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  • 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.

  • Video: There's a housing discrimination crisis in America -- and coverage of the issue should reflect that

    Blog ››› ››› DAYANITA RAMESH & MILES LE


    Dayanita Ramesh / Media Matters

    The Fair Housing Act was passed 50 years ago, but housing discrimination is still rampant, and media coverage of the issue is overly focused on President Donald Trump’s history of racism and discrimination in this arena. While his past is notable, it’s important for mainstream outlets to inform viewers about the widespread and complicated nature of housing discrimination by interviewing victims and highlighting fair housing research.

    The Fair Housing Act was supposed to protect the right to fair housing for all people. And yet the act is not fulfilling its goals, with unprecedented attacks from the Trump administration and continued discrimination by banks, lenders, landlords, and/or developers, against Black and Latinx people, the poor, the formerly incarcerated, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, and single women who are looking to rent or buy a home. There were 28,181 reported complaints of housing discrimination in 2016, but according to the National Fair Housing Alliance, housing discrimination is seriously underreported. The organization estimates that there are actually over 4 million cases of housing discrimination each year in America.

    Mainstream television coverage of housing discrimination has been overly focused on Trump's personal history with discrimination. Mainstream news outlets are right to warn viewers about his history of racism and discrimination against Black people. However, mainstream outlets such as MSNBC and CNN should follow the lead of PBS and Democracy Now and use these opportunities to inform viewers about the issue, including by interviewing victims of housing discrimination and highlighting important fair housing research.

  • Fox's Stuart Varney hypes wage growth under Trump. In fact, real wage growth has gone down.

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    Fox Business host Stuart Varney appeared on Fox & Friends to hype economic growth under the Trump administration, claiming “wages are rising 25 percent faster under President Trump than they did under President Obama.”

    From the July 31 edition of Fox News’ Fox & Friends:

    STUART VARNEY (FOX BUSINESS NETWORK): The expansion of the economy coincided right at the time when we got the tax cuts, right at the time after we got deregulation. It pumped up the economy, and what you’ve got now is, essentially, tax cuts taking effect. Unemployment came down. Worker bonuses reached the highest levels ever, and the [Congressional Budget Office], the congressional bean counters basically, they say that wages are rising 25 percent faster under President Trump than they did under President Obama.

    But, according to the Center for American Progress, while nominal wage growth has ticked up slightly, “workers’ wages are flat or even slightly down, in real terms, over the last year” because “inflation has picked up more than wage growth.” Moreover, despite Varney’s claims that the Republican tax cuts “pumped up the economy,” according to the Center for American Progress, “real wages are flat or slightly down since the tax bill passed.”

    Furthermore, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s wage growth tracker showed that wages are in fact growing at a slower rate than they were in November 2016 under President Obama.

  • Mike Pence turns to Sinclair for an embarrassingly friendly interview as Trump defends the media giant 

    Pence on corporation-friendly tax cuts: “President Trump has been delivering on his promise: to cut taxes for working families” 

    Blog ››› ››› PAM VOGEL

    Vice President Mike Pence has joined a growing list of Trump administration officials benefiting from softball interviews with Sinclair Broadcast Group.

    On July 24, part of Pence’s sit-down interview with Sinclair chief political analyst and former Trump aide Boris Epshteyn was shared online.

    In this latest “Bottom Line With Boris” segment, Epshteyn and Pence discuss how “President Trump has been delivering on his promise: to cut taxes for working families and businesses” thanks to the Republican tax overhaul known as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. In reality, the legislation predominantly benefited large corporations, and wages have actually fallen by 1.8 percent since the cuts were enacted. Epshteyn does not mention this in the segment, but rather asks the sorts of vague questions that set Pence up to use the interview as an infomercial for Trump and the Republican party.

    Here is a full transcript and video.

    BORIS EPSHTEYN: I joined Vice President Mike Pence on his trip to Philadelphia this week. He focused on tax reform. Here’s what he had to say.

