They call it a comeback.
It is true, the U.S. economy is no longer in the depths of what has been called “The Great Recession.” But, in many ways the economy remains “weak.” Overall economic growth remains “subpar” and labor force participation rates remain shocking, not far from 38-year lows.
Then of course there’s poverty, food stamp use, weak wage growth and household income struggles. The average household is still making thousands of dollars less than they were before the recession. Those indicators tell another side to the story, one the broadcast networks haven’t said much about.
It’s also unlikely, even with a night of the Democratic convention focused on the economy, that Hillary Clinton or any of the other liberals represented will be reminding people of these problem areas. Especially, given how many news outlets are depicting the Clinton campaign as Obama’s third term.
Those economic indicators show how hard everyday life is for millions of Americans. The network coverage of some of these issues was a cruel joke. Labor participation is near record lows, yet nearly half the stories that brought up labor force participation were positive mentions. Poverty remains at “historic” highs with about 46 million people under the poverty line. The networks only brought it up twice. Bloomberg reported that 1 in 7 Americans were still on food stamps in early 2016. There was only one mention of that staggering statistic in a year and a half.
The network evening shows couldn’t ignore the entire economy, so between Jan. 1, 2015, and June 30, 2016, they aired at least 342 stories or news briefs that said something about the U.S. economy or American economic policy. Many of them heralded positive economic signs like a “hiring surge,” or low gas and oil prices giving consumers a boost, or other “signs of a strengthening economy.” Stock market and oil price movements also got plenty of attention.
Ninety-one percent of those economy stories (311 out of 342) ignored those six key negative indicators which revealed remaining weakness in the economy. Even during a presidential election cycle in which polls showed voters’ concern for the economy, they earned scant attention.
World News (called World News Tonight with David Muir weekdays and World News Tonight on the weekends), Nightly News and Evening News all knew the economy was on voters’ minds. All three aired segments citing exit polls of where voters ranked the economy on their list of priorities. NBC even interviewed voters who spoke of their “angst” about the economy in their town and who complained that politicians were out of touch with their economic reality.
The politicians weren’t the only ones out of touch. The networks often proclaimed “the economy is getting better,” “good jobs are back” or talked about “solid” or “healthy” economic signs, but rarely sought to cover weaknesses. They also celebrated climbing retail sales, good housing news and auto sales.
Other media outlets explicitly warned about areas of weakness. On June 6, 2016, the Los Angeles Times reported that the recovery had turned 7 years old, admitting “the pace of this recovery has been the slowest [since WWII], with average annual growth of about 2.1%.”
In contrast, President Ronald Reagan presided over a recovery that averaged 7.9 percent annual growth for seven years of the recovery.
“We’ve come a long way from the bottom of 2009,” David Shulman, senior economist at the UCLA Anderson Forecast told the Los Angeles Times in June. “But compared to the historical growth track, we’re so far below it that it’s staggering, and that’s the unease the public feels about the economy.”
Expect Praise for Obama Economy at Democratic Convention
President Obama is “proud” of his economic accomplishments. In April, he even took credit for “saving the world economy from a Great Depression ...”
As the Democratic National Convention gets underway in Philadelphia on July 25, it’s unlikely there will be much criticism of economic weak spots or lower than average growth. After all, it would reflect poorly on the liberal Democrat who has been sitting in the Oval Office for nearly eight years.
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As a former member of the Obama administration, presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton is unlikely to say much that would make the president look bad. Although she claims not to be running as an Obama third term, liberal media outlets repeatedly argued that’s exactly what she’s doing. The Daily Beast, Salon, New York Magazine and CNN have all said it, especially after a February debate performance in which she mentioned Obama 21 times (according to Salon).
Although there were moments on the campaign trail she had to admit, or at least hint at the existence of economic problems. In one case, she suggested she’d assign the task of “revitalizing the economy” in hard-hit places to her husband.
On June 1, Obama touted his record on the economy in Indiana saying, "By almost every economic measure, America is better off than when I came here at the beginning of my presidency."
He touted the “more than 14 million new jobs,” the drop in the unemployment rate and more in that speech. He admitted wages are still growing too slow, but did not admit the same problem with the overall rate of economic growth. Nor did he say households are still behind, pointing to median income, or high rates of poverty or food stamp use.
But not all voters or economists were buying it. Just months before Obama gave that speech in Elkhart, Ind., The New York Times found discouragement. “People still don’t feel like they’re doing well,” Faith Mission director Mike Perez told the Times. Why? They’re still earning less than before the recession.
“There still isn’t a sense that everything’s O.K.” Perez added.
As a politician, Obama’s cherry-picking of economic measures to brag about his accomplishment is expected. However, the news media should be a check and balance to hold him (and others) accountable. They owe it to the American public to tell the truth and provide a complete economic picture.
