Writing a Neutral Story About Something So Heartless As the Food Stamp Vote Is Not Good Journalism

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.
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The Republican-led House yesterday voted to make deep cuts to the food stamps program that has kept millions of American families from going hungry since the recession hit, saying its response to growing need was instead a sign of bloat and abuse.

The New York Times editorial board this morning said the vote "can be seen only as an act of supreme indifference."

But that's not the way the paper's own reporters covered it. Like those at essentially every other mainstream news organization, they wrote it straight. They focused on procedure. They quoted both sides. And they called it a day.

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?

The Washington Post

The headline in the print edition of the Washington Post announced: House narrowly backs food-stamp overhaul. And the story reflected the same neutral tone, as if there were nothing unusual here, and no reason to doubt the GOP's ostensible rationales.

In fact, in the third paragraph, Ed O'Keefe and Niraj Chokshi flatly stated that the vote "represents House Republicans' effort to pare the cost and size of government by reducing federal spending."

Seriously? That would have been remarkably dishonest had it been quote from a source. But as a flat statement, it is really inexcusably credulous and wrong. (See below, for instance, for how little a difference this makes to the budget.)

The closest thing to valuable context was this paragraph, about demographics:

According to the Census Bureau, almost 14 percent of households in the United States received food stamps in 2012, a total of 16.6 million households. Almost half the recipients, 48 percent, are non-Hispanic whites; 26 percent are black and 21 percent are Hispanics.

But why mention that the plurality of food stamp recipients are white? What's the relevance to the rest of the story?

Well, you have to read between the lines.

People at the Post are smart enough to realize that the primary political benefit to the GOP of attacking food stamps -- and blaming Obama for the increase in their use -- is that it serves as a dog-whistle, affirming to the base that Republican leaders are against letting shiftless minorities keep taking money out of your (white) pockets.

People at the Post are not brave enough to say so, however.

So they just print paragraphs like the one above, like a little hint to savvy readers.

The Others

David Rogers of Politico framed the vote as "a victory for Majority Leader Eric Cantor," and although he expressed some skepticism, it was entirely of the procedural variety.

Charles Abbott's report for Reuters was also heavy on procedural details, with lots of back and forth from proponents and supporters, leaving the readers none the wiser.

In the AP story, running in countless newspapers, Mary Clare Jalonick characterized the vote as "a win for conservatives."

The vast majority of the story was procedural tedium, based on this incomprehensible assertion: "Finding a compromise -- and the votes -- to scale back the feeding program has been difficult."

And she does readers no favors when she contrasts a nonsensical non-argument with a fact, and makes it sound like two equal sides:

House conservatives, led by Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., have said the almost $80 billion-a-year program has become bloated. More than 47 million Americans are now on food stamps, and the program's cost more than doubled in the last five years as the economy struggled through the Great Recession. Democrats said the rise in the rolls during tough economic times showed the program was doing its job.

The USA Today story by Christopher Doering and Paul Singer featured an intriguing if ambivalent subhead: "Bill demonstrates a bitter philosophical divide between Democrats and Republicans over the social safety net." But the story itself was all about procedure, not philosophy.

Even at the Huffington Post, my former colleagues Arthur Delaney and Mike McAuliff started off with a dry summary and a long and utterly disingenuous quote from Cantor, left unrebutted. But then they described the "undercurrent of accusation" from supporters of the cuts "that many Americans are abusing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to sponge off taxpayers."

Alternate Approaches

Writing for New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait looked at what the vote was really all about:

Republicans hate domestic spending, but their hatred is not completely indiscriminate. Some programs offend them more, and others less. The general pattern is that social programs offend Republicans to the degree that they benefit the poor, sick, or otherwise unfortunate.

That language may be a bit strong for a straight news story, but it's also more honest than what you read above.

Chait also makes a strong case for contrasting food stamps with farm subsidies:

It's the juxtaposition of the two programs that so clearly exposes the party's agenda. Anti-government ideology can justify even the most vicious cuts to the safety net. It can't justify the massive socialist scheme that is agriculture policy.

And as Chait also points out, this was hardly an issue where the background was hard to find. Jonathan Cohn in July outlined The Factually Challenged, Morally Questionable Assault on Food Stamps in the New Republic.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has done a great job of explaining how "Those who would be thrown off the program include some of the nation's most destitute adults, as well as many low-income children, seniors, and families that work for low wages."

The New York Times ran a brilliant story on Sept. 4 by Sheryl Gay Stolberg, unabashedly contrasting families in Tennessee who desperately rely on food stamps with their heartless, Tea-Party congressman who collected nearly $3.5 million in farm subsidies from 1999 to 2012.

And I remember being struck by Jason DeParle and Robert M. Gebeloff's Times story in 2010 about how food stamps "have become the safety net of last resort."

One big reason: All the other safety nets have big tears in them. The main cash welfare program, for instance, has been so eviscerated that it scarcely expanded during the recession, despite all the new need. Unemployment insurance runs out.

DeParle and Gebeloff found that "[a]bout six million Americans receiving food stamps report they have no other income."

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.

Baker concludes:

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:

Greg Kaufman, writing for the Nation, called attention to the need for reporting that rebuts misinformation, rather than spreads it.

"In the past year the kinds of distortions and misstatements that characterize the arguments against the public policy that we have are even more troubling than they were before," said [Peter] Edelman, author of So Rich, So Poor: Why it's So Hard to End Poverty in America. "Because now for example, there is a significant number of people who want to characterize food stamps as being something that keeps people from looking for jobs--a totally made up thing. It's such a gross distortion."

Reporters could have noted who was really pushing the proposal, as David Rogers did in a Sept. 4 piece at Politico:

The Heritage Foundation, with close ties to Cantor and his top staff, has lent support in the fight. And over the August recess, Fox News aired a sympathetic report entitled "The Great Food Stamp Binge" -- videos of which are now being distributed by Fox staff to House members.

Someone writing about yesterday's vote could have pointed out that it wasn't a coincidence that Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md) brandished a picture of the "Second Obama Express" convenience store when expressing outrage over food stamp fraud and abuse.

"This bill reforms food stamps by cutting waste, fraud, and abuse by just 5 percent, cutting back on fraud like the 'Second Obama Express' store, and by making sure able-bodied adults are working, seeking work, or getting job training," Harris said.

Reporters could have put that in context by noting that the bill has absolutely nothing to do with reducing fraud and abuse, and provides no job training.

Or they could have quoted Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) who described the bill as "cruel and unusual punishment to Americans whose soft voices are barely ever heard in the Halls of Congress."

[An earlier version of this column misattributed Deutch's quote to former Congressman Peter Deutsch.]

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Dan Froomkin is launching a new accountability journalism project at FearlessMedia.org. He has worked as senior Washington correspondent for the Huffington Post, White House Watch columnist for the Washington Post; and editor of the Washington Post website. Dan can be reached at froomkin@gmail.com.

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