    [INTERVIEW CLIP]

    MIKE PENCE: As you look at this economy, confidence is back, jobs are coming back. In a real sense, America is back, and it’s because President Trump has been delivering on his promise: to cut taxes for working families and businesses.

    EPSHTEYN: Where do you see the job market going in the next six months, a year, two years?

    PENCE: Well, 3.7 million new jobs is an extraordinary amount of progress, but the fact of the matter is there [are] still many Americans that are on the sidelines. But the encouraging news, Boris, is that in the last month the unemployment number nationally ticked up a little bit.

    EPSHTEYN: Right.

    PENCE: But that was because more Americans were now looking for jobs across the country. And so making sure that we continue to make these tax cuts permanent, that we continue to roll back red tape, but that we also make sure that Americans who are now looking for work have the training, the vocational education, and the skills to fill those good-paying jobs that are open now.

    EPSHTEYN: You’re criss-crossing the country ahead of the midterms. So important. How vital of a role is tax reform playing in your message while you’re out there?

    PENCE: To continue to move the nation forward, we’ve got to have partners. We’ve got to have renewed Republican majorities in the House and in the Senate that will work with us as we drive for more tax reform, roll back more federal red tape, and have an energy policy that puts America first. So we’re out there telling the story and it’s a great story to tell.

    [END OF INTERVIEW CLIP]

    EPSHTEYN: Here's the bottom line: The historic tax cuts signed by President Trump into law in December are going to continue to be a key agenda item for the Republican Party heading into November. Expect to hear a lot about the tax cuts on the campaign trail throughout the country.

    This interview segment will now air as “must-run” content on more than 100 Sinclair-owned and -operated local TV news stations across the country. As of publication, a Media Matters search of the iQ media database shows the segment has already aired in at least 20 states. There will be at least one more excerpt from the interview released as an additional segment in the coming days -- according to Epshteyn’s newsletter, the next Pence segment will focus on Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

    The fawning Pence interview is just the latest entry in a long list of friendly connections between Sinclair and the Trump inner circle. Sinclair has previously aired softball segments with at least six other administration officials, as well as Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

    Hours after the Pence segment was first posted online, President Donald Trump tweeted a defense of Sinclair, signaling displeasure with a recent and surprising Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decision to send Sinclair’s proposed acquisition of Tribune Media to its likely doom. Trump tweeted that an even larger Sinclair “would have been a great and much needed Conservative voice for and of the People.” Had the deal been approved, pro-Trump propaganda like these interviews would have reached more than seven in 10 American TV households.

  • Fox is deceptively hyping GOP’s next tax bill that just benefits the ultra rich

    Blog ››› ››› ZACHARY PLEAT


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Back in December, when President Donald Trump signed into law changes in U.S. tax policy, Fox News helped Republicans spin the discussion surrounding the legislation by hyping anecdotal reports of bonuses, wage hikes, and investments. Now that Republicans are aiming to make the individual tax cuts permanent, Fox is at it again -- despite analyses showing how staggeringly disproportionate the benefits are for the wealthy and large businesses, that they barely lower tax burdens for some middle class and lower income families, and that they have had no noticeable positive effect on the economy.

    The law, officially titled the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), passed in December, and Fox hosts celebrated the legislation’s passage after contributing their own dishonest coverage. Fox News shows repeatedly focused on announcements of bonuses -- such as some AT&T workers receiving a $1,000 bonus their union already negotiated -- and small wage increases from some companies to portray the tax cuts as beneficial for ordinary working Americans.

    Others, including Fox’s Sean Hannity, claimed that the tax legislation would lead to increased investment by corporations, in some cases pointing to anecdotal examples of businesses announcing investments and saying they were possible because of the policy change. Two days after the legislation’s passage, Fox & Friends invited White House special adviser Ivanka Trump on to hype an increase to the Child Tax Credit in the legislation. (According to tax experts, “the expanded child credit will actually provide little relief for some of the lowest-income families.”)

