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The Media's Elastic Economy

Here's an election-eve story you may have missed, thanks to the "news" media.

Last Friday morning, the Commerce Department reported an economic growth rate of 3.7 percent for the third quarter of 2004, the best pre-election growth rate in at least the last quarter century. Yup, that's an economic performance stronger than what we saw in 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996 and 2000. Obviously, if we can pin blame or praise on one man for the economy - which is intellectually questionable but politically irresistible - the sun seemed to be shining on President Bush, right?

Not if you tuned into the nightly news. On ABC, Peter Jennings downplayed the facts showing the growing economic boom as offering "a little bit" to both the Bush and Kerry campaigns. In case that sounds nonsensical, Jennings turned to reporter Betsy Stark who insisted: "what matters to voters, Peter, gets back to that question that Ronald Reagan first asked when he ran for President: 'Are you better off than you were four years ago?'"

With that question, the reality - the truth - of the matter was replaced by the perception of reality. The reality of an explosive economy was replaced by a discussion of how we feel - and ABC wanted us to feel just lousy about it all.

Stark began on employment, with 821,000 fewer jobs today than when Mr. Bush took office. Neither the loss of one million jobs in the 100 days after September 11 nor the creation of nearly two million jobs since the Bush tax cuts took full effect in the summer of 2003 is worth reporting. The unemployment rate of 5.4 percent before the 2004 election is almost the same as the 5.2 percent rate Bill Clinton presided over in 1996. But somehow Bush has mangled the job picture.

The ABC story continued. While Stark reported home ownership and home prices are up and mortgage rates are down, she then slid back to the negatives: "Americans are more in debt than they were four years ago. They're spending 49 percent more for family health insurance, 35 percent more on tuition at public universities, and 39 percent more for a gallon of gas." Let's not quibble with those numbers, which aren't government statistics. Just know ABC is cherry-picking the biggest-increasing items and ignoring the Big Picture: overall inflation is 2.7 percent. It was three percent in 1996, when Bill Clinton was easily re-elected. But now, just days before the election, ABC wanted the voters to feel the opposite: that prices are rising dramatically for working families.

Over at CBS and NBC, they mentioned the high economic growth number in passing, with about as much drama as an early-round Wimbledon play-by-play. They had more pressing issues to report. CBS had a full story investigating "who's calling the shots" on your Botox shot? Over on NBC, Tom Brokaw read a small item noting the 3.7 percent growth rate was "slightly better than in the spring, but it's not as strong as analysts had expected." Who are these "analysts"? NBC didn't say. What number beyond 3.7 percent would be acceptable? Who knows?

What hypocrisy. Weaker economic growth reports in 1996 and 2000 were painted as good news for the Clinton-Gore team. "The economy was slow but steady going into the last quarter," NBC's Tom Brokaw reassured viewers after a 2.2 percent growth report that came out right before Clinton's re-election in 1996. "Many economists were encouraged by that, because it means inflation is under control and interest rates will stay low."

Four years later, CBS's Dan Rather was pleased with the Clinton-Gore 2.7 percent growth rate reported right before the 2000 election. "There is a school of thought that says this is overall good for the economy to keep it from overheating," Rather told viewers.

But under Bush 41 in 1992, the exact same 2.7 percent growth rate issued right before the election was soundly panned. ABC's Peter Jennings called it "more than economists had projected but, in many cases, less than meets the eye." Reporter Bob Jamieson warned that "many economists say the report is not proof the economy is taking a sharp turn for the better."

The networks don't really care what the numbers are on the economy, but only about how they can be manhandled, manipulated, and spun. Before voting, the networks ought to have allowed viewers to consider the raw data on the economy before they had the numbers cooked.