Just Facts: Exposing the Media’s Election-Year Economic Games

Writing at JustFacts.com, James Agresti has a fascinating article documenting how the media spin the economy during Democratic and Republican administrations and during election years. “With another presidential election upon us and a Republican in the White House, negatively skewed economic reporting is climaxing,” Agresti writes.

After detailing how the media castigated George W. Bush for allegedly “talking down the economy” after his election in 2000, Agresti points out how the press is drenching Americans with a steady deluge of bad economic news: “This is not to deny the nation is in troubled economic times, but given what the press and politicians affirmed about ‘talking down the economy’ less than eight years ago, there can be little doubt that they have played and are playing a major role in damaging it now.”

Among the exhibits Agresti provides is a screen capture of the New York Times web site on August 28 of this year. The main headline: “Obama Speech to Cite Failures of Bush on the Economy.” Far down the page, in much smaller type, this headline: “Economic Growth Revised Higher.”

Here’s an excerpt of Agresti’s October 14 piece:

In early 2001 as Bill Clinton left and George Bush entered the Oval Office, GDP growth had sunk into negative territory, the dot.com bubble had burst sending the stock market in a downward spiral, and Treasury Department profit estimates for nonfinancial corporations, which were previously reported as growing for the past two years, were later found to be off by as much as 29.9% and had been in rapid decline.

Not wanting to be blamed for economic conditions that preexisted any policies implemented by his administration, Bush and other members of his team brought attention to problems that beset the economy. This was greeted by a backlash from Democratic leaders and prominent media outlets, who objected that Bush was “talking down the economy” and that this would erode public confidence and trigger economic troubles.

Suspend excerpt.

The MRC’s Brent Baker noted the trend at the time, with CBS’s Dan Rather even scolding Bush for ruining Christmas sales, citing the spin of Clinton White House aides. From the December 22, 2000 CyberAlert:

Some in the White House, Rather relayed, "accuse the Bush team of economic fear-mongering." Rather soon even blamed Bush for depressing Christmas sales: "The talk from the Bush team of a possible recession could not come at a worse time for the retail industry. The stores are afraid all this talk is encouraging consumers to close their wallets."

Resume excerpt:

Making the case that Bush’s “talk” was damaging the economy, an article in The Washington Post flatly stated that economic indicators “deteriorated considerably” following “a drumbeat of ominous forecasts by the Bush administration.” In fact, it was later found that GDP growth had sunk into negative territory several months before Bush took office. Another article in the Post quoted an economist who asserted, “What happened is that a few politicians opened their mouths and started to use the R-word [recession]. And then newspapers started to run big headlines about layoffs.”

In a house editorial, The New York Times lectured “it is important” that President Bush “quit talking down the economy….” Likewise, a column in the Times took Bush to task for not being a “cheerleader” for the nation’s economy....

Less than two months later in May 2001, the same press outlets that had recently warned about the dangers of “talking down the economy” were doing exactly that. Within the space of only two articles published on the same day in The New York Times and  Washington Post, the following verbiage was used in reference to the nation’s economic health:

“already sluggish,” “weakness,” “weakening,” “weakened,” “has been weakening,” “even weaker,” “even more economic weakness,” “big job losses,” “job-cutting,” “rising unemployment,” “shrinking profits,” “job cuts,” “jump in unemployment,” “recession fear,” “job loss,” “dashing hopes,” “continuing corporate layoffs,” “hiring freezes,” “pull back sharply on their spending,” “rising unemployment,” “dampen consumer spending,” “pace of layoffs shows no sign of abating,” “falloff in hiring has been so steep and so sudden,” “most forecasters expect the jobless rate to rise,” “layoffs renew recession fear,” “tipping the economy into recession,” “might be nearing, or even in, a recession.”

At the time these stories were published, Bush had been in office for less than four months and Congress had yet to pass his first major economic proposal. Furthermore, the first federal budget of Bush’s tenure was still five months away from being implemented.

Since then, pessimistic characterizations of the economy by the press and Democratic politicians have continued unrestrained, even in the face of robust economic indicators to the contrary. Since most people do not have the experience or context to interpret economic statistics, they are often left with little more than the spin that press outlets place upon these figures. Flagrant double standards have been employed by the media in this regard, usually rising to a peak during Presidential election years. Media watchdog organizations and commentators have documented obvious patterns in such cases. For example:

● During the quarter preceding Bill Clinton’s victory over George H. Bush’s bid for a second term in the election of 1992, 97% of economic portrayals on the big three television evening newscasts were negative. Yet, this changed immediately and drastically once the election was over, and more than 60% of economic portrayals for the remaining two months of the year were positive. (Center for Media and Public Affairs.)

● Three key economic indices for the year that preceded Bill Clinton’s re-election in 1996 and George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004 were as follows:

1996:  GDP growth 4.0%    Unemployment 5.5%        Inflation (CPI) 3.0%

2004:    GDP growth 3.2%    Unemployment 5.6%        Inflation (CPI) 2.5%

Despite the fundamental similarities between these figures, there was a distinct contrast in media portrayals of the economy. For example, in 1996 when Clinton was up for reelection, Adam Nagourney of The New York Times wrote, “the economy is good.” Yet, as noted by columnist Jack Kelly, when Bush was up for reelection in 2004, Nagourney declared the economy was “faltering.” Numerous examples of such biased reporting on the economy have been documented by right-leaning commentators and organizations such as the Media Research Center.

END of excerpt.

The MRC’s Business and Media Institute’s Dan Gainor authored a Special Report back in 2004 making this exact point. See “One Economy, Two Spins: Economic Conditions Portrayed as Positive During Clinton Presented as Negative for Bush.”

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