullivan's comments came in response to mounting criticism over how print media's reliance on reporting large numbers devoid of context often confuses and unintentionally misleads readers.
Ongoing Media Matters analysis of print media budget reporting standards confirms that the Times has begun to address these concerns, and now leads two other prominent print outlets -- The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal -- in providing context when reporting numbers.
The Times was less likely than other selected outlets to rely on raw numbers for budget reporting from October 19, 2013 -- the day after Sullivan's statement -- to February 14, 2014. The paper was also more likely than the other newspapers analyzed to provide relevant context. Furthermore, the Times was the most likely to present figures in percentage terms relative to the size of the budget or the size of the economy.*
These results show a deviation from past practices. Media Matters research through the first half of 2013 revealed that the Times relied on out-of-context raw numbers for nearly 67 percent of its reporting concerning the federal budget, the debt and deficit, and spending programs. This reflected roughly the average style of reporting among the three outlets examined.
Despite recent improvement, the paper still relies on out-of-context figures for a majority of its coverage. Sullivan acknowledged in her October 18 statement that "[i]t won't be easy to make these changes happen consistently" across the newspaper's entire staff, but that change is coming "and the sooner, the better."
Hopefully other major outlets follow suit.
Image via Flickr user Frank Sheehan using a Creative Commons License.
Three major national print outlets were more likely to report economic figures in terms of raw numbers devoid of relevant and necessary context, such as previous years' numbers or monthly figures that would give readers an accurate depiction of the economy. These findings, calculated since halfway through 2013, are consistent with a previous Media Matters analysis of print media.
In the years since President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act -- commonly referred to as the stimulus -- right-wing media outlets have engaged in a steady campaign of misinformation to claim that it didn't help the economy.
February 17 marked the five-year anniversary of the implementation of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, a multi-billion economic stimulus package designed to spur economic growth and job creation during the Great Recession. The legislation increased infrastructure investments and implemented a variety of tax cuts for individuals and businesses, totaling approximately $831 billion over the 2009-2019 period.
Ever since the stimulus was signed into law, right-wing media figures have repeatedly pushed misinformation about its structure and alleged ill-effects. From forwarding false claims about the bill providing tax breaks for undocumented workers to baselessly linking it to Operation Fast and Furious, no myth has been too outrageous in the campaign to disparage the stimulus and President Obama.
The most frequently pushed myth about the stimulus, of course, is that it failed to increase economic growth or create jobs. The erroneous notion that the stimulus"failed" has appeared repeatedly in the right-wing media over the past five years, often being brought up to stymie any potential increases in government spending and investment.
The idea that increased government spending in the stimulus did not help the economy is patently false, and easily disproved by economists.
A 2010 Wall Street Journal poll of economists revealed that a majority of economists agree that the stimulus boosted growth, and according to a May 2012 Congressional Budget Office report, the stimulus created the equivalent of between 900,000 and 4.7 million jobs in 2010 and between 600,000 and 3.6 million jobs in 2011. Furthermore, a February 2013 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities illustrates how GDP growth would have been slower had the stimulus not been enacted:
Despite the facts, multiple outlets -- including Fox News and the Wall Street Journal -- are using the five-year anniversary of the stimulus' implementation to push the same tired myths. On February 18, one Fox host even went so far as to wonder whether or not it caused a recession, ignoring the fact that the economy has been growing steadily since the stimulus was implemented.
If recent history is any indication, right-wing media are unlikely to stop their campaign of misinformation around the bill, particularly if additional spending measures -- a policy recommended by economists -- are implemented.
Fox wants to know whether the stimulus package signed by President Obama caused a recession.
In recognition of the five-year anniversary of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 -- commonly known as the stimulus -- Fox Business' Varney & Co. framed a segment around the question of whether it caused a recession.
Fox is just asking, and here is the answer in one simple chart. The most recent recession started in December 2007, over a year before the stimulus bill was signed into law. Since its passage in February 2009, the American economy experienced an immediate positive turn, culminating in more than four years of steady, gradual economic growth.
Fox's disregard for facts in its frantic push to disparage the president and his policies is nothing new, but the basic failure to understand that the economy has been recovering for the past five years marks a new low.
From the February 14 edition of Fox News' Your World with Neil Cavuto:
Loading the player reg...
From the February 13 edition of Fox News' Your World with Neil Cavuto:
Loading the player reg...
Each year, Republican Senator Tom Coburn releases a "Wastebook" reviewing government projects that he views as wasteful, and each year, the media eagerly promote his report. Yet television news ignored a report by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) finding that U.S. taxpayers are being stiffed by coal companies buying federal land for less than its worth, which a previous report estimated has cost taxpayers nearly $30 billion over the last 30 years.
On Tuesday, the GAO found that the Bureau of Land Management was not adequately documenting reasons for accepting bids below the determined market value. Furthermore, as many states are not considering exports in their market value analyses, they may be underestimating the value in the first place. Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA), who requested the study, stated that "Given the lack of market competition in coal leases" -- the GAO found the vast majority did not have a single competitor, as seen in the chart below -- "if the fair market value set by Interior is low, it can lead to significant losses for taxpayers. For instance, for every cent per ton that coal companies decrease their bids for the largest coal leases, it could mean the loss of nearly $7 million for the American people."
