If such an award existed, the Washington Times would surely win this year’s award for Creativity in Reporting. Unfortunately, reporter Luke Rosiak’s recent Times article attacked Lifeline, the free government cell phone program, with accusations so shrill and so inaccurate that they leapfrog beyond bias and dive straight into the realm of dogma with a dollop of sensationalism thrown in for good measure.
The Times article is headlined “Companies get $9/mo per Obamaphone from feds while offering to public for $7.”
Is that true? In a word, no. We hardly know where to begin correcting the inaccuracies, distortions and outright falsehoods contained in this article. Rosiak writes:
TracFone Wireless, the largest Obamaphone vendor, receives more than $9 per line from the federal government for each phone it distributes to the poor, but sells similar service to the general public for less than $7.
That short, one-sentence paragraph is the heart of Rosiak’s argument. Unfortunately, it is inaccurate — unless Rosiak’s definition of “similar” service is very different than ours. Let’s just take a look at a side-by-side comparison of the company’s Lifeline plan and its non-Lifeline plans. (To clarify some murky writing in the Times article, TracFone is the parent company of Safelink Wireless, which is the actual company that competes in the Lifeline Assistance market. It’s a subtle but important distinction that was overlooked in the Times article.)
|Free Monthly Minutes||250||180|
|Free Monthly Texts||1000||180|
|Free Monthly Data||—||180 mb|
|Cost of cell phone||Free||$79.99|
|Cost per month||$9.25*||$7**|
|Contract required||None||90 days|
* Monthly fee paid to TracFone (Safelink Wireless) for each Lifeline free government cell phone account
**Monthly fee paid to TracFone by individuals who do not qualify for Lifeline
This quick comparison clearly indicates that the entire premise of the Washington Times article is false.
The free Lifeline plan far exceeds what it offers to the general public for approximately $7 per month. Specifically, the plan for which the government pays $9.25 per month offers nearly 40% more minutes per month and more than five times as many texts per month. (We feel obliged to point out that those extra 820 texts per month offered in Safelink’s Lifeline plan are incredibly significant, because a huge percentage of interpersonal communications now take place via texting.) It’s true that the TracFone plan doesn’t offer a monthly data plan, but considering that its non-Lifeline plan offers only 180 megabytes per month, enough to view approximately five web pages per day, we consider that difference to be truly insignificant.
Now let’s take a look at the cost of the cell phones you receive with the two plans:
TracFone’s Lifeline plan provides qualifying customers with a free cell phone. Please allow us to repeat that for the benefit of Mr. Rosiak: the Lifeline cell phone is free. Absolutely free.
On the other hand, the cell phones available to customers who opt for the $7 per month plan range from $69.99 to $129.99. To make that difference even clearer, the least expensive $69.99 cell phones are sold out on the TracFone website. That means that their cheapest cell phones available actually cost $79.99.
The level and number of services offered by TracFone (and most other Lifeline Assistance companies) is rapidly expanding across the country. They are adding more and more minutes and texts to their plans all the time. For example, Assurance Wireless now offers unlimited texts and unlimited calling in California. It’s a very competitive business and we expect other Lifeline companies to quickly match that service and begin offering recipients more bang for their government buck.
Rosiak implies that TracFone (and, by association, all other Lifeline providers) is ripping off the public:
The firm has refused to tell regulators how much it actually costs to provide service, and the industry paints its involvement in the program as being altruistic.
The Washington Times prides itself on being unabashedly conservative.
Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the Times:
In a 2008 essay published in Harper’s Magazine, historian Thomas Frank linked the Times to the modern American conservative movement, saying:
There is even a daily newspaper—the Washington Times—published strictly for the movement’s benefit, a propaganda sheet whose distortions are so obvious and so alien that it puts one in mind of those official party organs one encounters when traveling in authoritarian countries.
In 2009 the New York Times reported:
With its conservative editorial bent, the paper also became a crucial training ground for many rising conservative journalists and a must-read for those in the movement. A veritable who’s who of conservatives — Tony Blankley, Frank J. Gaffney Jr., Larry Kudlow, John Podhoretz and Tony Snow — has churned out copy for its pages.
Is it really the position of a conservative publication that a private company doing business with a non-governmental agency should have to reveal its most vital financial data to the government and, therefore, to its most bitter competitors?
Certainly, that seems contradictory to everything we think we know about conservative philosophy. But we fear that this is one of those sad cases where the Times has allowed its visceral hatred of the Lifeline program to overrule its most basic political philosophy.
Would the Times feel the same way if a regulator demanded that it reveal its finances, its costs of doing business, its profits and losses.
We doubt it.
There is a lot to criticize about Lifeline Assistance, the free government cell phone program. FreeGovernmentCellPhones.net has often criticized the lax regulation and rampant fraud present in this otherwise incredibly worthwhile program.
In the future, we hope that Luke Rosiak and the Washington Times focus on the real problems with the program and stop their sensational attacks on aspects of the program that are undeserving of those attacks.