On Tuesday morning, President Obama participated in a panel at the Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty at Georgetown University. He chewed over the causes and solutions for poverty with Robert Putnam, professor of public policy at the Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, and E.J. Dionne, Washington Post columnist and professor in Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy.
In the midst of their wonky discussion of economic and social policy, President Obama took the opportunity to take a hard shot at Fox News, specifically the way they cover anti-poverty programs:
“The effort to suggest that the poor are sponges, leeches, don’t want to work, are lazy, are undeserving, got traction. And, look, it’s still being propagated. I have to say that, if you watch Fox News on a regular basis, it is a constant menu. They will find, like, folks who make me mad. I don’t know where they find ’em. They’re all like ‘I don’t want to work, I just want a free Obamaphone,’ or whatever, and that becomes an entire narrative.”
The president’s broader observation — that the influence of media coverage on public perception is toxic to anti-poverty programs, is fine up to a point — but the example he gives, the so-called “Obamaphone,” provides some ironic context. It is true that Fox News has turned attacking the poor into an art form that makes them Michelangelos among Ziggy cartoonists, but demonizing the poor sure as hell didn’t start with Fox News.
In fact, its modern political incarnation started with the man who fathered the “Obamaphone” program. From Bob Cesca:
No, the Obama campaign wasn’t handing out free phones in exchange for votes. However, there’s definitely a program that offers low-cost telephones to citizens who can’t afford one. The truth is the Lifeline program has been around since 1984 when, that’s right, Ronald Reagan helped to create it. In 1996, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) set up a non-profit outfit called the Universal Service Administrative Company, which receives financial backing via the Universal Service Fund. According to its website, money for the program is contributed entirely by “long distance companies, local telephone companies, wireless telephone companies, paging companies, and payphone providers,” and none of the funding comes from taxpayers via the federal government. It’s all privately donated money.
So, the “Obamaphone” is actually a “Reaganphone,” yet another way in which President Obama compares favorably to former President Reagan. And that guy, Ronald Reagan, famously campaigned on “welfare queens” and steak-eating “young bucks.” While President Obama often speaks of Reagan in admiring tones, it is Reagan who fed Fox News its steady diet of poor-hating.It is leaders who are supposed to change hearts and minds like those of Fox News’ audience, not the other way around.