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  • How shameful and misleading Wash. Post reports on disability insurance could be the preamble for cuts

    "Mean-spirited" and "cartoonish" depictions of Social Security Disability Insurance are a disservice to millions of Americans

    Blog ››› ››› CRAIG HARRINGTON


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Disability advocates hammered The Washington Post for its second misleading portrayal of Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) recipients, saying it was a “mean-spirited” and “cartoonish” illustration of the struggles of those living with poverty in rural America. The second feature-length profile published by the Post has drawn consternation for its poverty-shaming, while also generating fears that these misleading depictions from mainstream news outlets could set the pretext for draconian budget cuts to programs that provide basic economic security to millions of Americans.

    The Post’s previous foray into coverage of SSDI recipients did not end well; Media Matters joined disability advocates in criticizing the paper’s “dystopian portrait” of the program and its enrollees and was later found to be replete with critical data errors. The piece promoted the same misleading talking points about the program that are commonly touted by right-wing media. Despite these concerns, the Post’s editorial board used the deeply flawed article as its proof for justifying unnecessary cuts to the SSDI program.

    The paper’s June 2 article in its series on disability coverage is just as misleading and problematic as the first. The article, titled “Generations, disabled,” attempts to chronicle the trials of a low-income Missouri family that relies on meager SSDI benefits. The article relied almost exclusively on anecdotal evidence drawn from the Tidwell family to buttress characterizations of SSDI and its recipients as succumbing to multi-generational dependence on federal assistance.

    The article earnestly focused on the fact that one or more members of four generations of Tidwells have received federal assistance and detailed their daily routines in a way that political scientist Katherine Gallagher Robbins of the Center for American Progress (CAP) likened to the depictions of poverty and disability in Of Mice and Men. As CAP’s Rebecca Vallas pointed out in her damning review, “the article’s text makes no mention” of the fact “that disability often runs in families” and neglects to mention that disability benefits are “incredibly hard to get.”

    The Post seemed to depict generational disability as a cultural problem, but as Annie Lowrey of The Atlantic pointed out, the article never provided any data to prove this or demonstrate that multiple generations of a family receiving SSDI is evidence of them being undeserving. Vox correspondent Matthew Yglesias voiced even stronger criticism, labeling the article as “incredibly mean-spirited” and “smack[ing] of the worst kind of moral panic.”

    Issues with the Post’s story didn’t end there. In a June 5 column published by The Poynter Institute, journalist S.I. Rosenbaum added that the article misled readers by claiming to describe a family “on disability” without ever verifying that the Tidwell family are indeed all receiving benefits from SSDI, rather than other anti-poverty programs.

    The generally exploitative tone of the piece was not the primary problem with the Post’s return to the topic of disability. The biggest problem created by the piece is how it could be used by political interests seeking to implement deep cuts to the American social safety net.

    As Vallas pointed out in her response, by “pushing the nastiest of myths about Social Security disability benefits and the people who rely on them,” the Post set the pretext for budget cuts that will restrict access to the program. The Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities voiced the same concern, arguing that “reporting by anecdote runs the risk of fostering harmful policy changes” such as those already proposed by the Trump administration. Economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) came to a similar conclusion, mocking the Post’s “poetic description” of farming jobs available in rural Missouri, which suggested that disability recipients simply refuse to work those jobs. Baker added that the United States actually has one of the least generous disability programs in the world, but countries with more generous programs are not suffering labor shortages:

    The obvious next segment in this series would have a Post reporter going to Germany or the Netherlands or some of the other countries that manages to have a larger percentage of their population working even though they have considerably more generous disability systems. The article can tell readers how they manage to structure their programs so that everyone doesn't quit their jobs and fake disability so that they can live off the government. For some reason, I don't think this is where the Post series is going.

