The Real Consequences Of Terrible Journalism

The House Republicans are gearing up to slash nearly $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), knocking up to 3.8 million people off the food stamp rolls over the next two years. As far as benefit programs go, SNAP is pretty effective, and can be indispensable in hard economic times. The Republicans, however, are raising the specter of rampant waste and fraud within the program, and the centerpiece of their PR campaign to cut the program's funding is a terrifically misleading Fox News special from August hosted by Special Report anchor and “straight journalist” Bret Baier. 

That special, called "The Great Food Stamp Binge," made a right-wing celebrity out of Jason Greenslate, an unlikeable surfer from San Diego who refuses to work and proudly abuses his SNAP benefits. Greenslate is a rarity. The vast majority of SNAP households (75 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office) have a child, a person over the age of 60, or a disabled person. Greenslate's yearly benefit represents 0.000003 percent of the annual SNAP budget. He is in no way representative of SNAP recipients, and his behavior is atypical -- waste and fraud within the SNAP program is actually pretty rare.

In spite of all this, Greenslate ate up nine minutes of the hour-long special, divided between two segments. Offering no data or fact-based justification of any kind, Baier proclaimed Greenslate “the new face of food stamps.” Baier's intention was clear: to create the (false) impression that SNAP is rife with abuse, and to transform Greenslate into a punching bag for conservative politicians and pundits who want to slash the social safety net. 

And it worked. Reporting on the House Republican efforts to dramatically cut funding for SNAP on September 18, NPR's Tamara Keith quoted Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR) saying “we should reform the food stamp program so we can get the aid to those who need it most in their hour of need without the kind of rampant waste and abuse that you see.” Keith noted that Cotton was embellishing the degree to which waste and fraud exist, and pointed out that the House Republican messaging on SNAP has been shaped by Baier's special (and its focus on Greenslate), which was “circulated to GOP lawmakers.”

As Keith alluded, Fox News has been making a concerted effort to turn their special into political action. Politico reported on September 4 that copies of the special were “distributed by Fox staff to House members” ahead of the SNAP debate. “POLITICO inquiries to Fox News regarding the videos have gone unanswered since Saturday. But both Republican and Democratic offices confirmed that copies have been dropped off unsolicited in recent days, and the broadcast has already provided colorful fodder in promoting the Cantor package.”

GOP leaders seized on the Fox special. According to Roll Call, Greenslate played a starring role in a memo sent around by the House Republican leadership laying out SNAP talking points:

The surfer, unnamed in a memo Cantor circulated to GOP lawmakers earlier this month, is Jason Greenslate, 29. A Fox News report in August highlighted Greenslate, an unemployed musician perpetually in a cap and sunglasses, buying lobster rolls with $200-a-month benefits and laughing at the idea of a 9-to-5 job.

Conservative bloggers quickly cited Greenslate as a prime example of a flawed government program. But Democrats will counter that Greenslate is atypical of SNAP recipients, and they are expected to highlight more sympathetic beneficiaries.

An Associated Press fact-check of the memo quotes it as citing “newscasts” that “tell stories of young surfers who aren't working, but cash their food stamps in for lobster.”

The House Republicans have this “surfer” to kick around because Bret Baier created a false and derogatory caricature of SNAP recipients and presented it as investigative journalism. And then his network pushed out his slanted and misleading “investigation” in an effort to tip the SNAP fight in the Republicans' favor as part of their campaign to cut funding to a program that helps keep millions of hard-up Americans out of poverty and starvation. Baier's work was less “journalism” than it was pre-fab GOP talking points.

But Baier's reporting, terrible as it may be, can have this sort of influence because of Baier's reputation as the “serious journalist” on Fox News. Back in 2011, NPR's David Folkenflik profiled Baier and noted that “like fellow Fox anchor Shepard Smith, Baier is presented by executives as evidence of the network's fairness in its news coverage.” And people tend to swallow this line: Politico's Mike Allen also profiled Baier -- “A Boy Scout with a very sharp knife,” per the headline -- and quoted Baier saying “I'm not soft on either side.”

Baier's reputation as a straight-shooting, down-the-middle avatar of fairness notwithstanding, “The Great Food Stamp Binge” shows that he's just as capable of the sort of partisan chicanery the cable news-watching world has come to expect from the uniformly conservative, pro-GOP Fox News commentary division. The difference is that Baier does it under the banner of journalistic integrity, which gives his reporting an audience and a reach the average Sean Hannity diatribe doesn't have, and the dangerous potential to wreak havoc on the livelihoods of America's less fortunate.