Of all the supposed “pork” in the proposed economic stimulus bill, perhaps none got so much media attention as the provision to extend family planning to more low-income women. As the House struggled to pass the legislation, Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) issued a press release (1/23/09) claiming that the plan “includes taxpayer funding for contraceptives and the abortion industry.” Two days later, Boehner railed on NBC’s Meet the Press (1/25/09), “Spending...over $200 million for contraceptives, how [is] this going to fix an ailing economy?”
It didn’t take long for media to pile on. Cal Thomas—one of the most widely syndicated columnists—parroted Boehner nearly word for word (1/26/09): “There are millions included for contraceptives and the abortion industry, which are unrelated to job creation.” Sean Hannity (Fox News, 2/5/09) called it “reckless spending.”
And it wasn’t just far-right punditry that got riled up. MSNBC’s Norah O’Donnell pressed Rep. Chris Van Hollen (1/26/09):
O’DONNELL: How can you spend hundreds of millions of dollars on contraceptives? How does that stimulate the economy?
VAN HOLLEN: Well, I think if you look at government spending as a whole, I mean, any economist will tell you that when the government goes out and spends a dollar, that’s a dollar in the economy that has a multiplier effect. So—
O’DONNELL: On contraceptives, really?
VAN HOLLEN: No. No. Look, look.
O’DONNELL: Really? Can you give me that with a straight face, congressman?
Her colleague Chris Matthews (Hardball, 1/26/09) went so far as to claim: “It sounds a little like China....I think everybody should have family planning....But why should the federal government have a policy of reducing the number of births?”
There was virtually no corner of the corporate media that didn’t propagate the “millions for contraceptives” trope—the day after Boehner put out his press release (1/24/09), both the New York Times and Washington Post ran his quote unchallenged; reporters from CNN (e.g., 1/26/09) to NPR (e.g., 1/29/09) to PBS (e.g., 1/30/09) repeated it as fact.
But there’s a problem: The talking point was, it seems, a complete fabrication.
First of all, the policy had nothing to do with “the abortion industry” or a Chinese-style limit on how many kids families can have. And reducing it to a scornfully tossed-off “contraceptives” fails to convey what the provision would do: allow states to bypass onerous federal hoop-jumping in order to cover more low-income women under Medicaid. This would make family planning services available for women who would be eligible for pregnancy-related Medicaid services, thereby saving the costs of unwanted pregnancies for both the federal and state governments. (Currently, the income cut-off is higher for women who aren’t already pregnant.) The family planning program was created under the Republican Nixon administration, and eight states with Republican governors thought the idea of expanding it was uncontroversial enough that they’ve already jumped through all those federal hoops the provision would simply have removed (Talking Points Memo, 1/26/09).
Even more outrageous, the “hundreds of millions of dollars” claim seems to have been conjured out of thin air. Nowhere in the proposed legislation was a cost assigned to the provision, nor could it be found in the Congressional Budget Office report that estimated costs and savings of the plan. In fact, the CBO estimated in a January 21 report obtained by ThinkProgress that the family planning provision would actually save the federal government $700 million over 10 years—and that’s not even considering the savings to state governments.
As Cristina Page at RH Reality Check noted (1/30/09), Rep. Henry Waxman’s calls to Boehner’s office about the claim found him “not forthcoming.” Extra!’s repeated inquiries likewise produced nothing to substantiate Boehner’s claims. His office, it would seem, simply invented the whole thing.
And yet instead of performing the basic journalistic task of fact-checking an easily falsifiable talking point from a GOP press release, mainstream reporters gleefully repeated it until the provision was forced off the table. Days later, a few mentioned the true CBO numbers (e.g., New York Times, USA Today, both 1/28/09), but quietly enough not to actually challenge the myth, unlike the moderate pushback mustered against the similar GOP myth about Nancy Pelosi’s supposed $30 million earmark for marsh mice (FAIR Blog, 3/2/09).
It’s a lesson in the complacency of the Washington press corps; according to the corporate media’s warped rules of “professionalism” (see Extra!, 11-12/04), it’s not journalists’ job to judge a source’s credibility, ferret out lies or bring up anything that “important people” aren’t already saying—they’re simply there to report what those important people say. And since most Democrats were woefully uninformed on the issue and didn’t push back, journalists didn’t think twice about running with it.
But it’s also a lesson in the respect accorded issues of women’s rights and health in the corporate, male-dominated media. Few journalists paused to consider that family planning could actually be a valuable piece of an economic plan, or the enormous effect it could have on struggling low-income women across the country; instead, they simply accepted that the provision was “pork” (e.g., CNN, 1/27/09).
As NPR’s Keith Reed argued (2/2/09):
You can debate, for example, the merits of family planning and whether or not that’s a good thing or something that the federal government should be participating in. But I think no matter what side of the aisle you’re on, how much does that really have to do with the economy?
A whole lot, actually. As economist Nancy Folbre pointed out on the New York Times Economix blog (2/5/09), family planning spending would generate roughly as many jobs as other health spending, and long-term savings—as the CBO also noted—are high. Folbre also emphasized that family planning increases women’s “access to higher education and better-paying jobs,” and pointed to the economic disparities involved: Women in the income bracket that would have been aided by the provision are more than three times as likely to experience unplanned births than their wealthier counterparts—and thus more likely to experience the associated financial burdens.
In a rare voice in support of including the family planning program in the package, Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman wrote (1/30/09): “Women’s health was reframed as pork and dumped as if it were no more fundamental to family life than the proposal to refurbish the National Mall. All this in an elusive quest for bipartisan support.”
And it couldn’t have happened without the corporate media.