Based on the report, Sen. Markey's office estimated that recent leases could have yielded an additional $200 million in revenue and "possibly hundreds of millions more." A previous report from the Institute for Energy Economics estimated that selling federally-owned coal for less than fair market value has cost taxpayers $28.9 billion in lost revenue over the last 30 years. That finding adds to the economic damages that coal pollution and disasters exact on the economy. A 2011 study, for instance, found that air pollution from coal-fired power plants imposes more costs on society than the value added to the economy by the industry -- and that study did not include climate change damages. Recently, the spill of a chemical used to clean coal in West Virginia cost the local economy $61 million, according to a preliminary study that did not include the cost of clean-up or emergency expenditures.
Yet none of the major television networks covered the GAO report confirming that coal companies are underpaying the federal government*.
The "Wastebook" received considerably more attention when it was released in December 2013, drawing uncritical coverage from all the major television networks except MSNBC (ABC, CBS, CNN, and Fox News uncritically touted the report at least once, and NBC hosted Sen. Coburn where he raised the report without pushback). LiveScience reported that nearly a quarter of the projects Sen. Coburn's office listed in 2013 were science-related and that the "Wastebook" often distorts the studies. Last year, for instance, Fox News promoted the Wastebook's attack on a "government study" on Tea Party intelligence that was actually a non-government funded blog post. CNN's S.E. Cupp and others also attacked a study of duck penises included in the "Wastebook," contributing to the pattern of basic research being cut in the face of what MSNBC's Chris Hayes called "ignorant mockery."
From the February 4 edition of Fox News' The Real Story with Gretchen Carlson:
Loading the player reg...
Fox Business' Charles Payne falsely claimed that the 16-day government shutdown helped increase economic growth, despite direct evidence to the contrary.
On January 30, the U.S. Department of Commerce's Bureau of Economic Analysis released its report on gross domestic product (GDP) for the fourth quarter of 2013. According to the report, the U.S. economy grew at an annual rate of 3.2 percent, down from 4.1 percent growth in the third quarter. Despite GDP growth falling, a number of economists agreed that the number was impressive.
Discussing the report on Fox News' America's Newsroom that day, Payne asserted that the 16-day government shutdown -- which occurred in the fourth quarter of 2013 -- helped spur economic growth:
PAYNE: Our economy has gotten so much traction since the government shutdown, which the mass media has said is an evil awful thing and it hurt us, well, during that period, more jobs were created, during that period, the stock market was up and we continue to see, as government gets out of the way, the private sector comes in.
Payne is completely incorrect.
While it's true that the GDP report showed a relatively strong increase, it is important to note how much better it would have been absent the government shutdown. According to MSNBC's Steve Benen:
The congressional Republicans' government shutdown, for example, shaved about 0.3% from the overall total. That's a difference, in other words, between 3.2% growth and 3.5% growth. It's still not clear exactly why GOP lawmakers did this, or what they hoped to accomplish, but there's evidence now that the gambit took a toll on the economy.
And despite Payne's claim that the shutdown helped job growth, Jason Furman, head of the Council of Economic Advisers, previously claimed that it reduced private sector employment by 120,000 jobs in October, 2013.
Furthermore, while Payne claimed that less government spending helped grow the economy, evidence suggests otherwise. Absent government spending cuts, economists estimate GDP in the fourth quarter would have risen an additional 0.9 percentage points.
Image via DJHEAVYD using a Creative Commons License.
Fox News hyped Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's economic record, claiming that the governor's economic plan generated a nearly $1 billion budget surplus while ignoring that the current surplus is built upon a projected structural deficit and that the state ranks 28th in the nation for job creation under Walker's tenure.
From the January 27 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends:
Loading the player reg...
Fox News is misleadingly touting the results of a recent poll to falsely claim that a majority of Americans don't care about inequality and believe that government should do nothing to reduce it.
On the January 23 edition of Fox & Friends, hosts Brian Kilmeade, Steve Doocy, and Elisabeth Hasselbeck discussed the recent policy pivot by Republicans and Democrats toward addressing income inequality. During the segment, the results of Fox News poll in which respondents were asked to prioritize pressing economic issues were displayed on screen:
Doocy used the results of the poll to claim that Americans are unconcerned about rising income inequality:
DOOCY: This is what you're concerned about. Forty percent of you are worried most about jobs and unemployment. About the same number worried about the deficit and how much the government spends. Meanwhile, you wind up with "income inequality" at only 12 percent.
Later that day on America's Newsroom, co-host Martha MacCallum and Fox News contributor Monica Crowley returned to the poll, claiming that the results also showed most Americans do not want the government to take action to reduce income inequality. During the segment, the following graphic ran on the screen:
Fox, and the poll they cite, are creating a false choice between reducing income inequality, creating jobs, and addressing the deficit.
