Fox News continued its crusade against the Reagan-era affordable telephone service program for low-income Americans, which the network derisively refers to as “Obamaphones,” with a misleading segment suggesting that the program has “runaway costs” and traps low-income Americans in poverty.
On May 28, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Tom Wheeler published a proposal to amend and modernize the Lifeline program, which currently provides landline and cellular phone subsidies to qualifying low-income Americans. Wheeler's proposal would expand the user-funded program to include broadband internet services, which he called “essential communications services in the 21st Century.”
On the May 29 edition of Fox & Friends, co-host Tucker Carlson and Fox Business host Charles Payne attacked the broadband proposal and claimed that the Lifeline telephone service system was “radically expanded” during the Obama administration leading to so-called “runaway costs” and fraud.
Payne, who tweeted prior to his appearance that the Lifeline program was tantamount to “further enslavement of the 'poor',” complained on-air that the subsidy was “yet another program that's going to make it really hard for people to get off the sofa” through “the transfer of wealth from the middle class to people of a little bit lower class.” Finally, Payne insisted that the expansion of broadband access to low-income Americans delivers the message to “the people who are on the lower levels of the economic rung, we are actually saying to them 'you can't make it but we'll feather the nest a little bit more'”:
PAYNE: I think the moral aspect of this is when we're trying to get people into society, you know, out of wherever they live and into the sort of economic spirit, the economic ladder if you will, it's tough. You take a pay cut.
PAYNE: You have all of these benefits and if you add them all up. All of them are at 150 percent above poverty, 130 percent above poverty. Obamacare subsidies, 400 percent above poverty! That keeps a lot of people insulated. So here's the thing. Are you really helping someone by making it more difficult for them to go into the workforce? Are you incentivizing them or disincentivizing them? It's pretty clear what's happening here.
Contrary to Fox's extreme rhetoric, expanding broadband access to low-income Americans is an important step toward alleviating poverty. According to The New York Times, the proposed change represents 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 communities lag far behind the rest of the country in broadband access and availability. Just 52 percent of adults with an annual income of less than $30,000 have broadband Internet at home, compared to 70 percent of all adults. Black and Hispanic adults also lag far behind the national average among broadband users, with just 62 percent and 56 percent reporting at-home access, respectively.
Fox has a long history of shaming the poor by complaining that relief programs make them less likely to succeed and hyping isolated instances of fraud or abuse to disparage successful anti-poverty programs. In 2012, the network promoted a video of an Obama supporter praising her so-called “Obamaphone” as proof that Democrats were “brib[ing] people” to vote for them. Fox's portrayals of the poor and the so-called “Obamaphones” even garnered a mocking response from President Obama during a recent summit on poverty:
PRESIDENT OBAMA: There's always been a strain in American politics where you've got the middle class, and the question has been, who are you mad at, if you're struggling; if you're working, but you don't seem to be getting ahead. And over the last 40 years, sadly, I think there's been an effort to either make folks mad at folks at the top, or to be mad at folks at the bottom. And I think the effort to suggest that the poor are sponges, leaches, don't want to work, are lazy, are undeserving, got traction.
And, look, it's still being propagated. I mean, I have to say that if you watch Fox News on a regular basis, it is a constant menu -- they will find folks who make me mad. I don't know where they find them. (Laughter.) They're like, I don't want to work, I just want a free Obama phone -- (laughter) -- or whatever. And that becomes an entire narrative -- right? -- that gets worked up. And very rarely do you hear an interview of a waitress -- which is much more typical -- who's raising a couple of kids and is doing everything right but still can't pay the bills.
And so if we're going to change how John Boehner and Mitch McConnell think, we're going to have to change how our body politic thinks, which means we're going to have to change how the media reports on these issues and how people's impressions of what it's like to struggle in this economy looks like, and how budgets connect to that. And that's a hard process because that requires a much broader conversation than typically we have on the nightly news.