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  • STUDY: Fox News leads networks in pushing White House's false narrative that Trump tax cuts increased wages

    Fox News’ right-wing propaganda dominated cable news coverage of Trump tax cuts 

    Blog ››› ››› ROB SAVILLO


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Fox News has relentlessly repeated the false narrative that President Donald Trump’s tax plan, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, either increased wages for workers or was the direct cause of some major companies issuing one-time bonuses to employees. Since Trump signed the legislation into law on December 22, 2017, Fox News hosts, correspondents, and guests have made the claim 248 times. In reality, wages have been essentially stagnant since the tax bill was signed, companies poured the vast majority of their tax savings into stock buybacks, and U.S. dividends hit record highs in the months after the tax bill became law.

    What Republicans billed as a middle-class tax cut has overwhelmingly benefited the richest Americans and wealthiest corporations. Now the GOP-controlled House just passed tax cuts 2.0, which economist Jared Bernstein described as a plan that “doubles down on everything that's wrong with the plan they passed at the end of last year."

    Summary

    Background

    Findings

    Summary

    Media Matters reviewed transcripts of the three major cable networks’ evening news shows beginning at 4 p.m. for CNN and Fox News and 5 p.m. for MSNBC (4 p.m. transcripts of Deadline: White House were unavailable) through midnight each weeknight. We looked for comments on wage increases or bonuses versus comments on corporate stock or share buybacks or dividends in discussions about the tax bill since it passed on December 22, 2017.

    Fox led coverage, with comments spread over 182 segments during the nine-month study period. By contrast, CNN and MSNBC each aired only 29 segments containing comments that this study analyzed. Fox was able to set the narrative by having significantly more coverage of the topic and overwhelmingly pushing the administration’s false talking point that the tax cuts spurred wage increases or bonuses.

    Background

    Prior to passage of the Trump tax cuts, the White House Council of Economic Advisers claimed that the legislation would “increase average household income in the United States by, very conservatively, $4,000 annually.” Council Chairman Kevin Hassett clarified in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that the household income increase would actually be a wage increase: “When profits go up, capital investment goes up, and wages follow. That’s the reason we estimated, based on what has happened around the world, that households will get an average $4,000 wage increase from corporate tax reform.” And the day Trump signed the tax bill, he credited it with encouraging companies to issue bonuses to their workers.

    However, real hourly earnings have been stagnant since the tax bill was signed into law, even declining slightly from August 2017 to August 2018, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report issued in September. In August, Pew Research Center released a report showing that real wages haven’t moved in decades. Instead of using their tax cuts for wage or investment growth, companies chose to pour the vast majority of their tax savings into unprecedented stock buybacks, and U.S. dividends reached a record high in the wake of the tax legislation.

    The bonuses were not all what they were promised to be, either -- few employees met the requirements necessary to qualify for the $1,000 maximum bonuses that several large companies announced. Many employees at Walmart, Home Depot, and Lowe’s qualified for only $200-250 bonuses. And AT&T and Comcast announced bonuses to employees in 2017, which allowed them to deduct the cost at the prior 35 percent corporate tax rate rather than the new 21 percent rate of the tax bill.

    The new focus on wage increases at the likes of Walmart -- from $9 an hour to $11 an hour -- obscured the fact that the company had been raising wages for the past few years anyway: In 2015, the hourly wage rose to $9, and in 2016, it rose again to $10. At the same time as news spread of the increase to $11, the retailer announced layoffs of thousands of employees. In the past, Walmart has resisted efforts to increase its minimum wage to $15 an hour.

    Findings

    The facts didn’t stop Fox News from tirelessly repeating the administration line that wages were up and bonuses were issued because of the tax cuts. Fox News hosts, correspondents, and guests have claimed the tax cuts led to higher wages or company-issued bonuses 248 times since December 22, 2017. Fox’s business-focused show, Your World with Neil Cavuto, led the coverage with 78 segments total, including 133 comments made about wage hikes and bonuses.

