Networks Flip Flop on Jobs
These are tough times. More than 3 million people have lost their jobs just since February 2009 and consumer confidence fell unexpectedly in September. The unemployment rate has spiked from 8.1 percent to 9.7 percent in the first seven months of Barack Obama's presidency and is expected to climb even higher.
Despite that grim news, the major news networks have spun their unemployment reports into "good news" and presented Obama positively. Journalists tried hard to present rising job losses in the best possible light.
ABC's Charles Gibson called the loss of 539,000 jobs in April a "marked improvement" May 8, 2009, because fewer jobs were lost than in March. In June 2009, Gibson was talking again about "hopeful" signs in the job numbers as more Americans were out of work.
But flashback 27 years ago to 1982, the unemployment rate was in roughly the same range as it was in 2009. Yet, network reporters consistently presented the U.S. economy under President Ronald Reagan as the "worst of times" by showing people living out of their trucks under a bridge and collecting free food at a food bank.
CBS reporter Ray Brady told a "tale of two cities" on June 4, 1982. He found the "worst of times" in Waterloo, Iowa, where the unemployment rate was the highest in the nation: 25.4 percent. That was nearly 16 percentage points higher than the national unemployment rate of 9.5 percent. He contrasted Waterloo's joblessness with 4.6 percent unemployment in Sioux Falls, S.D. where things were "close to" the best of times.
Brady's report addressed two very different employment situations, but most 1982 reports focused heavily on places where "desperation has turned to hopelessness." The unemployment rate under Obama and Reagan was nearly identical, yet they received almost exactly opposite treatment from ABC, CBS and NBC reports. Reagan was mentioned negatively in reports 13 times more often than Obama.
While in Obama's case, reporters found bright spots - like 25 police recruits' jobs being "saved" by the stimulus package - during Reagan's term, journalists found tragedy everywhere. They interviewed a battered wife, a family that had run out of food and many unemployed people. One NBC anchor even warned that suicide and murder rates increase in such hard times.
Although there was a difference between the two presidents in how long they had been in office, the spin was still significant. Unemployment numbers rose similarly under both Reagan and Obama, but journalists continued a long-standing trend of spinning the numbers.
The Business & Media Institute analyzed network unemployment stories on the evenings that data was released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics between March 2009 to September 2009 and March 1982 to September 1982. There were 66 stories in all - 35 stories in 2009 and 31 stories in 1982.
BMI found that network reports were 13 times more negative in their treatment of Reagan than Obama. In fact, 91 percent of stories (20 out of 22) mentioning Reagan's administration portrayed it negatively - while only 7 percent (1 out of 15) of Obama administration mentions were negative. Obama was mentioned positively 87 percent of the time (13 out of 15). There was not a single positive mention of the Reagan White House.
Blame for 'Wicked' Reagan, but Praise for Obama's 'Important' Stimulus
In 1982, network reports showed desperation, sadness and tragedy as a result of rising joblessness. NBC pictured lines of people waiting outside a food bank and interviewed crisis counselors in Seattle on May 7.
"More callers talk of despair and even suicide," Don Oliver reported that night, before interviewing Jim and Pam Smalls. Oliver called them "victims of unemployment depression and anger," because Pam had to seek help from a battered woman's shelter.
Another network showed people living under a highway overpass out of their trucks because they couldn't find work. But under Obama the networks found a man "doing backflips" when he was asked to return to work at a Minnesota window company and another man who was thrilled to be hired by a hamburger stand in Arizona.
Network reports on unemployment were mirror opposites. They made Reagan look bad in a huge majority of stories and conversely made Obama look good.
Broadcasts journalists tied "rising" unemployment to Reagan in 1982 by mentioning him in 71 percent of stories (22 of 31), but linked Obama to the economy slightly more than half as often in 2009 - only 40 percent of the time (14 of 35).
When the respective presidents were mentioned, political attacks on the Reagan administration over job losses were commonplace in the 1982 network coverage. Union leaders, Democratic politicians and the unemployed were all quoted blasting Reagan for his economic policies.
NBC's Irving R. Levine found a soon-to-be unemployed textile worker who "blames President Reagan" for his situation on March 5, 1982. That worker, Gene Biffle, told NBC, "When he went in there he said it, he was gonna get jobs and help the economy, but don't look like he's doing too much about that."
Following Levine's segment, anchor Roger Mudd took Reagan to task himself by responding to statements from the administration:
"Spokesmen for the Reagan White House are coming to dread each month's unemployment numbers because it gets harder and harder for them to explain. Economic adviser Weidenbaum says today the figures may mean the economy may be bottoming out. Communications director Gergen says that while unemployment may get worse, the recession seems to be bottoming out. Meanwhile, more and more people are getting bottomed out."
In August 1982, Sam Donaldson of ABC highlighted the "partisan savagery" of Congressional Democrats, including Rep. Parren Mitchell's, D-Md., claim that Reagan was pursuing "sadistic fiscal policies."
The dark and gloomy tone of 1982 reports was a near polar opposite of the tenor of 2009 unemployment stories.
In 2009, the networks praised Obama for merely trying to stop rising unemployment - even when he wasn't succeeding. And month after month reporters tried to find the "good news" or signs of a turnaround.