    Republicans are now attempting to pass another tax bill, in part to make permanent the individual tax policy changes in the original law, which expire within 10 years. The White House is portraying a report that House Republicans are planning to advance a bill as “a big win for the middle class.” And Fox News is again helping Republicans with their spin. On July 18, Fox & Friends hosted Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee -- the committee the bill would originate from -- who said lawmakers should make permanent “those cuts for middle-class families.” Later on the show, Fox Business host Stuart Varney said: “I think Republicans are setting a tax trap for the Democrats. … Are the Democrats going to vote against something which really supports America's middle class?”

    But as reporting from NPR and experts from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) have explained, Trump’s tax cuts provide only minor benefits to the middle class, are geared toward the wealthiest Americans, and are having no noticeable positive effect on the economy.

    Trump tax cuts disproportionately benefit the wealthy

    NPR: Tax cut benefits to middle class are meager compared to those affecting the wealthy. NPR cited a December report from the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center which showed that middle-class households are receiving meager tax benefits from the Trump tax cuts compared to the wealthiest households and that when those benefits expire, middle-class households will earn slightly less income than they did before the tax cuts were passed:

    [NPR, 12/19/17]

    EPI: Republican spin of tax cuts as primarily middle-class benefits “is false.” A blog post by EPI budget analyst Hunter Blair showed that Republican lawmakers’ attempted spin of the Trump tax cuts as targeted to the middle class “is false.” The post showed that the bottom 80 percent of taxpayers earn a disproportionately small benefit from the policy change, with the top 5 percent earning a larger share of the benefits relative to their income:

    [Economic Policy Institute, 4/13/18]

    CBPP: Trump tax cuts deliver largest benefits to the wealthiest while boosting income inequality. The CBPP explained in an April report that Trump’s tax plan “will increase income inequality since it delivers far larger tax cuts to households at the top, measured as a share of income, than to households at the bottom or middle of the income distribution”:

    [Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 4/9/18]

    CBPP: Increase in Child Tax Credit skews toward the wealthy. The CBPP report explained that “10 million children under age 17 in low-income working families will receive no CTC increase or a token increase of $75 or less.” Further, the law increased the upper limit for the Child Tax Credit from $110,000 in income annually to $400,000, with the wealthiest getting an increase worth several times more than the increase middle-class families will receive:

    [Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 4/9/18]

    Data so far show Trump tax cuts having no positive effect on the economy

    EPI: “There is no evidence that wage growth has materially picked up since the TCJA’s passage.” In June 1 testimony submitted to the House’s Tax Policy Subcommittee, EPI explained that “there is no evidence that wage growth has materially picked up since the TCJA’s passage.”

    [Economic Policy Institute, 6/1/18]

    Bloomberg’s Noah Smith: Federal Reserve data and PayScale index show wages fell after Trump tax cuts took effect. In a July 18 Bloomberg column, Noah Smith pointed to Federal Reserve and private sector data to show that wages actually declined since the Trump tax cuts were passed:

    [Bloomberg, 7/18/18]

    EPI: Bonuses were overhyped, and they are less likely to occur in future years. EPI’s testimony explained that “nearly 40 percent of American workers get bonuses every year,” and that there was a financial incentive to give bonuses after the law’s passage at the end of 2017 when such bumps could be less expensively written off on corporate tax filings. As EPI explained: “What this means is that even if some increase in bonuses occurred in 2017 because of the TCJA (this remains a big ‘if’), there is no reason to think such bonuses will recur in the future.” [Economic Policy Institute, 6/1/18]

    EPI: “There is no serious evidence that the TCJA spurred a notable pickup in business investment.” EPI’s testimony showed that business investment has grown less than it did in either 2011 or 2014. “In short, we do not yet have economy-wide data showing a rapid upsurge of investment due to the TCJA.”

    [Economic Policy Institute, 6/1/18]