    This narrative drove the network’s coverage as evidence refuting these false claims was a much smaller fraction of the discussion. Fox commentators correctly noted that wages had remained flat over the last year or that companies had been using the vast majority of their tax savings on stock buybacks or dividends only 57 times over the same nine-month period.


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    On CNN and MSNBC, tax cuts, wage increases, bonuses, and stock buybacks were hardly topics of conversation. Speakers on CNN repeated the White House’s narrative almost as often as others pointed out wage stagnation or stock buybacks. The top CNN show, Erin Burnett OutFront, was emblematic of this pattern, with 14 comments about wage increases or bonuses and 12 comments about stagnant wages or stock buybacks.

    On MSNBC, the administration line on wage increases and bonuses was barely mentioned; comments on wage stagnation or stock buybacks were made three times as often. MSNBC’s top show, All In with Chris Hayes, demonstrated this trend with zero comments about wage increases or bonuses and 12 comments about stagnant wages or stock buybacks.

    Overall, discussions of the tax law on Fox vastly outnumbered discussions on CNN and MSNBC.

    More than three-quarters of Fox’s dishonest coverage occurred during the two months after Trump signed the tax bill. Between December 22, 2017, and January 22, 2018, speakers on Fox made claims that the tax legislation increased wages or caused companies to issue bonuses 99 times. In the following 30 days, the claims were repeated another 92 times.


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    This persistence on Fox drowned out comments on all three networks that correctly identified the country’s consistently flat wages or corporate stock buyback initiatives since the tax bill went into law -- these claims were made less than 20 times in any single 30-day period on any of the three networks.


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Throughout the course of the study, Fox News completely dominated coverage on wage increases, bonuses, and the tax cuts, misleadingly connecting them over and over while failing to mention that the vast majority of corporate tax savings went into stock buybacks.

    Methodology

    Media Matters searched the Nexis transcript database for weekday evening news shows on the three major cable news networks: CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC. Evening news includes all programs beginning at 4 p.m. and ending at midnight with the exception of MSNBC’s Deadline: White House, which airs for one hour at 4 p.m., because its transcripts are unavailable in Nexis.

    We counted comments that fell into one of three categories:

    1. Comments that claimed that the tax bill had or would increase wages or cause companies to issue bonuses to employees.
    2. Comments that were critical of claims that the tax bill had or would increase wages or cause companies to issue bonuses, including comments that identified anecdotal wage increases or issued bonuses but said those increases or bonuses were a small portion of the tax savings spent by companies; or comments that identified that wages had been flat or stagnant over the last year since the signing of the tax bill.
    3. Comments that identified that stock or share buybacks or dividends were a larger portion of the tax savings spent by companies than any benefits given to workers.

    We defined a “comment” as a single block of uninterrupted speech from a single speaker in the transcript. In the case of crosstalk as identified by the transcript, we coded each speaker engaged in the crosstalk as making a single comment rather than several back-and-forth comments. We excluded comments made in video clips unless a speaker on the program used language that clearly endorsed the comment either directly before or after the clip aired. More than one category may occur in a single comment.

    We excluded comments that merely stated “paychecks would increase” or workers would have “more money in their pockets” and the like since these comments may only suggest that withholding would be less, and therefore, workers would have a higher paycheck; however, these comments do not necessarily suggest that workers’ base wages would increase.

    We designed our searches to look specifically for comments about the tax legislation that fit the above categories. For categories (1) and (2), we looked for the terms “wages,” “earnings,” “money,” or variations of “pay” within 10 words of variations of “increase,” “high,” “grow,” or “decrease” or the terms “up,” “hike,” “more,” “raise,” “rise,” “stagnant,” “flat,” or “lower” or the term “bonus” all within 50 words of the terms “tax” within 10 words of “plan,” “bill,” “reform,” “cut,” or “law” or the term “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.”