    We have already seen a Post report on SSDI result in the paper’s editorial board calling for unnecessary cuts to the program in a way eerily reminiscent to Fox News’ campaign against the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which immediately resulted in Republican-authored legislation in Congress slashing the program and eventually trickled down to GOP-led state houses. The Trump administration is already targeting Social Security’s disability program for budget cuts next year and media outlets have largely failed to hold the president accountable for an obviously broken campaign promise to safeguard Social Security. The American people would be well-served if, rather than publishing more dehumanizing portrayals of disability recipients, the Post and other news outlets contextualize the hardship millions of Americans would face if SSDI and other vital programs are subjected to new cuts and restrictions.

  • Wash. Post Uses Shabby Reporting To Justify Cutting Social Security Disability Insurance

    Experts Browbeat The Post’s Call For “Reform” Of SSDI At A Time Of “Unprecedented Inequality”

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX MORASH

    The Washington Post’s editorial board used its paper’s own flawed profile of Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) recipients to justify the unsubstantiated claim that the program discourages people with disabilities from working and therefore “needs reform” in the form of increased restrictions and benefit cuts.

    On March 30, the Post ran a profile of a struggling low-income family as a proxy for millions of Americans who are dependent on SSDI that bordered on poverty shaming. The article misleadingly characterized SSDI recipients and the social safety net in ways that echoed myths commonly peddled by right-wing media outlets.

    Then, on April 8, the Post‘s editorial board referred back to the paper’s portrayal of SSDI while misleadingly claiming that the program’s eligibility requirements create “every incentive to cease working,” and that those requirements are part of the reason so few beneficiaries ever return to the workforce. The editorial board bizarrely added that recipients would be incentivized to work if SSDI benefits could be scaled down gradually as workers with disabilities returned to the workforce. Yet, the Post makes no mention that SSDI already has a return to work trial period where recipients can attempt to rejoin the labor force without losing assistance. Even more peculiar, while it argued for unneeded reforms, by the editorial board’s own admission the program is not actually rife with wasteful spending and recipients are only eligible if their disability prevents them from working. From The Washington Post:

    Nor is the program’s growth the result of rampant fraud, as sometimes alleged; structural factors such as population aging explain much recent growth. Nevertheless, at a time of declining workforce participation, especially among so-called prime-age males (those between 25 and 54 years old), the nation’s long-term economic potential depends on making sure work pays for all those willing to work. And from that point of view, the Social Security disability program needs reform.

    In particular, SSDI’s rules require that applicants be unable to engage in any significant paying work, or “substantial gainful activity,” in the program’s argot. Would-be recipients thus have every incentive to cease working completely to qualify — and to avoid rehabilitation lest they lose cash benefits and that all-important health care. And, in fact, only a tiny percentage of SSDI beneficiaries return to the labor force once they exit. “The decision to apply, in many cases, is a decision to effectively abandon working altogether,” as [Washington Post reporter Terrence] McCoy wrote. “For the severely disabled, this choice is, in essence, made for them. But for others, it’s murkier. Aches accumulate. Years pile up. Job prospects diminish.” The typical SSDI recipient now is a middle-aged worker whose main ailment is musculoskeletal or psychological.

    The Post is overselling the notion that SSDI creates an incentive for people with disabilities to abstain from work -- and it is doing so while linking back to research on ailments of SSDI recipients that was published in 1995. In actuality, SSDI recipients are only eligible to receive benefits if the Social Security Administration agrees that their disability prevents them from working. According to the Center for American Progress (CAP), which analyzed data collected by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), eligibility requirements in the United States are already “among the strictest in the world” and program benefits “are less generous than most other countries’ disability benefit programs.” According to CAP, almost 80 percent of SSDI applicants are denied during the initial application and “thousands of applicants die” annually waiting to learn if they will receive assistance. Furthermore, CAP also found that disability recipients who are approved tend to skew older and had worked in physically demanding jobs before applying for benefits.

    An April 9 blog from Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) economist and co-founder Dean Baker browbeat the Post for complaining about people with disabilities not working when inequality is at an “unprecedented” level -- the paper’s tone deafness is all the more apparent at a time when the wealthiest Americans live a decade longer than their low-income counterparts. Baker continued by pointing out that the benefits from SSDI are far from lavish, averaging a mere $1,170 a month, which amounts to less than a full-time job paying the federal minimum wage.

