May 1 1995

Public Enemy Number One?

Media's Welfare Debate Is a War on Poor Women

In a bizarre column blaming TV talkshows, in part, for the “sexually irresponsible culture of poverty,” Newsweek‘s Joe Klein (2/6/95) provided telling insight into how some in mainstream media see their relationship to poor people: “Television is the only sustained communication our society has with the underclass,” Klein wrote. “It is the most powerful message we send.” Recent mainstream news reporting on welfare and its “reform” has been full of messages about “us” and “them,” with reporters leaving little doubt about who “we” and “they” are.

In a vivid example, ABC PrimeTime Live‘s Diane Sawyer (annual salary: an estimated $7 million) devoted a segment to grilling a group of teenage mothers receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or AFDC (2/16/95). Explaining that “to many people, these girls are public enemy No. 1,” Sawyer harangued them on behalf of “taxpayers” who were “mad as hell.” “Answer their question,” she demanded: “Why should they pay for your mistake?”

One young woman commented that AFDC is “such a small percentage now, you know, of the amount of money of what taxpayers send in. Most of the money is going for defense.” It’s not a point that Sawyer followed up on.

ABC‘s star anchor was not alone in burying the economic lead on the welfare story in favor of a discourse on “shame” and “irresponsibility.” Her moral inquisitor routine came in the midst of a media welfare debate that, for the most part, unimaginatively echoed the conservative Republicans’ agenda–zeroing in on the relatively small AFDC program and the “pathology” of out-of-wedlock births, while reducing job loss, wage erosion and discrimination to background issues.

Whose Consensus?

FAIR surveyed the sources used in welfare coverage in half a dozen of the most influential news outlets (the New York Times, the Washington Post, ABC News, PBS‘s MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, Time and Newsweek)for the period of Dec. 1, 1994 to Feb. 24, 1995. Revealed was a truncated spectrum of political opinion that favored conventional wisdom over dissent, a selection of policy experts that rarely stretched the debate,and a number of old myths persistently rehashed.

One of the most striking findings was how male-dominated the welfare debate was. Of sources whose gender could be identified, 71 percent (608 sources) were male–discussing policy proposals that will disproportionately affect women. Not counting welfare recipients, 77 percent of the sources were men.

Some of this gender imbalance resulted from reporters’ reliance on government sources. In the period studied, reporters used current and former government officials as sources more than any other group, making up 59 percent of sources. Twenty-four percent of all sources were members of the U.S. Congress (72 percent Republican, 28 percent Democratic), 24 percent were state and local officials, while 9 percent represented the Clinton administration.

With specific proposals being debated in Congress, it’s natural that Capitol Hill would provide the lead for many stories. But the D.C.-driven nature of coverage also limited the debate.

For example, since the Republican and Democratic leadership agreed that spending on the poor ought to be restricted, differing only on details, it was easy for reporters to emphasize consensus. The New York Times‘ David Rosenbaum (2/10/95) consigned any dissenters from the bipartisan view to invisibility, declaring “politicians and scholars from all points of the political compass agree…that, as Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. said today, [the welfare system has] ‘destroyed responsibility, diminished personal dignity and created economic disincentives that bar people from success.'”

With 37 appearances, Rep. Shaw (R-Fla.), the chair of the House subcommittee that drafted the Personal Responsibility Act, was the single most quoted media source on welfare in the period examined. Shaw, who described the current welfare system as “pampering the poor” (New York Times, 2/16/95) was followed by Newt Gingrich with 34 appearances, and President Clinton with 26.

Cited as frequently as members of Congress were state and local officials–largely the Republican governors who run those “conservative state-of-the-art welfare reform programs,” as the Washington Post called them (2/10/95). While a careful look at the track record of these state programs could be instructive, the largely uncritical attention given Gov. John Engler of Michigan (21 appearances) and Wisconsin’s Tommy Thompson (17 appearances) only promoted the idea that “success” in dealing with welfare should be defined as cutting government assistance programs.

An ABC World News Tonight “American Agenda” feature on Gov. Thompson (1/13/95), for example, didn’t include a single naysaying source–no one to contradict correspondent Rebecca Chase’s claim that “Wisconsin has virtually turned its welfare offices into employment offices.” Other reporters have found plenty of people critical of that state’s new “Work Not Welfare” programs; see, for example, Sacramento Bee (2/17/95).

Good and Bad Victims

At the other end of the welfare issue from policymakers are the recipients of welfare and other social services, who made up 10 percent of media sources during the survey period.

