Over the past week, Fox News has pushed a storyline on the recent National Endowment for the Arts “stimulus” grants that has an eerily familiar tone:

The National Endowment for the Arts may be spending some of the money it received from the Recovery and Reinvestment Act to fund nude simulated-sex dances, Saturday night “pervert” revues and the airing of pornographic horror films at art houses in San Francisco.

Tellingly, however, the author of the Fox story, Joseph Abrams, can only actually identify three instances of supposedly objectionable programming, all of them in San Francisco: a $25,000 grant to counterPULSE, which has a “pansexual performance series” called Perverts Put Out; another $25,000 to the Symmetry Project, whose dance performance involves nudity; and $50,000 to Frameline, a gay and lesbian film festival and support organization that screened the “pornographic horror film” in question. A grand total of $100,000 of supposed licentiousness. Gee, it’s almost like someone said to someone, “go find some kinky gay stuff in San Francisco that we can use to make the NEA look bad.” Care to wager that’s exactly what happened?

As is rather par for the course for Fox, the network has trouble getting even the most basic facts in its story right. First, these programs are not actually funded with taxpayer dollars at all — the NEA grants were specifically earmarked for staff positions, not programming, a fact pointed out by everyone Abrams interviewed but presented in the article as if it’s some sort of unverified claim. As anyone who has actually applied for an NEA grant knows, there are these things called “contracts” that come along with them that make damn well sure you spend the money on what you said it would get spent on.

Second, as Media Matters points out here, all of these groups got funding from the NEA before, under the Bush administration. Where was the outrage then? Could it be that a change in President suddenly makes things look a little different?

Third, in most cases the offending programming is a tiny portion of these organizations’ activities. The Frameline example is perhaps the most egregious: the organization presents hundreds of films a year and distributes many others; it did not produce or fund in any way the film that’s getting the attention here, which by the way was made 34 years ago.

Even these gaffes, though, pale in comparison to Fox’s strained relationship with basic reading and math skills. Whoever sent out the talking points about this got–get this–the NEA’s portion of the stimulus money wrong! You can’t get much more basic than that. Fox claims that the NEA got $80 million of the ARRA funds, when in fact the agency only received $50 million. Fox is confused by the fact that 60% of that number, or $30 million, was for direct grants to arts organizations, with the other 40% going to state and regional arts agencies. Fox apparently thought that all $50 million was for the direct grants, and that the $30 million was the number going to the states and regions, making for a total of $80 million.

What’s hilarious is that this is not hard information to dig up. EVERY single news story about the NEA and the stimulus since the appropriation took place has included the $50 million number. This $80 million business came out of thin air. Go ahead, Google NEA stimulus $80 million and all you’ll find are this story and related reactions, mostly on right-wing blogs. Now Google NEA stimulus $50 million and you’ll see all the stories by real news outlets. What’s more, Fox links in its own article to the NEA’s list of direct grants, at the bottom of which is the correct total: $29,725,000.

More lack of reading comprehension on Fox’s part:

  • We have this exchange between Greta Van Susteren and Steve Moore from the WSJ last week on On the Record:
    VAN SUSTEREN: See, this is a good place to put taxpayer money. I’m going to write the check for how much?

    MOORE: That one was, you know, several hundred thousand dollars.

    VAN SUSTEREN: I mean, and we have people who can’t make mortgages.

    Umm, no: as mentioned above, none of the grants in question (in fact none of the direct grants at all) were for more than $50,000. And has it occurred to them that some of the people who can’t make their mortgages might, you know, have just lost their jobs working for arts organizations?

  • The article quotes Luis Cancel of the “San Francisco Arts Council.” There is no such organization; Cancel is director of cultural affairs for the San Francisco Arts Commission.

Fox’s laughably bad reporting is certainly hilarious, but unfortunately for artists themselves it’s not such a thigh-slapper. It’s easy to recognize this for what it is: it’s not about the arts at all, but merely an excuse to stoke the base’s anger in order to push other issues that corporate conservatives actually care about (like blocking health care reform) and give Greta and Glenn an opportunity to titter about porn with their guests while pretending to be outraged by sex. Nevertheless, the reality is that support for the NEA in Congress is fickle at best, and even many Democrats are all too easily swayed by the mere fear of having the arts blow up in their faces the way they did 15-20 years ago. Those controversies eventually led to a 40% cut in funding for the agency, from which it is just now only beginning to recover.

So if you care about the arts in your communities, and you don’t want your Congressperson to be distracted by naked fear tactics like these, please: call them up and thank them for supporting the arts. Just as with health care, we need them to know that there ARE people who care on the other side.

  • Alexgander

    I appreciate the labor you have put in developing this blog. Nice and informative.

  • Anonymous

    Fabulous, accurate reporting! Thanks for your great work…

  • Arwen

    Thank you Ian – this is a fantastic post.

  • Roberto Jimenez

    great blog post ian! didn't know about these issues… so a good learning for me. thanks, roberto