Conservative media are in the middle of a concerted push to claim that a government report confirms their longstanding claim that the federal government wastes tax money on employees whose sole duty is "union work," but ignore key content of the report in question that undermines their misleading narrative.
Fox Business host Stuart Varney made that claim on the February 28 edition of Fox & Friends. But Varney's oversimplified version of the conservative case ignores the content of the report in question, and the more sophisticated version of the case made elsewhere falls apart under minimal scrutiny of the evidence these outlets offer.
During a discussion on federal expenditures for union activity, Varney said that the recipients "worked full-time on union business," and "did not work for the taxpayer." When host Steve Doocy noted that's not how private-sector unions tend to work, Varney replied "Well I don't want to be cynical, Steve, but you've never worked for the federal government, now have you?" Watch:
The report Varney cites from the Office of Personnel and Management directly contradicts his blanket assertion that this money goes to full-time union reps in the introduction. OPM explains that "voluntary membership in Federal sector unions results in considerable reliance by unions on the volunteer work of bargaining unit employees, rather than paid union business agents." In the next paragraph, OPM adds that these hours of pay go to "Federal employees performing representational work for a bargaining unit in lieu of their regularly assigned work. It allows unions to satisfy their duty of fair representation to members and non-members alike."
Varney's presentation of this misinformation on a flagship Fox News program may prove an inflection point for a piece of misinformation that's percolated through other, smaller conservative media outlets since the OPM report came out in mid-February. On February 19, Fox Nation hyped a Washington Post story that noted some of the contextual information OPM provided. That same day, a Washington Examiner editorial writer highlighted the report. RedState.com put its own write-up on the front page on February 21, beneath an image of brass knuckles atop a pile of cash. On the February 27 edition of Your World with Neil Cavuto, Fox Business' Liz MacDonald made the same set of claims, and numerous other op-eds and blog posts from conservatives have accused the government of this same misspending of taxpayer dollars. Conservative gripes about "official time" expenditures are not new, however, as this 2011 Heritage Foundation testimony on the subject indicates.
Many of these other instances cite Freedom of Information Act requests by the conservative Americans for Limited Government to back their claims. According to ALGFOIAFiles.com, the group requested information from four departments on employees who perform "official time" labor representation work full-time. All four -- the Environmental Protection Agency, National Labor Relations Board, Small Business Administration, and the Department of Transportation -- responded between September and November of 2012. While conservatives like Trey Kovacs, a labor analyst for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, point to the EPA (which found 17 full-time union reps) and DOT (which found 38) responses as proof of a widespread "problem" whereby taxpayers fund work that does not benefit them, the reality of these four FOIA responses is not nearly so convenient for conservatives.
The data expose this claim for what it is: ideology masquerading as empiricism. As the table below shows, according to the most recent data available the four departments ALG successfully FOIA'd have as many as 0.19 percent of their employees doing union representation work full-time. And those employees do not account for all of the billed "official time" hours in any department, confirming that there are indeed many public servants (in the conservative sense of the phrase) who pitch in to bargaining and other representational efforts as needed.
In contrast to official temperature records showing a consistent warming trend, Fox Business reporters have claimed that the "temperature basically hasn't changed much since the ice age" and that it's actually "getting colder." Fox News figures have also denied the scientific consensus that human activity is driving climate change, claiming that carbon dioxide "literally cannot cause global warming" and suggesting that "Mars wobbles" or "wind farms" may be causing it instead. Those are just some of the 10 dumbest things Fox News, Fox Business and their websites said about climate change in 2012:
1. Fox Reporter: "The Temperature Basically Hasn't Changed Much Since The Ice Age." During the Ice Age, much of North America, northern Europe and southern South America were covered with ice sheets. Natural climate cycles led to the end of the Ice Age tens of thousands of years ago. In the last century, temperatures have increased dramatically as a result of our massive emissions of greenhouse gases. Yet Fox Business reporter Tracy Byrnes claimed in March that "the temperature basically hasn't changed much since the Ice Age," before confusing global warming with the depletion of the ozone layer:
2. During Record-Breaking Heat, Fox Anchor Claims "It's Getting Colder." During the third warmest summer on record in the U.S., David Asman, who hosts shows on both Fox News and Fox Business, claimed "it's getting colder":
3. Fox "Expert": Carbon Dioxide "Literally Cannot Cause Global Warming." Joe Bastardi is a meteorologist that is often presented as a climate change expert on Fox News, even though he has no climate science training. Bill O'Reilly has cited Bastardi as the reason that he is "skeptical" about global warming, but scientists have called Bastardi's statements "completely wrong," "simply ignorant," and "utter nonsense." In March, Bastardi attempted to "throw out 150 years of physics" by dismissing the greenhouse effect -- the reason there is life on Earth -- as impossible. Bastardi stated on Fox Business that carbon dioxide (CO2) "literally" -- yes, literally -- "cannot cause global warming" because it doesn't "mix well in the atmosphere." But physicist Richard Muller told Media Matters that CO2 is actually "completely mixed."