    For category (3), we looked for the terms “stock” or “share” within 10 words of “buyback” or the terms “dividend,” “shareholder,” “merger,” or “acquisition” all within 50 words of “tax” within 10 words of “plan,” “bill,” “reform,” “cut,” or “law” or the term “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.”

  • Media portray these tales of perseverance as uplifting and inspirational. They're actually horror stories.

    In areas like health care and sick leave, systems are failing Americans -- and the obsession with uplifting stories optimized for social media is obscuring it.

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    If you spend any amount of time on social media, you’re probably familiar with mega-viral uplifting stories like “A teacher battling cancer ran out of sick days. School employees showered him with theirs,” “Birmingham college student walked 20 miles to 1st day of work so his boss gave him his car,” “Vietnam vet named 'Smiley' gets new teeth after living toothless for 40 years,” and “Little girl desperate to save mom’s life after cancer diagnosis opens lemonade stand.”

    These four examples all come from just the past five months, but there are countless additional articles and segments that share the same lessons about never giving up, going the extra mile, and taking care of others. The articles are framed to make you feel good, to illustrate the kindness of others, to show you that things can work out when tragedy hits, and yes, to “restore your faith in humanity.” These are excellent messages that we could probably all benefit from having in our lives, but there’s one thing that gets left out on an all-too-regular basis: the underlying causes.

    If the United States followed the lead of other well-off countries, paid sick leave would eliminate the need for co-workers to donate their sick days; if workers were paid a living wage and we invested in public transportation, no one would have to walk 20 miles to work; if we fulfilled the promises made to our veterans, none of them would go 40 years without teeth; if we treated health care as a right, no child would feel a responsibility to sell enough lemonade to keep their mother alive. Each story could be just as easily framed in a way meant to disgust us with the state of the social safety net and inspire us to enact policies that prevent such situations from happening. Instead, the authors tend to isolate each situation from its larger context.

    In 2017, writer Adam Johnson coined the term “perseverance porn” to refer to uplifting stories centered around people overcoming long odds and societal roadblocks on the path to happy endings. It makes for an apt name considering how these stories fetishize bootstrapping one's way out of trouble.

    Part of what makes perseverance porn so effective, at least when it comes to getting our attention, is that it tends to follow a storytelling structure sometimes known as the “dramatic arc” -- consisting of, in the Florida teacher’s story, an introduction (meet this teacher), a rising action (he was diagnosed with cancer), the climax (he realized he doesn’t have enough sick days), a falling action (he posted a selfie calling for help), and a resolution (within four days other teachers had donated enough days to cover his needs). In these dramatic-arc pieces, we see the happy ending, or are at least left with the impression that there will be one. This is the same time-tested technique, sometimes also referred to as the “hero’s journey,” used in fiction from The Odyssey to Star Wars. (In this case, CNN did publish a follow-up story making similar arguments about the original piece as are being made here, but it was an opinion piece and not the straight-reported version originally published.)

    The problem with these stories is that they routinely gloss over harsh realities in order to fit this structure. They lead us to believe that these situations have a way of working themselves out. In fact, many (if not most) people facing these challenges — whether it’s the majority of people whose medical crowdfunding campaigns don’t reach the goal, or it’s someone who dies because they can’t afford their cancer treatment or their insulin —  don’t get the the help they need, and things do not magically work themselves out. But these stories buoy the conservative argument that aspects of the social safety net should be trimmed back or abolished altogether in favor of private charity.

    During his run for the 2012 Republican nomination for president, Ron Paul famously responded to a question about what responsibility the government should have for an uninsured person facing a long-term medical emergency such as a coma by saying that such a person should “assume responsibility for himself.” When pressed, he suggested that churches, neighbors, or friends would take care of it. In practice, we can see that this just isn’t the case.

