The Depression was only “great” because of the great harm it caused to millions. While the Dust Bowl devastated farmland, the stock market crash wiped out companies and unemployment overwhelmed the nation’s workforce.
Folk singer Woody Guthrie captured the gritty spirit of the Great Depression like no one else. In “Talking Dust Bowl Blues,” he spun the tale of a typical farm family that had lost nearly everything. “ We got out to the West Coast broke, so dad-gum hungry I thought I'd croak,” he sang.
Hardly a fit metaphor for the 2006 economy, is it?
Only news people seem to think there is some similarity between the Depression era, where unemployment averaged around 18.2 percent, and the year 2006, when it was 4.5 percent. Perhaps network executives have become so strapped financially that they are selling apples and pencils on the corner to fund their second homes.
The combination of ABC, CBS and NBC averaged almost one report each week in 2006 that linked the economy either to the Great Depression or a recession. More than one-third of those made the absurd connection to America’s darkest economic times, according to a Business & Media Institute analysis.
Two of the reports even used stock film footage from that time. In one, farmers fight valiantly to save their homes from the ravages of nature. In another, headlines shout out news of the stock market crash. “Wall St. Lays An Egg,” a headline reads, as pictures of men waiting in a soup line follow.
NBC “Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams compared a decline in America’s savings rate with that of the Great Depression in a Jan. 30, 2006, story. “The last time the national savings rate was this low was 1933, just after the bottom of the Great Depression,” he said.
CBS filled its July 31 version of the savings story with historical film footage and even a frowning piggy bank graphic. Then the network admitted the whole report was a sham when Standard & Poor’s Chief Economist David Wyss explained the low savings rate was offset by enormous gains in the stock market and housing prices. According to the National Association of Realtors, home prices ballooned 52.3 percent between 2001 and 2005.
Global warming also was used to conjure a threat reminiscent of the 1930s. CBS’s Bill Phillips told viewers on Oct. 30, 2006, about a “dire prediction from the British government” about the cost of climate change and its possible impact on world economies, warning of “a catastrophe on the scale of the Great Depression of the 1930s.”
As you can tell, CBS was especially gloomy. It began and ended the year with concerns about an upcoming recession. What’s the expression? If at first you don’t succeed? Over at CBS, they must have changed their view of the economy to “If at first you don’t fail.”
Reporter Sharyn Alfonsi started economic predictions for 2006 in typical CBS fashion with a New Year’s Day “Evening News” story. “With big business struggling, unsteady interest rates and signs of a recession, the best some forecasters are hoping for in 2006 is an average year,” she said.
When that didn’t materialize, CBS simply revised its prediction and pushed the potential doom to 2007. This time it was reporter Alexis Christoforous, claiming economists “warn there’s a one-in-four chance the economy could slip into a recession sometime next year.” Of course, the two possible causes were “the housing slump and higher energy costs.” But housing isn’t doing as poorly as the media have reported, and oil has dropped to nearly $50 a barrel.
The network then completed the year with another story focused toward 2007 – this one by Anthony Mason on December 14 – and it had a University of Maryland economist warning of a recession if consumers didn’t spend enough during the holidays.
I’ve lived through enough recessions to know the difference between good times and bad, but the one I recall the most would be the dotcom collapse. Even memories of previous “dotcom.failures” appeared on screen during the one CBS report.
If you are reading this, you are old enough to remember that economic downturn – or “Clinton crash,” as one unemployed techie called it. But, the pain it caused is the exact reason why it makes a bad comparison to the 2006 economy. Bad comparisons are bad news.
To those old enough to remember, the Great Depression has a horrifying meaning they will never forget. To the rest of us, depression is just the feeling we get from watching the network news.
Dan Gainor is The Boone Pickens Free Market Fellow and director of the Media Research Center’s Business & Media Institute.