NPR promoted right-wing talking points about government support in an unevenly reported story about a coffee shop’s closure

$600 per week in unemployment benefits probably weren’t the downfall of a Kentucky business

It’s no surprise that Fox News and other conservative media outlets think that the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) is too generous to unemployed Americans. For decades, conservatives have argued that various programs -- whether they be food stamps, Social Security, universal basic income, disability assistance programs, or other forms of welfare -- disincentivize work. The rhetoric behind this argument, perhaps most famously employed by Ronald Reagan in his “welfare queen” speeches, plays on people’s resentment of those they might view as freeloaders.

So when people learned that an unemployment provision in the CARES Act would provide people receiving unemployment benefits an additional $600 per week on top of their existing benefits through the end of July, conservative media freaked out. They hammered home a talking point centered on the supposed unfairness of a system that, in some cases, would pay people who are out of work more than they were making when they still had jobs. 

Brian Kilmeade argued that people put out of work by the pandemic might not want to return when it becomes available during the April 9 and April 14 editions of Fox & FriendsSean Hannity made similar arguments.

Fox News’ coverage is to be expected, but it wasn’t the only outlet to use this spin: The generally reputable NPR put out a story promoting the same conservative narrative. 

“Bitter Taste For Coffee Shop Owner, As New $600 Jobless Benefit Closed Her Business,” read the original headline to an April 21 story on NPR’s Morning Edition. The story focused on Sky Marietta, the owner of a coffee shop in Harlan, Kentucky.

The segment and its corresponding article presented Marietta as a business owner forced to close shop after being unable to compete with the type of pay her employees could make on unemployment. She said employees asked to be laid off because they could make more money from unemployment, so “even though she had customers, Marietta was reluctantly forced to close the coffee shop just over a week ago,” the article originally noted. Whether she was “forced” to close her shop specifically because of unemployment payments is up for debate, as she noted in a blog post that revenue had already fallen quite a bit.

But the biggest problem with NPR’s reporting on this story is that it didn’t take into account Marietta’s employees. While the story included an interview with Marietta, and played a quote from Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley, quoted economist Betsey Stevenson and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, it omitted any commentary from Marietta’s employees (or any low-wage workers, for that matter). Instead of a story addressing a fragile balance between capitalism and public health risks to working-class Americans, NPR essentially just handed Marietta a megaphone to echo conservative talking points about government support for workers being too generous. This makes for uneven and incomplete reporting.

Marietta’s blog post, which the NPR piece links to, further explains her thinking, painting her decision to shut down her business as almost a philosophical one. “To be clear, we do not mind losing money if it is for the public good,” she writes, expressing that she does believe workers should be paid a living wage. “What is so painful about this policy is that it pits the workers on the front line versus those who were fortunate enough to be laid off. It also reinforces a precedent in our country where those contributing the least are paid the most.”

Her point that “those contributing the least” -- by which she’s referring to laid off workers -- should not be “paid the most” is a pretty standard, mainstream conservative view, to which she appears to subscribe:

The problem now is the policy had been made law, and that’s “hard to walk back” as we’ve been told by representatives of our elected officials. In short, the horse is out of the barn. So for now, we can wait and see what America thinks of paying people who aren’t working more than those who are (and putting their lives in danger while they do it!). In our opinion, it’s a ticking time bomb for massive civil unrest, widespread labor strikes, food shortages, and a prolonged depression.

NPR later made updates to the written version of the story by tweaking the headline and adding an additional quote from Marietta.

“Marietta was reluctantly forced to close the coffee shop just over a week ago” became “Marietta reluctantly decided to close the coffee shop just over a week ago,” a more accurate description of what happened.

“You also have to think, the benefit of not having to go to work, especially during a pandemic,” reads a quote from Marietta in the revised article but absent from the version that aired during Morning Edition. “It's not that we don't wish that we could pay our employees at that level all the time. You're always wanting to pay your staff the best you possible can. But to be put in a position where you can't compete with them being at home, unemployed. It's really tricky. It's a really difficult situation to be in.”

If Marietta wants to present her actions as that of a compassionate business owner only looking out for her employees’ best interests, she’s welcome to do that. Perhaps her employees would even agree with that assessment. Unfortunately, the audience doesn’t know if this is the case as we weren’t given the opportunity to hear from employees themselves. Additionally, without an employee corroborating Marietta’s claim that they had asked to be laid off so they could apply for unemployment, the audience is expected to simply take her word for it.

The way the government response to the COVID-19 pandemic gets covered matters, and it’s important that reputable organizations like NPR get it right the first time.

Yes, it’s a good thing that NPR updated the online version of the story with some slight improvements, but that doesn’t help inform those who read the story earlier in the day or heard it during Morning Edition. There’s enough spin and misinformation being put out into the world by conservative outlets as it is without sloppy reporting by NPR adding to people’s confusion.

One of the biggest Republican talking points that’s emerged since the CARES Act was drafted is that the bill creates a situation in which people would want to become unemployed. NPR notes that in its article, calling it an “unintended consequence of the relief bill,” but it doesn’t provide the counterargument that this is a time -- during widespread stay-at-home orders -- when it’s a good thing if people at nonessential businesses aren’t forced to choose between risking their lives and being able to pay their bills. Any story on such issues that doesn’t take into account the voices of the working class fails to live up to the lofty standards serious media outlets should set for themselves.