Feb 4 2014

NY Times Covers for Obama’s Move to the Right

Paper misrepresents inequality poll

newyorktimes-logoPresident Barack Obama has decided to talk less about income inequality and more about “opportunity.” This shift to a more conservative framework to discuss economic divisions is, according to the New York Times, what the public wants. But that doesn’t appear to be the case.

Reporter Jackie Calmes (2/4/14) explained that Republicans think talking about inequality “smacks of class warfare,” and suggests that the public at large thinks so too: “On this question, the president and his party have moved in Republicans’–and voters’–direction,” she wrote. The Times added that Democrats see that opportunity frame “as more appealing to middle-class voters in this midterm election year.”

What’s the evidence that the public is shying away from government action to combat inequality? It’s apparently in one Pew poll (1/23/14), which according to the Times found there was

“broad consensus” that government should help people escape poverty, but “substantially less agreement” that government should act to reduce the gap between the rich and everyone else.

But this is misleading. The Pew poll found that 69 percent of the public thinks the government should do “some” or “a lot” to reduce inequality. That reference to “substantially less” support is in contrast with the public support for government action to reduce poverty, which gets 82 percent support.

Tax the Rich mural (photo: Tiff Chow)

A popular sentiment–but the New York Times would have you think people don’t want the government to do much about inequality. (“Tax The Rich” mural by Megan Wilson, “Mobius” mural by Mark Bode; photo: Tiff Chow)

So the Times is citing a poll that shows widespread support for government action to reduce inequality to make the argument that the public wants the government to do less to reduce inequality. (AP misused the same poll in a similar way–FAIR Blog, 1/28/14.)

The Pew poll is not the only source for public opinion on this question. An ABC/Washington Post poll posed (12/18/13) posed a similar question last year (“Do you think the federal government should or should not pursue policies that try to reduce the gap between wealthy and less well-off Americans?”) and it registered 57 percent support. And last year Gallup (4/17/13) asked Americans if wealth should be more evenly distributed; 59 percent said yes. When they asked if the government should redistribute wealth “by heavy taxes on the rich,” 52 percent said yes.

The Times does admit that some policies, such as raising taxes on the wealthy, are popular; but the paper discounts their importance, since “the influence of national polls on the debate is limited” because Democrats are focused on winning Senate races in conservative-leaning states.

The Times keeps the discussion of the politics of inequality quite narrow. The paper quotes Democrats who support Obama’s shift–former Biden adviser Jared Bernstein and pollster Mark Mellman– and Republicans who either think it is politically wise–strategist Vin Weber, National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brad Dayspring–or those (like Rep. Paul Ryan) who refuse to believe that Obama means what he says.

The White House shift on this issue appears real, and could have profound implications. As Calmes notes, the parties’ “emphasis in talking about opportunity over income inequality matters because it affects the outcome of what the government might do.” That’s why the New York Times shouldn’t be presenting this shift as one that the public is calling for–when there’s plenty of evidence that the opposite is the case.

ACTION: Ask New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan to examine how the paper’s February 4 report misrepresents polling data to suggest the White House’s shift away from talking about inequality is being driven by public opinion.

New York Times
Public Editor
Margaret Sullivan