All three nightly newscasts mentioned Obama favorably March 6, 2009, even though 651,000 jobs had been lost in February and unemployment had jumped half a percentage point to 8.1 percent from 7.6 percent. And all three of those broadcasts emphasized a mere 25 jobs "saved" by the stimulus package.
NBC's Chuck Todd gave Obama credit that night saying, "For these 25 new police officers here in Columbus, Ohio, the president's stimulus plan didn't create these jobs, it saved them. Without the money these folks would be looking for a new line of work."
CBS Anchor Katie Couric revealed her faith in Obama's stimulus plan that night as well saying, "I know the government is going to be creating jobs, as we've mentioned, through this stimulus package."
After the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced May 8 that more than a half million jobs were lost in April, another CBS anchor, Maggie Rodriguez, looked for a ray of sunshine saying, "There is new hope the sun may be starting to peek through those economic storm clouds tonight," before delivering the news that unemployment had jumped .4 percent to 8.9 percent nationally.
Rodriguez' optimism led into Anthony Mason's report. Mason quoted Obama and emphasized his call for education as the solution to joblessness and request that states allow people to maintain unemployment benefits while going back to school.
Identical Unemployment Rates, Opposite Treatment
The unemployment rate reached 9.4 percent under Reagan and under Obama (twice), but received completely different treatment from the networks - and in one case from the same reporter.
In 1982, Dan Rather reported the rate as "9.4 percent and rising." Dan Cordtz called it "rising steadily" on ABC, while Ray Brady warned that "job loss is still spreading." NBC found lines at food banks "four times what they were six months ago."
In 2009, ABC found "glimmers of improvement" for an identical unemployment rate. CBS's own economic "grim reaper," Anthony Mason said the "economy's showed signs of improving." NBC also found "positive trends" to discuss - specifically mentioning "2,100 new reasons" to be "hopeful" in Georgia.
But Charles Gibson illustrated how dramatically different the network coverage of Reagan and Obama really were.
Gibson, who was a Capitol Hill correspondent for ABC in 1982, told viewers May 7, 1982, "[T]here really isn't any good news in the statistics. All the numbers are bad." He then quoted two Democratic attacks on Reagan including Rep. Henry S. Reuss, D-Wis., who charged that Reagan's "policies aren't just mistaken, they're wicked."
But as an ABC anchor in 2009, Gibson was full of hope. He introduced that night's story saying "sometimes a bad jobs report can look good."
"345,000 Americans lost their jobs in May, a big number to be sure. Traumatic if you are one of the 345,000. But the number was smaller than economists had predicted, and that's good news," Gibson said before admitting that the unemployment rate of 9.4 percent was "pretty bad." Neither Gibson, nor reporter Betsy Stark mentioned President Obama at all that night.
On Aug. 7, 2009, Gibson suggested "the economy may be finally turning the corner."
The Business & Media Institute analyzed network unemployment stories on the evenings that data was released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in similar seven-month periods - between March 2009 to September 2009 and March 1982 to September 1982. There were 66 stories in all - 35 stories in 2009 and 31 stories in 1982.
A story was counted as a mention of Obama or Reagan if it named the respective president, the administration, the "White House," or any administration spokespeople. Each mention was then graded positive, negative or neutral based on context.
Despite having similar periods of rising unemployment, Presidents Reagan and Obama were treated very differently by the network news media. This fit the theme of the network news when it came to economic reporting.
Jobs and unemployment have been one of the most significant economic measures because they impacted everyone so directly. Network viewers who watched coverage of unemployment during the Reagan years were consistently told things were bad. For identical numbers under Obama, those very same networks claimed the economy was improving. That was clear-cut bias.
And it isn't new. The Business & Media Institute released a Special Report in 2004 called 'One Economy, Two Spins' which showed the way similar economic conditions (unemployment, inflation and GDP growth) were presented negatively during the re-election campaigns of George W. Bush's Republican administration, but positively under Bill Clinton's Democratic re-election bid.
BMI found that jobs stories in particular were positive more than six times as often under Clinton than Bush. The networks continued to distort the good economy under Bush in 2005 and 2006 giving negative stories more air time and using ordinary people to underscore those downbeat reports.
The Media Research Center also reported in 2004 that the news media sought to discredit Reaganomics with their news coverage. Virginia Commonwealth University professor Ted J. Smith III found that out of 14,000 network news stories between 1982 and 1987 the amount of network TV coverage shrunk and became more negative as the economy improved. When one economic indicator got better, the networks covered it less and focused on something unhealthy about the economy.
State the Facts: Unemployment data, like all economic data, should be presented as is without reporter opinions being inserted into the broadcast. Forecasting job losses or gains should be left only to the experts.
Be Consistent: If 9.4 percent unemployment is bad, then it should be treated so regardless of who is president. If the number discredits a Republican administration, it should also discredit a Democrat.
Use History as a Guide: It is up to the networks to ensure that they cover stories consistently over time. A reporter working on a story about unemployment being the worst in 26 years should consult the coverage from that time for guidance.
Don't Spin the Economy: Reporters should be embarrassed when they highlight 25 jobs gained after telling viewers 651,000 jobs were lost. If a story is negative, then tell it that way. Don't allow White House spin from either party to distort the final result.