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Networks Think Inflation is Important Only When It's Rising

     The three broadcast networks have focused growing attention on inflation recently – 42 stories since early May. CBS anchor Bob Schieffer declared on June 14 “Well, it is back, inflation, that is.” The following day, ABC’s Bill Ritter cautioned, “everything from mowing the lawn to joining a gym could cost you more money.”

     Yet, when positive inflation news was announced just hours later by the new chairman of the Federal Reserve, ABC didn’t even bother reporting it on its evening news program. Meanwhile, the other two broadcast networks paid inflation relatively little notice compared to their other stories that night.

     On June 15, Fed chairman Ben Bernanke told Chicago’s Economic Club that higher energy costs haven’t had a big impact on other prices, and there are even signs that such pressures may be waning. The stock market exploded on the announcement with the Dow Jones Industrial Average rising by almost 200 points, or 1.83 percent – its best one day showing since April 2005.

     Rather than welcome the news after focusing on the evils of inflation, the networks paid little attention. ABC’s “World News Tonight” didn’t even report Bernanke’s statement about inflation. This was particularly odd as “Good Morning America” just hours a few earlier did a rather lengthy segment on the issue.

     GMA’s Ritter began with a gloomy introduction: “The report by the government on inflation, it is on the rise and that means everything from mowing the lawn to joining a gym could cost you more money.” As if that wasn’t enough, Ritter added this negative claim: “Just as prices are rising, the economy may be losing some steam.”

     With a graphic on the screen asking, “Is Inflation Killing The Economy?” reporter Betsy Stark went even further: “Americans are feeling anxious about the economy this morning and they have plenty of reason to worry. Gas prices are stuck near record highs, the housing market is cooling off, interest rates are up, stocks are in a slump, and now, prices for just about everything are going up.” Mercilessly, she didn’t end there: “The latest government report on inflation shows Americans spending more to pay the rent, stay in a hotel, join a gym, put the kids in day care, dry clean a suit, even get the lawn mowed.”

     “World News Tonight” didn’t feel it necessary to follow that downbeat story with the good news about inflation. Yet, they did have time to do a major piece on a successful operation involving two conjoined twins, as well as one story about a female bowler.

     NBC was almost as bad. On Wednesday’s “Nightly News,” Anne Thompson began her report talking about inflation’s impact. “Once again the high price of gasoline is fueling inflation, up almost 5 percent in May and spilling over to other parts of the economy, pushing up airfares, trucking costs and delivery prices,” she said.

     Thompson tugged at the heartstrings by showing inflation’s harm to regular folks: “Economists say it's also changing consumers’ behavior, as Americans look for small ways to get more from their dollars without drastically changing their lifestyles.” She then brought in a real person to drive the point home. “Coupons are the answer for Christine Napolitani-DeBiasi. She's noticed jumps in children's clothing and some grocery items,” said Thompson. Napolitani-DeBiasi responded: “I had to give up going to see my daughter and granddaughter out of state because I can't afford to fly and I can't drive there.”

     Thompson was invited on to the “Today” show the following morning to spread more gloom. This time, her heartstrings tug was named Yvette Perez, “a working mom with two jobs, juggling children and grandchildren ... and a budget that is straining under the pressure of inflation.” Perez added, “Gasoline, rent, light and gas. It's hard to try to keep a family and a budget.”

     Yet, with all the grief NBC felt for Americans due to inflation pressures real or imagined, all the “Nightly News” devoted to Bernanke’s announcement just hours later was the following from Campbell Brown:

 

“Meanwhile the chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke had some news for the rest of us today on the high cost of energy. He said it isn't likely to change any time soon but he said the American economy can handle it as long as these prices don’t rise even more. Bernanke’s message may have helped the stock market rally today.”

     Notice that the word “inflation” was absent from Brown’s report. She didn’t tell viewers that Bernanke said higher energy costs hadn’t had too much of an impact on other prices, and might not.

The two previous horror stories about inflation totaled 880 words. Yet, when the news was good in virtually the same day, all NBC could muster were three measly sentences or just 61 words without even using the word inflation.

     The CBS “Evening News” devoted more than 100 words to the Bernanke announcement as well as the stock market’s reaction Thursday. Anchor Bob Schieffer started the segment almost with a bit of irony. “We have been talking about the market and the fear of inflation, and suddenly the stock market goes up today like a skyrocket. What’s happened?” he began.

     Business Reporter Anthony Mason then told viewers about Thursday’s big rally, after which Schieffer asked, “Does the Fed chairman Ben Bernanke, did he have anything to do with this?” Mason answered: “You can call it the Bernanke bounce today, Bob, because he was speaking to the Economic Club in Chicago, and he said the impact of higher energy prices appear to be manageable, and suddenly it was off to the races at the markets.”

     Perhaps, the reason Schieffer was so shocked by the news was due to the extraordinary amount of negative attention that he and CBS had given to inflation and the markets recently. The “Evening News” devoted two separate stories to inflation on June 14, as did the following day’s “Early Show.”

     The first of the two “Evening News” stories began with Schieffer stating: “Well, it is back, inflation, that is. It's been more than a decade since it made this much news, but the new government numbers leave no doubt prices are going up again.” Mason followed by emphasizing core inflation is “the highest in more than a decade.”

     He didn’t explain whether a 3.8-percent inflation rate is alarming. After all, inflation during the ’80s averaged about 6.4 percent per year, and 10.3 percent in the ’70s. Compare that to a 3.3 percent rate in the ’90s, and our current rate of 3.8 percent doesn’t seem to be anything to get so concerned about.

     But that’s not what you would have heard on CBS’s “Early Show” Thursday morning just hours before the Fed chairman spoke in Chicago. In one segment, Mason encored his report from the previous night, followed later by Harry Smith who brought on a senior financial analyst from Bankrate.com to further discuss the perils of inflation.

     All told, in less than 24 hours before Bernanke spoke to the Economic Club, CBS ran four stories about inflation totaling almost 2,000 words. That fits well into a network trend to dwell on inflation.

     The three broadcast networks have done 42 stories on inflation since the last time the Federal Reserve met to discuss that topic and interest rates on May 10. CBS News (including the “Early Show,” and the “Evening News”) logged 18 separate reports involving inflation and the concern that it is heading higher. This was about 50 percent more the 13 reports done by NBC (“Today” and “Nightly News”). By contrast, ABC (“Good Morning America” and “World News Tonight”) did 11 reports.

Noel Sheppard is a contributing writer for the Business & Media Institute, as well a contributing editor for the Media Research Center’s NewsBusters.org. He welcomes feedback at nsheppard@costlogic.com.