In 2015, conservative media outlets -- led by Fox News -- set a new standard for attacking the least fortunate members of American society, targeting low-income workers, recipients of government assistance, and the homeless in a campaign of misinformation. The campaign was so pervasive that President Obama personally addressed it during a leadership summit dedicated to alleviating poverty. In recognition of their exemplary efforts to distort the public discourse on poverty, here are five of the worst trends in right-wing media poor-shaming from 2015.
1 - Fox News Coverage So Extreme The President Was Compelled To Respond
For many years, Fox News has been one of the worst media offenders for spreading misinformation about poverty in the United States. In 2015, the network's campaign against low-income Americans struggling to make ends meet had become so aggressive that President Obama specifically addressed it during a May 12 panel discussion at the Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty. Fox News figures and other right-wing media personalities responded by attacking the president for critiquing the network's slanted poverty coverage, but other outlets piled on the network for its frequently absurd and biased portrayals of low-income Americans and anti-poverty relief programs. The Daily Show's Jon Stewart slammed Fox's role in pushing disingenuous narratives, defending President Obama's criticism of the network as "easily provable and decidedly true."
2 - Fox Blamed Poor People For Their Poverty
In the aftermath of President Obama's May 12 poverty summit, Fox News returned to a staple of its campaign of misinformation -- blaming the poor for their poverty. On one occasion, Fox Business host Stuart Varney blamed both the president's economic policies and a supposed “culture of dependency” for the state of poverty in the United States, to which Fox News co-host Steve Doocy added, “if you don't want to be poor, usually, you wind up with a job.” Fox News political analyst Brit Hume once charged that millions of Americans living in poverty were “responsible for that by the choices they make.” And frequent Fox guest Ben Stein used an appearance on the network to assert that government assistance was being wasted on “the dumber people who are way below the poverty line,” falsely claiming that many people living in poverty were “slobs, drunks, [and] drug addicts” unwilling to better themselves through hard work.
Fox even managed to rope the minimum wage into its poor-shaming messaging strategy, hyping completely unsubstantiated claims that an “unintended consequence” of Seattle's minimum wage increase was that low-income workers had to choose between an increased salary or maintaining “welfare” eligibility. The notion that overly generous assistance discourages work (also known as the “Welfare Cliff”) was a constant theme this year, with Fox even promoting the absurd claims of a notoriously miserly fast food CEO that some of his employees were turning down major promotions and pay raises because they “don't want to lose the free stuff from the government.”
3 - Fox Argued Recipients Of Government Assistance Deserve Public Shame
Fox News' notorious habit for attacking recipients of government anti-poverty assistance bubbled to the surface several times in the past year. At one point, Fox host Bill O'Reilly's repeated attacks on what he called “irresponsible” low-income parents went so far that a guest called him out for it on his own show. When the Republican mayor of Lewiston, Maine endorsed a plan to publish the contact information of public assistance recipients, conservative anti-government activist Seton Motley used an appearance on Fox & Friends to voice his explicit support for “shaming the people who are sitting on welfare.” During the same segment, Fox's Steve Doocy defended the plan, arguing, “What's the matter with putting the list out there of the people who are winding up with money out of the taxpayers' pocket?” -- glossing over the fact that the proposed government invasion of privacy would be illegal.
Fox Business contributor Charles Payne, who frequently attacks public assistance programs, claimed that federal anti-poverty programs “reward mediocrity” and contribute to economic inequality by letting the poor avoid “pull[ing] themselves up by the bootstrap.” Payne also revived one of Fox News' favorite poverty myths -- that Democrats win votes by giving out so-called “Obamaphones” in poor communities -- just weeks after President Obama mocked the network for its Obamaphone smear campaign.
4 - Right-Wing Personalities Promoted Fear, Ridicule Of Homeless Americans
In addition to their typical attacks on low-income Americans, conservative media launched a concerted campaign to dehumanize the homeless in 2015. On two notable occasions, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly and producer Jesse Watters used The O'Reilly Factor as a national platform to ridicule homeless New Yorkers forced to live on the streets or seek temporary refuge in subway and train stations. In one instance, while attacking New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, O'Reilly charged that the city's homeless threatened “to destroy neighborhoods.”
On MSNBC, conservative morning show host Joe Scarborough echoed O'Reilly while lamenting the supposed “homeless epidemic” in New York's affluent Upper West Side, demanding that police crack down on the squeegee-wielding dispossessed. In response to Scarborough's call for a crackdown, New York Police Department (NYPD) Commissioner Bill Bratton informed the host that NYPD officers were instructed to “police constitutionally” and that simply being homeless was not a punishable offense.
When the city government in Washington, D.C. moved to expand its cost-effective housing program for homeless families, Fox hosts and guests attacked the program's out-of-context price tag and suggested it could become “a huge waste of taxpayers' money” that “lasts forever.”
5 - Conservative Media Denied Dangers Of Smear Campaign Against Assistance Programs
The right-wing media campaign against poverty relief programs was continuous throughout the year. Fox News' never-ending assault on food and public assistance programs was devastatingly effective in the past year. After Fox spent years denigrating a nutritional assistance program relied on by nearly 45 million Americans, conservative politicians around the country began instituting draconian measures to kick needy families out of the program. When confronted with evidence that food stamps and other vital programs (Social Security, Medicaid, etc.) are a crucial component in the well-being of millions, conservative media simply ignored the facts to claim that anti-poverty programs “have not worked.”
On one occasion, Fox's Bill O'Reilly defended his attacks on food assistance programs and other so-called “entitlements” by claiming that the existence of child hunger in the United States is “a total lie” unworthy of taxpayer money. Days later, right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh lamented that government relief programs had made poverty too comfortable for the poor, and pined for the bread lines, starvation, and day-to-day suffering of the Great Depression.