Catapulting the propaganda
So the GOP House of Representatives voted to cut food stamps today. Food stamps. And keep in mind that this is happening at a time of more than 7% (official) unemployment, something that used to be considered a crisis but is not so normal that we are assuming that the millions of people who are using food stamps are scam artists who just refuse to get a job. It's sick and it's cruel.
Dan Froomkin examined one of the major problems we face with this: the media's unwillingness to portray it for the cruel abomination it is:
I decided to closely examine this morning's coverage of the vote because such a blatantly absurd and cruel move struck me as a good test of whether the Washington press corps could ever bring itself to call things as they so obviously are -- or whether they would check their very good brains at the door and just write triangulating mush that leaves readers to fend for themselves. It was no contest.
And as it happens, the Times editorial board actually understated things. Yesterday's vote was not only an undeniable act of heartlessness, it was also perhaps the ultimate example of how today's increasingly radical and unhinged GOP leadership picks on the poor, coddles the rich, makes thinly veiled appeals to racism, and plays time-wasting political games instead of governing.
In short, the important thing about this vote to anyone paying any attention at all was the subtext -- what it really meant. But the coverage was stenographic and context-deficient.
The New York Times:
The headline over Ron Nixon's story characterized the cuts as "deep," but the author quickly turned to a play-by-play, writing that the vote "set up what promised to be a major clash with the Senate."
His initial assessment was unskeptical and almost sympathetic:
Republican leaders, under pressure from Tea Party-backed conservatives, said the bill was needed because the food stamp program, which costs nearly $80 billion a year, had grown out of control.
Then he presented a fabulously disingenuous quote, without a hint of what it really signified, from Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.):
"In the real world, we measure success by results. It's time for Washington to measure success by how many families are lifted out of poverty and helped back on their feet, not by how much Washington bureaucrats spend year after year."
What's notable about this quote is how it illustrates the GOP's loopy fantasy that defenders of the program want more people on food stamps as a goal unto itself. In fact, the program is by design -- and for good reason -- countercyclical. When people need it more, participation goes up. When there are more hungry people, we spend more to feed them.
Everyone is concerned when there are a lot of people getting food stamps, but the problem is that they are hungry, not that they are being fed.
The GOP argument boils down to a nonsensical: When people are hungrier, we should feed them less. It shouldn't be treated as if it makes sense. But it was.
Yes, Nixon put this comment in his story:
Senator Debbie Stabenow, Democrat of Michigan and the chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, called it "a monumental waste of time."
But then he offered his readers this shockingly dishonest quote, without any skepticism:
"This bill makes getting Americans back to work a priority again for our nation's welfare programs," House Speaker John A. Boehner said.
Toward the bottom of the story, Nixon finally offers a little context:
A Census Bureau report released on Tuesday found that the program had kept about four million people above the poverty level and had prevented millions more from sinking further into poverty. The census data also showed nearly 47 million people living in poverty -- close to the highest level in two decades.
But maybe that should have been in the second paragraph instead?
Do read on. The other papers were no better.
The problem here isn't just that they newspapers are blandly reporting a legislative atrocity as if it's no big deal for real humans. It's that they mislead about the money as well:
Another big problem with today's stories: Numbers that didn't mean anything.
What's $40 billion over 10 years? Well, it's a lot to the people who won't get it, but nothing in budget terms.
Dean Baker, co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy research, has, as he puts it, "long harassed budget reporters and editors over the practice of reporting large budget numbers without any context."
Baker's suggestion: "Newspapers could get in the habit of writing budget numbers as shares of the total budget." (They can even use this nifty calculator.) So, for instance:
[T]he food stamp piece could have told readers that the proposed cut to the program was 0.086 percent of projected federal spending over the next decade. That may or may not be a big deal for the people losing benefits, but readers would know that it would not matter much for the budget.
There are certainly people who want to believe that all of their tax dollars are going to lazy good-for-nothings and they have no intention of letting the evidence change their views. But that does not explain most of the confusion on budget issues. It really is a case where the media has been incredibly irresponsible, treating budget reporting more like a fraternity ritual than an effort to inform their audience about the budget.
Simply quoting from this Congressional Budget Office report would have gone a long way to exposing the fundamental dishonesty of the basic GOP complaint.
This is even more important when you contrast the amount of money at stake in the food stamp program compared to the massive subsidies for agri-business, much of which is delivered by the very same politicians who oppose food stamps.
I suspect that much of this blasé journalistic attitude stems from the fact that these cuts will not become law due to the Democratic Senate and White House. And that's correct. But the problem is that in doing so, they are normalizing this nihilistic argument. And when the Republicans once again obtain power, they will have persuaded a good many Americans that the food stamp program is a form of welfare that creates dependency on government. A lot of their own people already believe that, despite the fact that just a few years ago there was a bipartisan consensus that we shouldn't allow people to go without food in America. Just as welfare took years of propagandizing to become unpopular among a majority, so too will cutting food stamps. And a lot of the reason it could ultimately succeed will be the media's failure to take it seriously as a policy when it had no chance of being signed into law.
Update: Speaking of challenging GOP lies, C&L caught Chuck Todd explaining that it's not his job to do that. So there's that.
Update II: This is how you do it.