    The editorial board closed its call for needlessly reforming SSDI by claiming that its aim is to “help people with disabilities retain the earnings and dignity that come from work,” an argument that mirrored rhetoric from the right-wing Heritage Foundation for a more “compassionate” policy of work incentives and dropping recipients after a set time on the program.

    The Post’s repeated mischaracterization of SSDI follows a long history of misinformation from mainstream outlets, which often publish error-riddled stories filled with anecdotal evidence portraying disability recipients as undeserving. These pieces sound as if they come from right-wing media, which have spent years attacking the program and its recipients.

  • New York Times Responds To Trump Mockery Of Reporter Who Debunked Bogus 9/11 Claim

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    As reported by Politico, The New York Times has responded to Donald Trump's recent mockery of one of its reporters who helped debunk the presidential candidate's false claim that he saw "thousands and thousands" of Arab-Americans cheering as the World Trade Center collapsed under the attacks of September 11, 2001.

    Defending his claim at a campaign rally, Trump chose to mock the disability of New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, who covered the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and has recently added to the definitive debunking of the presidential candidate's smear. As reported by Politico, "'We think it's outrageous that he would ridicule the appearance of one of our reporters,' said a spokeswoman for the Times."

    Trump can be seen mocking Kovaleski in this clip from Morning Joe:

    From Politico:

    During a defense of his widely debunked claim that thousands of people in parts of New Jersey with large Arab populations celebrated the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001, Trump performed a derisive impression of New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski -- who suffers from a chronic condition that has limited the movement of his arms -- at a rally in South Carolina on Tuesday night.

    Citing a 2001 article written by Kovaleski that referred to people allegedly seen celebrating the attacks, Trump said it was "Written by a nice reporter."

    Trump went on, "Now the poor guy -- you ought to see the guy: 'Uhh I don't know what I said. I don't remember.' He's going, 'I don't remember. Maybe that's what I said.'" As he spoke, Trump launched into an impression which involved gyrating his arms wildly and imitating the unusual angle at which Kovaleski's hand sometimes rests.

    "We think it's outrageous that he would ridicule the appearance of one of our reporters," said a spokeswoman for the Times. The article cited by Trump was written by Kovaleski when he worked for The Washington Post and stated that in the aftermath of Sept. 11, "Law enforcement authorities detained and questioned a number of people who were allegedly seen celebrating the attacks and holding tailgate-style parties on rooftops while they watched the devastation on the other side of the river."

    On Tuesday, after Trump's supporters began citing the article as evidence for the candidate's claim, Kovaleski told CNN, "We did a lot of shoe leather reporting in and around Jersey City and talked to a lot of residents and officials for the broader story. Much of that has, indeed, faded from memory ... I do not recall anyone saying there were thousands, or even hundreds, of people celebrating. That was not the case, as best as I can remember."

    Kovaleski suffers from arthrogryposis, a congenital condition that limits the movement of the joints and weakens the muscles around them. As a reporter at the New York Daily News in the late 1980s and early '90s, he covered Trump's business exploits and met with the developer on several occasions.

    On November 24, the editorial board of The New York Times called on the media to hold Trump accountable for his "racist lies," adding "[h]istory teaches that failing to hold a demagogue to account is a dangerous act. It's no easy task for journalists to interrupt Mr. Trump with the facts, but it's an important one."

    Trump's actions are reminiscent of Rush Limbaugh's mockery of Michael J. Fox's Parkinson's in 2006. Limbaugh at the time accused the actor of "exaggerating the effects" of the disease in an ad, and later suggested that Fox had intentionally over-medicated himself "so you would really, really hate Republicans." Fox News host Sean Hannity defended Limbaugh, saying Fox "[has] a right to speak up, but he also has a right to be criticized. He is a guy that is very political."