Commentary: The Media Say the Economy Is Horrible, So It Must Be True
Political parties are supposed to take sides and be partisans. Thats the system. The news media are another story or at least they should be. But their coverage of the Bush economy reads like a collection of Democratic Party press releases, calling a strong economy everything from struggling to volatile or dicey. In a brand-new analysis of that news coverage, nearly two thirds of all economic stories were negative. And the numbers only get worse from there.
Digging deeper, its easy to see how many of the positive stories really were undermined by negative news. Strong employment stories were filled with the medias party line oil or gasoline price hikes, layoffs and fears about the housing boom. Economic growth was usually mentioned briefly, while negative stories received much more air time.
Recently, reporters have been saying President Bush isnt getting any benefit from the good economy. The Aug. 7 Washington Post explained that Bush was trying to stir up enthusiasm about the economy an issue where his poll numbers are low despite encouraging signs about jobs and the pace of economic growth.
As TVs Gomer Pyle used to say, Surprise! Surprise! Surprise! The media barely conceal their glee when they report falling poll numbers for the president. The real story is why Americans view the economy as bad or worse when the opposite is true. Twenty-six straight months of positive job creation. More than 3.5 million new jobs. An unemployment rate of just 5.0 percent. Strong economic growth and low inflation. No matter which network you watch that message is buried.
The Media Research Centers Business & Media Institute took a hard look at how the broadcast networks have covered the economy during Bushs second term. The three evening news shows on ABC, CBS and NBC filled their broadcasts with what looked like promos for the Disney movie Chicken Little instead of economic news.
In the detailed analysis, youll find 62 percent of the news stories were negative. Whats more, nearly half of the positive economic stories were undermined by negative news. Negative stories receiving the same treatment made up less than 13 percent of the total.
While none of the newscasters said the sky was falling, they did their best to pretend. When Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan came out and said the economy was strong, CBS did man on the street interviews to pretend the opposite was true. On May 3, ABCs Betsy Stark predicted the new job numbers would be out soon and the only question was how bad a hit the economy would take. When those numbers came in higher than predicted, nobody at ABC seemed to recall the networks cloudy crystal ball.
I wish that was all. Its not. You could write a book just on how poor the coverage has been of the alleged housing bubble. The media have been foretelling a massive bust in housing prices for months now. On May 19, ABCs Elizabeth Vargas said: The run up in housing prices is now beginning to look something like the boom in Internet stocks, and we know what happened there. That kind of ignorance makes homeowners fear that their most expensive possession could turn worthless overnight.
That wont happen. No matter how much the media compared Bush to Herbert Hoover last year, this is not the Great Depression. Now theyve given up on that failed comparison, but their coverage of the president has gotten worse.
Look at how Ron Insana from NBC Nightly News interviewed President Bush on April 18: Its been five years since we hit the all-time highs for the Dow Jones industrial average or the Nasdaq. Someone joked earlier that, you know, the bad news is the stock market is going down. The good news is that my Social Security money isnt in there.
When I saw that, I was almost speechless. Its amazing our family TV survives one week of that kind of slanted coverage without someone throwing it out the window. But throwing it out isnt the answer. Only viewers can bring pressure to bear to end this economic spin cycle. Until we all demand more accurate coverage, the media will continue to think that we are stupid.
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This is the first issue of a brand new weekly newsletter, The Balance Sheet. It is produced by the Media Research Centers Business & Media Institute (BMI) with the goal of improving understanding of our free enterprise system. The easiest way to improve that understanding is to help those who report on Americas most important system its free market system.
Im honored to serve as National Chairman for BMI because it combines economic education with a platform to hold the media accountable for the way they report business and economic news. This isnt an attempt to simply bash the media. We all make mistakes. This is a way to help correct those errors and even prevent them before they can occur.
Sometimes, as the analysis in this issue shows, the problems are too profound to tolerate. Thats when the Business & Media Institute will hold the media to account and demand improvement more complete coverage, less slanted reporting.
The Business & Media Institute is there to assist. It is designed to help journalists and businesspeople embrace the benefits of the free enterprise system.
On a personal note, I ask you to share this e-mail with your friends, co-workers and family. By signing up, every new subscriber gains access to a Special Report describing in detail problems of poor business reporting, as well as offering solutions for improved coverage.
I urge you to sign up if you have not yet done so.
You will be happy that you did.
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Herman Cain is the former president and CEO of Godfathers Pizza, Inc. and currently is Chief Executive Officer and President of T.H.E. New Voice, Inc., a business and leadership consulting company. He is the National Chairman of the Business & Media Institute.