Fox Business host Stuart Varney continued Fox News' smear campaign against the Reagan-era affordable telephone service program for low-income Americans known as Lifeline, which conservatives derisively refer to as “Obamaphones,” with a segment attacking a proposed expansion to allow the subsidy to be used toward the purchase of mobile data or broadband Internet.
On the March 10 edition of Fox Business' Varney & Co., Stuart Varney and conservative journalist Jillian Melchior derided the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) proposal to expand the use of the Lifeline telecommunications subsidy for low-income households to include mobile data and broadband Internet. Varney lambasted the program as “ridiculous,” while Melchior referred to the proposed subsidy providing qualifying families with access to the Internet as “insane.” Melchior also described Lifeline as “one of the worst programs” in the government.
Contrary to Fox's extreme rhetoric, expanding the $9.25-per-month Lifeline subsidy to include its use for the purchase of broadband for low-income Americans is an important step toward alleviating poverty. According to a May 28 report from The New York Times, when the Lifeline program expansion was first floated, the proposed change would have represented the “strongest recognition yet” from the FCC “that high-speed Internet access is as essential to economic well-being as good transportation and telephone service.” Citing research from Pew, The Times highlighted how low-income and minority communities lag far behind the rest of the country in broadband access.
In an exclusive March 9 interview with The Verge, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler mentioned the importance of giving low-income families “access to 21st century networks” by expanding Lifeline. Wheeler also argued in a March 8 blog post with FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn that “Internet access has become a pre-requisite for full participation in our economy and our society.” On March 1, 17 public interest groups joined six broadband providers by signing a joint letter of support urging the FCC to go ahead with the expansion, stating that providing Internet access to needy families will help increase access to job training, employment opportunities, and education services. On February 29, Education Week reported on how the expansion could positively affect education by reducing the so-called "homework gap" faced by children in low-income households. According to Education Week, “70 percent of teachers assign homework that requires Internet access” but almost 5 million low-income households with children lack reliable, high-speed connections at home, which creates an additional obstacle for millions of “already disadvantaged students.”
Fox News and its right-wing media allies have a long history of shaming the poor by complaining that vital anti-poverty programs are actually "trapping people" in poverty and hyping isolated instances of fraud or abuse to disparage successful anti-poverty programs. The mythical “Obamaphone” program has become one of Fox's favorite targets. In 2012, the network promoted a video of an Obama supporter praising her so-called “Obamaphone” as proof that Democrats "bribe people" to vote for them. Fox's misleading portrayals of the poor and of so-called “Obamaphones” even garnered a mocking response from President Obama during a May 12 summit on poverty. The president's biting criticism didn't stop Fox from returning to its “Obamaphone” myth-making just weeks later, when Fox Business host Charles Payne used a May 29 appearance on Fox & Friends to attack the very same Lifeline expansion proposal that Varney and Melchior attacked again today.
See the full segment from Varney & Co. below:
STUART VARNEY (HOST): Do you remember the Obamaphone program? Cell phones for the poor, subsidized by you from a tax on your phone bill? Remember that? Still around. Now we hear that program could expand to Internet service. Joining us now, Heat Street political editor Jillian Melchior. Jillian, welcome back.
JILLIAN MELCHIOR: Thank you.
MELCHIOR: It's insane.
VARNEY: I mean, it was insane. Free phones were ridiculous, now free Internet?
MELCHIOR: Yes, the FCC wants to expand this program. They are probably going to get their way when the vote comes down on March 31. They want to expand it to include Wi-Fi, and already the GOP commissioners are saying that this is insanity, that this is a program riddled with waste, fraud, and abuse. And we're not going to cut it back, we're going to grow it.
MELCHIOR: FCC wants to grow the program budget to $2.25 billion a year, that's up from $1.5 billion. Saying they think --
VARNEY: Wait a second, $1.5 billion to $2.25 billion?
MELCHIOR: $2.25 billion. Yes, and they want to sign up as many as 5 million totally new beneficiaries for this. So this is growing a program, and it's one of the worst programs in government