Stories on welfare were reminiscent of much reporting on the AIDS crisis, drawing a stark distinction between poverty’s “innocent” and “guilty” victims. Although most of those quoted were young women receiving AFDC, mainstream reporters were emphatic in their rhetorical distinction between these “bad” aid recipients and “good” recipients, namely children.

A New York Times headline (12/18/94) said it boldly: “Despising Welfare, Pitying Its Young.” The article, by Jason DeParle, suggested the central problem of welfare reform: “The more one seeks to punish the parent, the greater the risks to the child.”

While poor children certainly need defenders, most welfare rights advocates note that poor children come from poor families. In the media, however, “innocent children” are often ominously separated from their guilty moms. Cutting off aid to young mothers, reports the Washington Post(2/14/95), “has drawn sharp criticism from advocates for the poor, who say innocent children would suffer.”

And where are the women in Newsweek‘s explanation (12/12/94) that “almost everyone agrees that millions of kids are in jeopardy”?

‘Public Enemy Number One’

No group is more “guilty” in the current climate than unmarried teenage women, to whom can be traced, in the words of Newsweek‘s Jonathan Alter (12/12/94), “every threat to the fabric of this country.”

Alter and Newsweek frankly gloried in the theme of “shame” for poor young women, comparing them, in a February 6 cover story, to “drunk drivers,” and claiming that “the public is game for a little humiliation.”

Direct interviews with welfare recipients could have added much to coverage of welfare, and might have helped to put a “human face” on the issue. But the poor women (and a few men) who appeared were constrained to a quite limited number of roles. At worst, as with Diane Sawyer, they were cast as the “embodiment” of a “problem” or a “pathology,” forced to defend themselves in a way few public officials ever are.

The selection of certain women to represent “welfare mothers” did much to reinforce misleading stereotypes, especially with regard to teenagers and welfare. When the age of welfare recipients was given, they were generally 17, 18 or 19 years old–even though only 6 percent of mothers who receive AFDC are younger than 20. Only 1 percent are 17 or younger (USA Today, 1/20/95).

Some recipients were used to confirm “expert” opinion, as when, explaining that some legislators hope to reduce pregnancies by cutting off benefits, Newsweek‘s reporters declare (12/12/94): “Sure enough, Julia Lestido, a 17-year-old welfare mother from Elizabeth, N.J., says that if the government abolished aid, ‘I would prevent myself from having more children.'”

Other women got walk-on roles playing the temporarily misguided but ultimately “recovered”–like the women cited in the New York Times (2/17/95) who “hated [welfare] more than [they hated] the ex-husbands…who left them or beat them.”

Even when these stories are sympathetic, as they sometimes are, they confirm the conventional wisdom that poverty is a personal problem, “dependency” a curable disease. A listener to FAIR’s radio program CounterSpin decried this depiction: “My experience of welfare single moms is of heroines…women who are courageous, hard-working and creative,” wrote Ann Mannering. “I would like to hear stories of these women in the media. Not just the ones who graduate from college and become a ‘success,’ but the ones who keep on doing their best for their kids under conditions that would daunt some of their better-off sisters.”

Research? What Research?

In between the rhetoric of politicians and the anecdotal stories of welfare recipients should come analysis. And research and advocacy groups were 9 percent of media sources in the period studied. But even though reporters talked to people from a variety of think tanks and the like, a very limited range of policy proposals was permitted to direct the media debate.

One would have hoped that journalists covering the Republican plans would seek out proposals and ideas to contrast with those of the congressional leadership. Instead, the press constrained critics to responding to this or that aspect of conservative ideas, and no poverty-solving proposals other than cutting welfare were seriously explored. A job-creation program, or even a raise in the minimum wage, might do more for welfare recipients’ economic futures than simply throwing them off the rolls–but progressive alternatives were virtually never given a space to be heard.

Critics of the Republican plan sometimes seemed to span a spectrum from A to B: Referring to a cut-off of benefits to unwed mothers under 18 and their children, the New York Times reported (2/10/95), “Liberals object to this idea because they think it punishes innocent children, and many conservatives are opposed because they fear it would encourage abortions.”

Critical voices–which neither defend the current welfare system nor embrace conservative alternatives–were not excluded from the discussion; their facts just weren’t used to challenge political rhetoric. Articles might occasionally mention the fact that studies show no relationship between benefit levels and birth rates (e.g., Washington Post, 2/14/95)–but reporters wouldn’t be so rude as to confront a policy-maker with that fact. And intermittent references to crucial issues like the healthcare needs of people on welfare–by people like Robert Greenstein from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (4 appearances)–just weren’t enough to derail the Republican-led discussion about teenaged moms’ morality.

