Fake Facts: Fox News Inaccurately Reports on Food Stamp Program

Watchdog group Media Matters calls out irresponsible reporting on ‘basic facts.’
What's the truth about food stamps? Media Matters and Fox News tell different stories. (clementine gallot/Creative Commons)
Jun 25, 2012
Megan Bedard is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

Most news-savvy Americans know that media sources, despite their claims of unbiased reporting, can lean left or right. But where is the line between bias and fact manipulation? According to a recent watchdog report, that line is very blurry for Fox News. The news channel's bias recently extended far enough to misrepresent facts, reporting fallacies on the food stamp program, says Media Matters.

Media Matters is a politically progressive organization that says it is "dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media." The nonprofit is taking Fox News to task for inaccurately and misleadingly reporting information on the national Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps.

With an $80-billion-a-year budget, food stamps are a divisive issue. Most Democrats fight to keep much of the funding in place, while many Republicans see it as low-hanging fruit for reducing the deficit.

According to Media Matters, Fox News has stated that the food stamp program facilitates fraud, and has criticized the program for increasing enrollment and costs. It also expressed shock at states "rewarding" increasing enrollment. 

Those three points don't sit well with Media Matters. Here's how the watchdog group breaks things down:

Fox News: Food stamps facilitates fraud.

Fox News reported that $750 million in federal food aid is spent fraudulently every year. Though that statistic is true, the news channel didn't mention that fraud accounts for only one percent of benefits, according to Reuters—and that fraud rates are declining. 

In addition to citing Reuters, Media Matters calls on information from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) to illustrate how relatively small fraud rates are. CBPP states:

Only 3 percent of all SNAP benefits represented overpayments, meaning they either went to ineligible households or went to eligible households but in excessive amountsand more than 98 percent of SNAP benefits were issued to eligible households. 

The watchdog group also points to statistics from the Fiscal Times that show efforts to reduce fraudulent activity have succeeded, bringing the fraudulent spending from four percent of benefit funds to its current one percent. 

Fox News: Costs are up, and food stamps are to blame.

Fox News stated that food stamp spending is surging, suggesting that, with one in seven Americans on food stamps, assistance may be going to "the wrong people."

Food stamp enrollment is certainly up: It's at a record high and has increased by 27 million enrollees in the last decade. But, Media Matters says, enrollment in SNAP has increased due to the recession. The increase in aid is consistent with typical repercussions of a drastic economic dip. Again, Media Matters cites the CBPP:

The record-setting SNAP participation levels are consistent with the extraordinarily deep and prolonged nature of the recession and the weak, lagging recovery. Long-term unemployment reached its highest levels on record in 2010 and has remained at these unprecedented levels ever since. 

A surge in federal aid, then, is a natural consequence of financial disaster. CBPP also states that "After unemployment insurance, SNAP historically has been the most responsive federal program in assisting families and communities during economic downturns."

Fox News: The Obama Administration rewards over-enrollment for food stamps

"You're telling us that states actually get a bonus for signing people up for aid?" a Fox News reporter asked Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) incredulously on the June 22 edition of Fox News' America's Newsroom.

"Absolutely they are," said Sessions, who proposed an amendment to the Farm Bill to cut that aspect of the food stamp program.

And states do, in fact, receive compensation for effective enrollment of eligible food stamp recipients. The USDA instigated the reward system in an effort to improve SNAP standards. But "reward" money is nothing new; the policy started under the Bush Administration. 

According to Media Matters, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) records state that "payment accuracy bonuses to states started in fiscal year 2003, and application processing timeliness and program access index bonuses started in fiscal year 2006."

This isn't the first time Media Matters has given Fox News a hard time. The organization has documented what it dubs the ten most "egregious examples" of distortion by Fox News and its personalities, including cropping quotes to appear out of context, manipulating the appearance of reporters with image software, and showing misleading footage to benefit the Tea Party movement.

What do you think? Did Fox News deliberately give out misinformation?

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