However, in the past year and a half the networks have failed to do that by continuing to give very little coverage to measurements of the economy still revealing pain and weakness.
Here are six the networks paid very little attention to in the past year and a half:
1. Gross Domestic Product Show Recovery ‘Pace’ Slowest Since WWII
Since the recession ended officially in June 2009, the recovery is more than seven years old. Yet, economic growth as measured by GDP (gross domestic product) remained weak throughout those years.
As the Los Angeles Times reported in June 2016, “the pace of this recovery has been the slowest [since WWII], with average annual growth of about 2.1%.” The UCLA economist they interviewed called that low rate so far below historical growth rates it was “staggering.”
That weakness set a dismal record of 10 straight years of GDP growth without a single year growing faster than 3 percent.
“The U.S. economy sustained a real rate of economic growth of 3.3% from 1945 to 1973, and achieved the same 3.3% sustained real growth from 1982 to 2007,” according to Forbes contributor Peter Ferrara who took population growth into account for those figures.
In 2014, he continued in that Forbes piece to explain, “It was only during the stagflation decade of 1973 to 1982, reflecting the same Keynesian economics that President Obama is pursuing today, that real growth fell to only half long term trends.”
During the year and a half, ABC World News Tonight did the worst job of covering this weakness without a single story covering GDP going up or down. Nightly News mentioned it four times, while Evening News brought it up 10 times — positively or negatively.
CBS Evening News covered GDP growth positively on Aug. 27 2015, "To the economy now. It is also growing for real at 3.7 percent in the second quarter, six times faster than the first quarter. That news today gave Wall Street a boost."
When asked why this recovery was so weak, Mercatus Center senior research fellow Veronique De Rugy pointed to long-term trends in spending as well as Obama administration’s policies of “economic intervention” including an “explosion in regulation,” stimulus spending and high debt.
She said regulation was inhibiting economic growth even before Obama’s presidency, but he “made it worse.”
2. So Many Workers Have Given Up Looking, Labor Force Participation is Near Record Low
Discussion of participation in the labor market was rare — only ten mentions in a year and a half — in spite of the record set in 2015.
In Sept. 2015, labor force participation dipped to 62.4 percent of the civilian noninstitutional population who had a job or were actively searching for one. That was a 38-year low. Data for May 2016, showed little improvement with 62.6 percent employed or looking.
Of the networks’ evening coverage of labor participation, nearly half the mentions were positive. For example, Evening News anchor Scott Pelley reported on April 1, 2016, “We had good news on the economy today. Employers added 215,000 jobs in March. That’s 66 months of job growth, nearly six years. The unemployment rate rose to 5 percent, but for a good reason. More people joined the labor force looking for jobs in a strengthening economy.”
Declining participation wasn’t solely because of people retiring either. As Investor’s Business Daily noted in 2014, labor force participation declined in all age groups “except for those 60 plus.”
“This is the first time in the modern era that during a recovery younger Americans left the workforce. This is why the real unemployment rate is not 5.6%” it is closer to 10 percent when you include people who stopped looked or can’t find full-time work, IBD said.
3. Hourly Wages Stagnant for Years, ‘Finally’ Start Climbing
The administration and the networks have touted the labor market heating up and bragged about new jobs, but job creation and a lower unemployment rate didn’t tell the whole story.
Hourly wages were weak, “stagnant” and “flat” for many of those recovery years. CBS Evening News reported on Feb. 5, 2016, hourly wages were “Finally started to rise, up 2.5 percent in the past year.”
By this measure too, the recovery was falling short. Investor’s Business Daily pointed out in 2014 that “in a typical recovery, wage growth after five years is about 9%. Under Obama, it’s closer to 1%, Bloomberg reports.”
CNBC, MarketWatch, PBS and many other media outlets have reported the “stagnant” wages problem.
NPR reported in May 2015 that “stagnant wages aren't just a problem for individuals. When workers like Hall and Pallaoro don't have money to spend, it's a drag on the whole economy.”
“The national economy is improving, and unemployment is at a seven-plus year low of 5.1 percent. But for American households, the financial picture is far less promising, with both the poverty rate and median wages remaining stubbornly stagnant despite the economic recovery, according to government statistics released Wednesday morning,” said US News & World Report on Sept. 16, 2015.
In the entire year and a half, stagnant or rising wage growth came up in 27 stories.
Wayne Winegarden, economist with the Pacific Research Institute told MRC Business that although there were many factors at play holding wages down the “policy environment” played certainly a role.
“When you had the regulatory environment the way it is in terms of uncertainty, when you’ve had monetary policy the way it is, fiscal policy the same way. You bring all that together, and you create an environment where it becomes very difficult for businesses to expand, becomes very difficult for people to grow incomes, and therefore you see that stagnation across the board,” he explained.
