6 Ways Media Attacked America's Social Safety Net In 2013

The past 12 months witnessed innumerable attacks on social safety net programs in the United States. These attacks on American social insurance programs were hardly limited to Social Security -- all forms of social insurance, including unemployment benefits, food stamps, and disability, came under fire from mainstream and conservative media alike, regardless of the programs' social or economic benefits. Media Matters compiled a list of the six types of attacks on the social safety net in 2013.

1. Fiscal Policy

For more than three years, an influential study by two Harvard economists -- Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff -- provided a plausible foundation for attacks on spending of all types. The study fostered debt-paranoia among pundits otherwise interested in austere fiscal policies.

An April study by economists at the University of Massachusetts, however, concluded that the Reinhart-Rogoff data was error-filled in a way that selectively biased the results. A further review of the corrected data by economists at the University of Michigan found that the study should have been deemed inconclusive.

Despite losing its intellectual foundation in April, the deficit reduction talking point maintained a prominent position in fiscal policy discussion throughout the year.

Media calls for deficit reduction in the past year also regularly relied on budget reporting that lacked adequate context that federal budget deficits have declined precipitously from their 2009 peak. A Media Matters review of budget reporting done by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post revealed that a sizeable majority of articles provided budget items and program spending figures out of context. Further analysis concluded this misrepresentative reporting to be little more than a scare tactic, which bolstered calls for deeper cuts to the safety net for the sake of alleged fiscal responsibility.

This lack of context in media, and the effect it had in shifting the policy debate, eventually encouraged Times public editor Margaret Sullivan to issue a statement promising to correct problematic reporting standards going forward, but other outlets have yet to follow suit.

2. Social Security Retirement Benefits

Social Security was a common target of attack from media outlets ostensibly concerned with the program's effect on the federal deficit and national debt. Media Matters research revealed significant media bias in the Social Security debate in 2013. Hundreds of segments on cable and broadcast news over a six-month period targeted Social Security for drastic cuts made in the name of maintaining the program's long-term solvency.

Another Media Matters report revealed in early 2013 a years-long effort by the editorial board of The Washington Post to undermine Social Security, completely drowning out most initiatives to strengthen and expand the program. Social Security is designed to lift seniors and retirees out of poverty, but major media consistently treat the program like an unsustainable anchor on the federal budget.

3. Disability Insurance Recipients

In addition to focusing on the implications of Social Security cuts for retirees, right-wing and mainstream outlets often directed unsubstantiated accusations at recipients of Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).

In March, National Public Radio featured a story showcasing alleged abuse of disability assistance in the United States. A Media Matters review of the segment -- which aired on public radio programs Planet Money, This American Life, and All Things Considered -- found it to be riddled with errors. CBS News echoed the misleading report months later in a segment for its weekly news magazine 60 Minutes. Despite the inaccuracy of the two reports allegedly showcasing disability fraud, right-wing outlets heavily promoted both stories to fit their anti-entitlement narrative.

Media Matters research revealed myriad attacks from conservative media in 2013, regularly exploiting any opportunity to delegitimize disability benefits. Among the worst offenses were comments by Fox Business contributor Charles Payne portraying SSDI benefits as a “crazy check” and beneficiaries as “modern-day eunuchs.”

4. Unemployment Benefits

Despite years of gradual economic growth and job creation, which dropped the most-recent unemployment rate to 7.0 percent nationally, many so-called "long-term unemployed" -- workers without employment for 27 weeks or more -- are unable to find gainful employment.

A federal emergency extension currently allocates unemployment insurance benefits for up to 73 weeks, but those benefits will lapse on December 28 without congressional action. According to White House estimates, approximately 1.3 million Americans stand to lose their unemployment benefits at that deadline.

Media Matters research shows an alarming lack of mainstream discussion regarding policies that could return the economy to “full employment,” but only the right-wing media has actively impeded progress toward a full employment economy while advocating devastating cuts to long-term unemployment insurance. Right-wing media have been at pains to push the myth that unemployment benefits are ineffective at boosting the economy and that the program is unnecessary, unaffordable, or an actual disincentive for finding gainful employment. These claims are demonstrably false, but that has not kept them out of the right-wing media sphere.

5. Food Stamps

Government food and nutrition assistance programs were regular targets of right-wing media animus in 2013. The most common target was the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as “food stamps.” The program was consistently attacked by media personalities throughout the past year with exaggerated charges of rampant waste, fraud, and abuse.

Right-wing outlets bemoaned the growth of the program over the past several years  while completely ignoring the summary growth of poverty nationwide and the lingering effects of the Great Recession. The most infamous attack of the past year was the production, distribution, and promotion of a shockingly misleading Fox News documentary titled “The Great Food Stamp Binge.” Right-wing media offered the documentary as evidence of a safety net program gone awry and even used it to successfully lobby members of Congress toward accepting further cuts to the program.

6. Safety Net Cuts

The federal government shutdown from October 1 - October 16 threatened recipients of the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program who rely on federal money distributed through state and local assistance agencies. In the wake of the 16-day federal government shutdown, right-wing media downplayed the impact of the House-led shutdown on the program, which is designed to assist disadvantaged mothers.

While conservative media attacked nutritional assistance programs, at least once likening food assistance to drug abuse, mainstream media were largely silent. An early Media Matters analysis of shutdown-related cable and broadcast news coverage showed little substantial discussion of the impact the shutdown had on underprivileged Americans, the group most impacted by the shuttering of federal programs from food stamps to welfare and early childhood education. Additional Media Matters research on media attention in the wake of the 16-day government shutdown revealed talking points returning to well-worn themes of deficit reduction immediately after the stalemate.