4. Fox Reporter: "Mars Wobbles" May Be Causing Climate Change. Elizabeth MacDonald, a Fox Business reporter who often appears on Fox News, incorrectly said in November that "there's no consensus on what's causing climate change, and asked "is it solar flares? Is it the Mars wobbles? Is it the earth's axis tilting in a different way? I mean, that's the issue." After being subject to mockery, she tried to walk back her comments saying she doesn't "think Mars wobbles cause hurricanes," but did not explain her previous comments.
5. Fox Website: "Wind Farms Cause Global Warming." In April, a study found that nighttime temperatures in areas around Texas wind farms were higher than in areas without wind turbines. Fox Nation, a section of FoxNews.com, linked to a story about the study with a headline declaring that wind farms "cause global warming." But the study's authors called this coverage "misleading," explaining that it is "[v]ery likely" that "wind turbines do not create a net warming of the air and instead only re-distribute the air's heat near the surface, which is fundamentally different from the large-scale warming effect caused by increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases."
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Fox Business's Liz MacDonald made the laughable claim that "the government's spending is now more than the size of the U.S. economy."
MacDonald appeared on Fox & Friends to interpret newly released economic data. She followed that by claiming that government spending is greater than the U.S. economy.
However, federal government spending is not greater than the size of the U.S. economy. In fact, in 2011, government spending was only about a quarter the size of the U.S. economy.
In 2011 the US government spent $3.6 trillion. The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) estimated that in 2011 the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP), or "the market value of the nation's output of goods and services," grew to $15.1 trillion dollars.
Advancing a highly misleading talking point from ExxonMobil, Fox's "straight news" program Happening Now defended the oil giant on Friday from Obama's call to end tax subsidies for oil companies.
Fox Business reporter Elizabeth MacDonald said she "just got off the phone with ExxonMobil" -- and it showed. She clearly didn't bother to fact check what they told her.
MacDonald said that ExxonMobil's "U.S. tax bill came in at $12 billion bucks -- that was more than the $9 billion bucks they earned in after tax profits." This is straight from the talking points ExxonMobil distributes when getting heat from the fact that its rising profits require drivers' pain.
Taxes greater than their profits? Pretty compelling if true. But in fact, ExxonMobil's "tax bill" includes at least $5.6 billion collected from consumers in federal and state gasoline taxes. Drivers pay the tax, but Exxon counts those dollars as part of its own tax burden. They've been doing this for years and are apparently still able to fool some reporters.
This morning in a "straight news" segment, Fox News aired the following graphic supposedly showing "Taxes At The Pump":
There are several reasons why this graphic does more to confuse than to inform. First, Fox double-counted state taxes. They included the average state tax of about 23 cents per gallon both in the category "state" taxes and in the category "state & local" taxes. The total of both state and local taxes is 30.4 cents on average. Fox also placed $3.83 at the bottom, as if taxes are in addition to the price for gasoline. But the $3.83 figure already includes the taxes.
And in a continuing struggle with the concept of scale, Fox's three tax figures appear about 70 percent as large as the $3.83 displayed underneath, when mathematically they're less than 20 percent (and that's without correcting for the double-counted state taxes).
Following GOP strategy, Fox News is again blaming the Obama administration for rising gasoline prices -- a claim that has been repeatedly debunked by energy analysts. But back in the summer of 2008, when the average U.S. gasoline price hit a record high of $4.11, Fox said that "no President has the power to increase or to lower gas prices."
In 2008, Fox's coverage occasionally even mirrored the facts: expanding domestic oil drilling will not significantly lower prices, and the only way to reduce our vulnerability to gas price spikes is to use less oil. Perhaps there was more room for reality-based coverage at Fox when there wasn't an incumbent president to defeat?
In case you missed it, here's how Fox is covering gas prices now:
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