He pointed to Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act), energy regulation and Dodd-Frank as some of the policies contribution to wage stagnation.
4. Median Household Income Is Still Lower Than Before the Recession
The network evening shows, only mentioned the median household income measure twice in the entire time period analyzed. Once each by Evening News and Nightly News.
Nightly News’s admission came on Jan. 19, 2015, when it reported that “the average household is making about $2,000 less than it was.”
In 2007, before the recession hit median household income had climbed to $57,357, according to census data. That figure dropped precipitously through 2012 ($52,605) and by 2014 (most recent data available), median household income still hadn’t returned to pre-recession peak.
Instead, it was more than $3,000 less at $53,657. Mises.org confirmed this with charts showing that annual median income from 2008 through 2014, was lower in all of those years, than the annual figures for 2000-2007.
Media outlets including FiveThirtyEight, CNN, The New York Post and The New York Times have all acknowledged this. The Times upshot blog mentioned it in a post called, “Why Americans Still Think the Economy is Terrible.”
5. 46 Million People in Poverty
The millions of people still living in poverty also got short shrift on the evening news programs. In the entire time span, just two stories touched on poverty which is at “historic highs.”
One of those mentions was a Republican attack, when Rep. Paul Ryan said, “46 million people are still living in poverty today, among the highest poverty rates in a generation. This is not the signs of a recovery.” That quote appeared on Evening News Jan. 12, 2016.
The other mention from Nightly News made the opposite argument. On Jan. 20, 2015, the program aired a good news report about how Obama could “argue the state of the economy is strong,” for the very first time as president. Chris Jansing’s report cited “improving economic numbers, more jobs, a robust stock market, lower gas prices.”
She included 2011 footage of anchor Brian Williams pointing out that poverty had climbed to record levels: “There are now more poor people in America than any time since census records started 52 years ago.”
But the purpose wasn’t to criticize the current state of the economy; it was to promote the idea of an incredible rebound and boost Obama.
The growth of poverty following a recession made sense, but even The Huffington Post acknowledged poverty usually recovers much faster.
“Poverty always surges after recessions, as millions of people lose their jobs and incomes. In past recessions, poverty retreated fairly quickly from its extremes once the economy began to recover,” HuffPo wrote. Using a chart from the Center On Budget And Policy Priorities, they showed that poverty was dropping significantly a year after the 1961 and 1970 recessions, and two years after the 1970 and 1982 recessions.
Nightly News conveniently left out the harsh reality that poverty is still a problem. When Jansing’s report was delivered the rate was 14.5 percent — meaning 45.3 million people were “at or below the poverty line in 2013, for the third consecutive year,” according to the US Census.
Even in a piece defending Obama against critics, NPR admitted 13.2 percent of Americans were in poverty in 2008. US Census data from 2014 (latest available data), showed 14.9 percent of the population — more than 47 million Americans — were in poverty as defined by the government. That rate peaked at 15.1 percent peak in 2010.
6. 1 in 7 Americans Still on Food Stamps
With increasing poverty, came increased reliance on government assistance programs including food stamps, which was renamed Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in 2008.
Out of more than 300 network evening stories analyzed, just one mentioned the huge numbers of people dependant on food stamps.
On Jan. 28, 2015, Evening News anchor Scott Pelley reported, “The government also told us that 20 percent of American kids depend on food stamps. That’s 16 million. Before the Great Recession, it was 9 million.”
A Washington Post fact check from 2011, acknowledged the “all-time high” for number of people using food stamps. At that time, more than 46 million people were receiving food stamps. The Post noted that part of that stemmed from changes made at the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, and a temporary boost from Obama’s stimulus package.
That grew even higher before starting to fall. The most recent data from the Department of Agriculture showed more than 44.7 million recipients on average for 2016 (preliminary data).
To put that in perspective, Bloomberg reported in January 2016, that food stamps “still feed one in seven Americans despite recovery.” In April 2008, Bloomberg said only 28 million people were enrolled.
Using Nexis, MRC Business searched the broadcast networks’ evening news programs (World News Tonight with David Muir and World News Tonight, Evening News and Nightly News) economy or economic between Jan. 1, 2015, and June 30, 2016. The results were analyzed and any stories or news briefs that were not actually connected to the U.S. economy were removed (including stories about local economies, the global economy and the economy of foreign countries if nothing was said about the U.S. economy). There were 342 remaining stories or news briefs which were analyzed to see if they covered these six economic indicators: gross domestic product/economic growth, the amount of labor force participation, median household income, wage growth or stagnancy, the poverty rate or the use of food stamps.
Staff writer Sam Dorman assisted with the research for this analysis.