    Last year, artist Shane Patrick Boyle lost his health benefits after moving from Texas to Arkansas to care for his dying mother. A Type I diabetic, he simply didn’t have the $750 he needed to buy a month’s supply of insulin, so he did what more than 250,000 people do each year: He launched a GoFundMe campaign. Unlike the stories the news media tends to highlight, his doesn’t have a happy ending. He came up $50 short, and less than a month later, he was dead.

    Boyle’s story is one of a failed system and the limits of relying on charity to fund health expenses, but it wasn’t until eight months after his death, when The Nation mentioned him in a story and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) shared the article on Facebook, that it gained much traction in the national press. It could be that stories like Boyle’s just don’t generate as much traffic or attention as the ones about a neighborhood coming together to help raise money for someone’s cancer treatment. But in my view, writers shy away from reporting these stories partially out of fear of being labeled political.

    Consider the time Jimmy Kimmel used his late-night platform to talk about his newborn son’s health woes. The story contained all the elements of the dramatic arc -- his wife gave birth, his son was diagnosed with a rare heart condition, he had surgery to fix one of the defects, and the family lives happily ever after. It also took aim at an underlying issue: Kimmel acknowledged that people who aren’t millionaire talk show hosts might not have been able to afford the care his son needed. He discussed why protections banning insurance companies from denying coverage on the basis of a pre-existing condition are so important to so many, and he made an argument against passing legislation that would gut those rights.

    Several right-leaning media outlets slammed Kimmel’s segment. The Washington TimesCharles Hurt told Kimmel to “shut your fat trap about partisan politics and go care for your kid, who just nearly died, you elitist creep.” Conservative host Michelle Malkin dismissed Kimmel’s plea, writing, “I feel your pain. But please use your brain.” The Daily Caller polled its readers as to whether it was appropriate for Kimmel to use “emotional coercion for political purposes.”

    Yes, Kimmel’s monologue was political, but so is perseverance porn. When journalists leave out details about why people find themselves in desperate situations, or how many people in those positions don’t end up getting the help they need, they’re reinforcing a long-running conservative narrative in support of privatizing the social safety net. More detailed versions of these stories complete with uncomfortable facts about human suffering in the U.S. might not click as well or share as reliably on social media as the current crop of content does, but they would be a lot more honest.

    The world needs positivity, and the people involved in these stories deserve all the praise they can get. But positivity without honesty can blind us to the reality of everyday life and build up a distorted understanding of the country’s problems.

    Parker Molloy is a Chicago-based writer with an interest in media, technology, politics, and culture. Her work has appeared in outlets including The New York Times, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, and Upworthy.
  • Fox claims wages are going up. They're actually falling.

    Average “real wages” are falling because growth isn’t keeping up with inflation 

    Blog ››› ››› GRACE BENNETT

    Fox Business host Stuart Varney appeared on Fox & Friends to mislead viewers about economic growth under the Trump administration, claiming that, “wages [and] salaries are going up for the best increase in at least a decade,” and asserting that “if you have a skill that’s in demand … your wages, salaries are going up.”

    From the August 20 edition of Fox News’ Fox & Friends:

    According to The Washington Post, however, any apparent increase in wages is being wiped out by a larger increase in inflation. Once inflation is taken into account, the average U.S. “real wage” is actually decreasing, falling to “$10.76 an hour last month, 2 cents down from where it was a year ago.” In addition to falling wage growth, workers must grapple with “with higher prices giving [them] less buying power than they had last summer,” according to The New York Times. The Times also reported on the concerning disparity between corporate profits and workers’ gains, noting, “Corporate profits have rarely swept up a bigger share of the nation’s wealth, and workers have rarely shared a smaller one.”

    Varney’s claim that supposed wage growth is “the best increase in at least a decade” is misleading on two fronts: Average wages have fallen over the past year once inflation is accounted for, and wage growth is increasing at a slower rate than in November 2016, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s wage growth tracker.

    Unfortunately, this is isn’t the first time that Fox has attempted to mislead the viewers about wage growth or the Trump economy.