The Ten Worst Media Distortions of Campaign 2004

Spinning a Good Economy into Bad News

When Bill Clinton ran for re-election in 1996, unemployment was 5.2 percent, inflation 3 percent, and economic growth 2.2 percent. Economic conditions are similar, if not better, today: unemployment is 5.4 percent, inflation 2.7 percent, and economists’ consensus forecast for economic growth this quarter is 3.7 percent. But the networks have stressed the downside of the most positive economic reports, and given wide play to any statistics suggesting weakness.

On April 2, after the Labor Department announced how 300,000 jobs were created in March, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams was dubious: “Today’s announcement was such a badly needed shot in the arm for the Bush administration — and was such good news — some thought the numbers were too good to be true.”

The networks quickly got back to pessimism: On ABC’s World News Tonight the next evening, anchor Dan Harris introduced a story on how “some of those who are actually finding jobs are not getting the ones they had in mind.” Reporter Heather Cabot looked at an accountant who is now driving a cab in New York City. Cabot asserted, “He’s not the only over-qualified cabbie on the road. Today, nearly 16 percent of America’s taxi drivers have attended college.”

In May, the networks pounded the bad news of “record-high” gas prices, even though the inflation adjusted price of gasoline never approached the record highs of the early 1980s. Reporters fell over themselves trying to push the same negative line, from Peter Jennings (“certainly a record”) to Dan Rather (“record highs”), Tom Brokaw (“record-high gas prices”) to CNN anchor Aaron Brown (“rising to records”), CNN’s John King (“certainly a record”), NBC’s Carl Quintanilla (“record-high gas prices”), CBS’s Julie Chen (“record gas prices”), and finally ABC’s Jake Tapper (“record-high prices”), who found a man on the street to lament, “It’s going to kill us. These prices are going to kill us, man.”

At the time, real gas prices stood 26 percent lower than their peak in March 1981, when the average price per gallon translated to $2.99 in today’s dollars.

CBS specialized in cherry-picking bad news. On Friday, June 4, we learned the booming U.S. economy created 947,000 new jobs in March, April and May, but CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather spent just 20 seconds on that good news. Reporter Jim Axelrod then devoted two minutes to an Ohio company that was laying off employees. “After 103 years,” Axelrod intoned, “work at this plant in Canton, Ohio is set to stop. The Timken Company is shutting three factories and shedding 1300 jobs....The 1300 jobs lost here, at a company whose chairman is one of his strongest supporters, that’s bad for the President, very bad.”

Chart1On June 30, CBS business reporter Anthony Mason hyped how a slight increase by the Federal Reserve to a 1.25 percent interest rate meant “the era of cheap money is over.” Instead of saying that the Federal Reserve’s rate change ratified the recovery’s growing strength, Mason on the CBS Evening News stressed bank layoffs and the harm to everyday consumers: “Your credit card interest rate will be rising. So will adjustable rate mortgages. And say goodbye to those zero percent auto loans.”

On October 8, after the 13th straight month of reported job gains, CBS anchor Dan Rather chose to link President Bush with the worst economic period in American history. Apparently assuming poor job growth over the next four months, Rather proclaimed, “It’s the first net job loss on a President’s watch since Herbert Hoover during the Great Depression of the 1930s.” But in none of CBS’s employment reports this year did the network quantify for viewers the number of jobs lost as a direct consequence of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.