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TV News Bearish on the Economy

     Still, TV news reports appear unconvinced that this economic expansion is for real which might be why public opinion is so misinformed. Nightly broadcasts continue to deliver sour viewpoints in the face of continuously strong data. Their strategy of late comes in three forms: ignoring or underreporting positive data; exaggerating negative economic data; or cherry-picking large reports for the most bearish elements.


Ignoring Good News
     One common TV news ploy has been to ignore a strong piece of economic data or to focus very little attention on it. A fine example of this occurred on March 20 when Reuters reported that the job market is so strong, this years college graduates are going to be more in demand than they have been since 2001: In its annual outlook of entry-level jobs, Challenger, Gray & Christmas said strong job growth and falling unemployment makes this spring the hottest job market for Americas 1.4 million college graduates since the dot-com collapse in 2001.

     Yet, despite this impressive announcement, not one of the broadcast networks addressed this report on the March 20 evening news programs. And, though this Reuters story hit the newswires at 11:35 a.m., CNN and Fox News ignored it as well.

     Ignoring or underreporting strong job news has been quite common lately. When the Labor Department announced on February 3 that unemployment had surprisingly dropped by 0.2 percent in January to a 4 -year low of 4.7 percent, ABCs World News Tonight and the CBS Evening News didnt bother reporting it. According to the Media Research Centers Brent Baker, ABC instead had time for another full story on the cartoon outrage by Muslims and a full piece on an Institute for Highway Safety study on how design changes in SUVs have reduced deaths in smaller vehicles they hit.

     Similarly, when the Labor Department announced a better-than-expected 243,000 new jobs had been created in February, CNN didnt bother sharing this news with its viewers until almost 12 hours after it was released on March 10, and only briefly referred to this good news that day.

     But ignoring or underreporting strong economic news hasnt been confined to stories about job growth. The Labor Department reported lower than expected inflation at the consumer level on March 16. According to Bloomberg: The 0.1 percent increase in the consumer price index followed a 0.7 percent gain in January, the Labor Department said in Washington. Excluding fuel and food, core prices rose 0.1 percent, less than forecast.

     This was significant news, as it suggested Januarys rise in consumer prices might have been an anomaly, and that inflation might not be as large a problem as some economists had feared. However, the folks over at CNN must have felt this wasnt very important, because the only reference to this the day it was announced was on Anderson Cooper 360 during the 11:00 p.m. hour. Sadly, this one sentence was all the air time CNN felt the news warranted: Plus, a decline in February housing starts, coupled with a tepid inflation report, are seen as more good economic news.

     CNNs lack of focus on this report was in stark contrast to its fascination with inflation last year. As reported by the Business & Media Institute in January, CNN spent much of 2005 trying to convince people that inflation was making them go backward financially. After focusing so much negative attention on this important facet of the economy, CNN didnt act like it was necessary to inform its viewers that inflation might be under control after all.

     Sadly, the broadcast networks did worse, for not one of the evening news programs on March 16 bothered to share this great report on inflation with its viewers.

     NBCs Lester Holt alluded to another example of ignoring news on March 18s Saturday Today. In a segment dealing with rising gas prices, Holt began his interview with Mantill Williams of the Automobile Association of America saying, Every time we have you on, its because here we go again, gas prices are going up. He concluded the interview, Someday well have you on talking about plummeting gas prices, all right? Someone should inform Holt that this could have happened any time during the fourth quarter last year, as gas prices plummeted from more than $3 a gallon to almost $2 in just three months.


But How Bad Is It?
     Another method to the medias economic madness has been exaggerating bad economic news. CBSs Lee Cowan on February 2s Evening News filed a report about heating bills in Minnesota. After speaking with one resident, Cowan stated: Thats nearly twice her bill for the same month a year ago. Just 10 days later, Minnesota Public Radio reported a significantly different picture of such costs: State officials say average heating bills in Minnesota for January are expected to be 37 percent higher than last year. Obviously, a 37-percent increase is only about one-third as big as nearly twice the previous bill.

     Cowan later said rising heating costs were impacting schools negatively: School districts in the city are even worse off. Although the district has turned down the heat in classrooms, installed energy-saving lights, even computers to monitor it all, none of it has saved enough to cover the increased cost this winter. Cowan then interviewed a St. Paul School District official who said, We expect our, our our budget will be overrun or overexpended by $2.5 million.

     This prediction ended up being way off target. On March 8, The Associated Press, in an article entitled School Heating Costs Lower Than Expected, reported: A mild winter and lower-than-expected heating fuel prices have saved many Minnesota schools money they had planned to spend on heating bills. In fact, Some districts are hundreds of thousands of dollars better off. As a result, instead of being over budget by $2.5 million as Cowan reported, St. Paul schools will be $1.4 million under budget.

     Cowan did another report for the CBS Evening News from St. Paul on March 19. In it, she discussed how people were burning corn in their furnaces to save money on home-heating costs. Unfortunately, she didnt address how much money St. Paul schools had saved on these bills versus what she reported on February 2.


Here Some Bad, There Some Bad
     Finally, the third way the media have rained on the economic parade was highlighting only the negative aspects of large economic studies. Brian Williams did this on February 23s Nightly News by cherry-picking and poorly explaining one section of a Federal Reserve report on income and wealth in America.

     Williams began: There is news on the economy tonight from the Federal Reserve. Average family income in this country fell from 2001 to 2004, it turns out. The reasons, according to Williams: The bursting of the stock market bubble, the recession back in 2001 and some big job losses in the early part of this decade contributed to what turns out to be a 2.3-percent drop in family incomes in the United States.

     The problem with Williams explanation was that it failed to identify the major cause for this decline: a huge decrease in incomes for the richest people in America. As reported by the Internal Revenue Service, the lowest income in the top bracket (the highest 1 percent of wage earners) after adjusting for inflation dropped from $182,038 in 2000 to $160,595 in 2003, or an 11.8-percent decline. That larger decline on one end would skew the average. For this reason, using the median figure for income which the Federal Reserve said increased by 1.6 percent after inflation during the same period is probably a more meaningful statistic, though one that Williams chose not to share with his viewers.

     Another facet of this Federal Reserve study that Williams ignored was the increase in mean and median net worth during the period: Much like median income, median real family net worth in the 2001-04 period increased 1.5 percent, but mean net worth rose 6.3 percent. The increase in wealth appears to have been clearest in the middle income group. Those middle-income gains would have been heartening news to mainstream America, but that news didnt make it into the broadcast.

     Is it any wonder polls are saying people arent feeling bullish on America?

Noel Sheppard is an economist, business owner, and contributing writer to the Business & Media Institute. He is also contributing editor for the Media Research Centers NewsBusters.org. Noel welcomes feedback at nsheppard@costlogic.com.