Numerous economists, including Jared Bernstein, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, and Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman have argued that rising inequality is bad for the economy and creates a drag on economic growth. Furthermore, in their recent book, "Getting Back to Full Employment," Bernstein and economist Dean Baker outlined proposals that could create jobs while lifting wages and reducing reliance on government safety net programs, thereby positively impacting job creation while reducing some pressure from the federal budget. In the view of many prominent economists, Americans do not have to choose between jobs, deficit reduction, or reducing economic inequality; sensible policies can be implemented to address each issue.
Additionally, while MacCallum suggested that few Americans want government action to reduce inequality, the actual poll shows that participants were never asked about inequality. Instead of being asked "How do you feel about income inequality" as Fox showed on air, the actual question in the poll was "How do you feel about the fact that some people make a lot more money than others?"
Differences in individual earnings, which the poll asked about, and structural inequality -- the idea that a small share of earners at the top capture nearly all income gains -- are not the same thing.
When Americans are asked directly about whether or not government should do anything to mitigate income inequality, the results are quite different from what Fox claims. According to a January 23 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center and USA Today, 69 percent of Americans believe that government should do "a lot" or "some" to reduce inequality.
Furthermore, a majority of respondents -- 54 percent -- support raising taxes on the wealthy and expanding programs for the poor in order to help close the income gap.
Media Matters research shows that Fox, along with other right-wing media outlets, consistently misrepresents the issue of economic inequality. These skewed poll results are just the latest in a long line of examples.
Fox News' Neil Cavuto continued to ignore the desperate need for infrastructure investment in the United States, repeatedly arguing instead that the government is stealing or misappropriating existing resources.
On the January 13 edition of Fox News' Your World, host Cavuto invited former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood to discuss proposals to raise the federal gas tax to fund construction, repair, and renovation of America's crumbling transportation infrastructure. Rather than acknowledging the need to raise revenue to fund necessary projects, Cavuto made the unsubstantiated claim that federal, state, and local funds for infrastructure investment are being stolen or abused:
The paranoid and unsupported claims made by Cavuto during the segment echo his comments from a contentious December 3 interview with Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR). On both occasions, Cavuto claimed without evidence that "someone" in the government had "stolen," "abscond[ed]," or "[run] off with" billions of dollars earmarked for vital improvements to roads, bridges, dams, and other infrastructure systems.
Once again, the only proof that Cavuto provided to support his claims is the fact that American infrastructure is in a state of disrepair. As Media Matters has shown in the past, the dilapidated condition of America's infrastructure is entirely the result of insufficient funding, not the alleged fraud, theft, or misappropriation suggested by the Fox host.
According to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the public infrastructure of the United States earned a D+ grade in 2013 and is in need of $3.6 trillion worth of investments and upgrades by 2020. The ASCE estimates the cost of modernizing only America's bridges to be $121 billion, roughly equivalent to all of the revenue streams cited by Cavuto as excessive and wasteful during his tirade against the gas tax.
The reason that former Secretary LaHood, Representative Blumenauer, and others advocate raising the gas tax is precisely because the amount currently raised and spent by the federal government on infrastructure investments is too small. The federal tax, which has not be raised in 20 years, is one of many proposals to close this funding gap.
Instead of engaging in a substantive and important policy discussion, Fox News would rather promote its own narrative that all federal spending is riddled with fraud and abuse.
Weekday broadcast and cable evening news continue to place undue focus on government spending cuts and deficit reduction, pushing a narrative that is out of touch with economic reality.
Media Matters research revealed that throughout the fourth quarter of 2013, weekday broadcast and cable nightly news programs were more likely to advocate for deficit reduction than economic growth and job creation. Out of a total 890 segments on the economy, 250 saw the host or guest mention deficit reduction as an economic priority, while only 204 segments mentioned the need for economic growth and job creation.
Of course, Fox News led the charge in calling for deficit reduction, echoing trends seen in previous quarters.
Media's focus on deficit reduction was a constant theme throughout 2013, a theme increasingly out of touch with economic realities.
While broadcast and cable evening news programs were clamoring about the need for deficit reduction, in fiscal year 2013, the Treasury posted the smallest budget deficit since 2008. The same news programs that advocated for deficit reduction, however, were unlikely to mention this fact -- only 15 total segments over the fourth quarter noted that deficits are in decline.
Meanwhile, economic growth and job creation, while taking a backseat in media coverage, still remain a persistent problem in the U.S. economy. Many economists have repeatedly argued that sluggish economic growth and weak job creation are directly tied to an undue policy focus on deficit reduction. But with the recent government shutdown and budget negotiations taking place, weekday broadcast and cable evening news coverage consistently turned the debate back to deficit and debt reduction and away from more pressing issues like unemployment.
Maybe this is why only six percent of Americans know the deficit is shrinking.
Weekday broadcast and cable evening news covered a variety of economic topics including deficit reduction, economic growth, and effects of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) throughout the fourth quarter of 2013. A Media Matters analysis shows that many of these segments lacked proper context or input from economists, with Fox News continuing to advance the erroneous notion that the ACA is the purported cause behind poor job growth.