Fox News is helping Republicans spread a demagogic talking point that the new $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package, passed over the weekend in the U.S. Senate along a party-line vote will provide stimulus payments to inmates in prison. The network figures are mostly glossing over an inconvenient fact: This provision was also included in the previous COVID-19 relief packages passed in 2020, which Republicans voted for at the time.
Both the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act and the supplemental aid package passed in December 2020 had made prisoners eligible to receive payments — the real purpose of which was to function as aid for their families. And both packages had passed in the Senate with landslide majorities, including nearly all Republican members. The Trump administration had then sought to strip inmates from benefits unilaterally, only to be knocked down in court.
As USA Today columnist Suzette Hackney explained last year:
Many people will argue that anyone convicted of a crime and serving time, especially violent offenders, don't deserve a check from the government. But that's a short-sighted, emotional argument.
Many prison inmates do have children, spouses or aging parents who need help to pay the rent or buy food. And for those inmates who soon will be released, the stimulus money will provide the opportunity for a fresh start.
The topic got brief mentions on Sunday, with Fox News correspondent David Spunt highlighting both the Republican objections and the Democratic rebuttal that the money would help prisoners’ families. Later on The Big Sunday Show, Fox News headlines reporter Carley Shimkus actually mentioned that Republicans had previously voted for the first two relief bills with money for prisoners, which, she added, “I think was a problem.” She then echoed a couple of tweets from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), declaring: “No taxpayer money should ever go to the Boston Marathon bomber or Dylann Roof. That’s a horrifying thing to think of.”
Shimkus’ borrowed rhetorical flourish from Cotton, of singling out the worst possible examples of people currently in prison — and who will never be getting out — went on to become the dominant talking point as the network picked up the pace on Monday, with Cotton leading the charge.
During an appearance on Fox & Friends, Cotton castigated the Democrats. “They had a chance on Saturday morning to stop checks from going to prisoners — from going to the Boston bomber, for instance — and on that vote, they declined,” Cotton said, referring to a vote that had been held over the weekend on an amendment to the relief package. “Every single Democrat wanted to continue the practice of sending checks to prisoners.”
Co-host Ainsley Earheardt responded: “Is that true that Dylann Roof, the guy who walked into that church in Charleston, South Carolina, and killed all those people, he's going to get a check?”
Cotton replied: “Every prisoner in the United States, if they have tax forms filed, are as eligible for a check under this bill.
None of the co-hosts noted, however, that if a prisoner has tax forms filed, they are part of the economy.
The ginned-up outrage continued into Fox’s “news”-side coverage, with America’s Newsroom co-anchor Dana Perino showing mugshot images of white-supremacist mass murderer Dylann Roof and Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and saying: “They remain behind bars — but they’re going to get the money, anyway.”
So far, none of Monday morning’s programming has mentioned that the same provision was included in the previous two stimulus packages, which nearly all Senate Republicans had voted for at the time.