The final paragraph of David Rosenbaum’s 1100-word story on “The Welfare Enigma” (New York Times, 2/10/95) quoted the Urban Institute’s Isabel V. Sawhill, who warned that welfare cuts wouldn’t save money and would “leave people homeless.” With Sawhill’s perspective having been left for the wrap-up, no other source had to respond to her point–and no follow-up story appeared in which the Urban Institute’s experts got to set the agenda.

Similarly, no one responded to the claim made by religious leaders in the Washington Post (2/22/95) that, despite politicians’ claims, donations to churches and charities “‘would do precious little’ to offset the cuts to social programs.” But that didn’t stop mainstream outlets from heralding volunteers like Carol Doe Porter, of Kidcare, Inc. (named ABC‘s “Person of the Week” after the study period ended–3/24/95). Porter, according to the New York Times (2/6/95), was the “embodiment of the increasingly popular maxim that not all the country’s problems need to be solved by throwing government money at them.” Porter was singled out for media attention not because she feeds the hungry–thousands of people across the country do that–but because she personified a right-wing political argument. The implication of stories like the New York Times‘ profile–headlined “‘Mother Teresa of Houston’ Fights Hunger and Government Aid”–is that we can have either “communities that care” or government spending on programs for the poor.

It’s a Myth, But It’s Our Lead

After participating in two hours of “Firing Line debate leavened with smug male jokes at the expense of poor women,” economist Francis Fox Piven commented (St. Petersburg Times, 5/8/94), “I am struck by how little evidence matters in talk about welfare.”

Myths prevailed in coverage of welfare reform, proving once again that it’s easier to state the conventional wisdom than counter it.

ABC World News Tonight‘s Rebecca Chase (2/9/95) illustrated that phenomenon when she “examine[d] the premise” that welfare benefits are an incentive for poor women to have babies. Having opened with the analysis of Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation (not identified as a right-wing think tank), she notes a statement from 79 social scientists whose combined research found little or no impact on birth rates from welfare benefits. “But numbers can be deceiving,” she warns–and returns to Rector, who claims that “the best study on this” shows a 50 percent increase in benefits leads to a 42 percent increase in out-of-wedlock births.

Faced with conflicting claims from researchers, Chase does not examine their methodologies to see whose studies are more persuasive. Instead, she throws up her hands–“the correlation between benefits and babies is complex” is her conclusion–and returns to analysis by anecdote. (Chase to mother: “Do you think some women have babies just to get on welfare or get more money?” Mother: “Yeah, I know a couple that do.”)

It’s not that journalists don’t know they’re trading in stereotypes and impressions; sometimes they acknowledge as much. Here’s ABC World News Tonight‘s Peter Jennings, introducing a lead segment on the crackdown on “fugitive felons” who’ve been “receiving welfare checks while hiding from the law”: “This problem of welfare fraud does not eat up a particularly large portion of the money spent on welfare, but public anger at what fraud does occur has helped drive the movement for reform.”

Missing: Anyone with a New Vision

One way to demonstrate the critical narrowness of the media discussion of welfare is to consider who is utterly absent. Of 890 people quoted, for example, not one was an out lesbian. Perhaps as a result, no one made the point that punishing people for not getting married discriminates against those whose partnerships are not recognized under U.S. law and whose children are “illegitimate” regardless of the stability of their unacknowledged family.

Whereas outspoken advocates from the conservative ranks were heard regularly, similarly “radical” advocates of women’s rights were nowhere to be found. Bell Curve author Charles Murray was cited five times during the period studied. He told Newsweek his opinion of teen mothers (12/12/94): “A great many of them have no business being mothers and their feelings don’t count as much as the welfare of the child.” But no feminist expert was heard from to offer the opinion that poor women have a right to live and feed their children even when they are not married to the father of their child.

A handful of different groups dedicated to defending the rights of children were cited. But apart from a “women’s rights advocate” who appeared on 20/20 (12/23/94), women’s rights organizations were virtually absent from the source list. Groups like Planned Parenthood, for example, with its decades-long history of helping women to plan their pregnancies, seemed to be missing from reporters’ rolodexes.

Union representatives were cited in only five stories in the period studied (all but one in the New York Times). If reporters had sought out labor’s voice more regularly, they might have resisted the invidious portrayal of welfare as a battle between workers and unemployed.

While acknowledging that the issue of poverty and public assistance is complex, deep-rooted and contentious, the mainstream media debate stuck so close to the well-trod path that it almost ensured no fresh ideas would squeeze through.

Research by Dan Shadoan.