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Upside Down Economics

Despite much better economy, networks blamed President Bush more than President Obama for financial troubles.

Presidential elections have been won or lost due to the economy. Herbert Hoover lost to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan. This election season is no different as polls, including a recent one from NBC News/Wall Street Journal, continue to show the economy is the top concern of voters.

But the network news media often skew economic coverage in favor of liberal candidates and against conservatives. In September 2012, President Barack Obama continued to face a barrage of poor economic news including a GDP downgrade to 1.3 percent, an unemployment rate still above 8 percent and “record” high gas prices. But media coverage of economic issues from that month did not accurately reflect that turmoil. When President George W. Bush sought re-election in 2004, during the exact same time period, broadcast coverage criticized him on the economy despite a GDP of 3.3 percent, an unemployment rate of just 5.4 percent and gas prices a low $1.82.

The Media Research Center’s Business and Media Institute compared ABC, CBS and NBC morning and evening news coverage for the entire month of September in 2004 and 2012, just as re-election campaigns were shifting into high gear. BMI analyzed the news stories and briefs that mentioned the economy or one of seven major economic issues, ranging from employment to gas prices. Here is what BMI found: 

  • Bush Blamed More than Twice as Often as Obama for Economy: In 2004, President Bush was blamed in more than 14 percent of stories (21 out of 143) for something including his “record on jobs” and the “huge” deficit. But in 2012, President Obama was criticized for current economic problems in just 6 percent of the stories (15 out of 249).
  • Gas 99% Higher, Oil 84% Higher in 2012, Covered 3 Times More in 2004: When oil rose to a record price of roughly $50 a barrel in September 2004, NBC warned it “could put the president’s reelection hopes into a skid” and be a drag on the overall economy. At that time gas prices were under $2 a gallon. In 2012, the networks said little about the $92-a-barrel oil prices. But they did report on “record” high gas prices around $3.83 a gallon, often predicting “relief is in sight.”
  • iPhone to Rescue Obama Economy? The growth or decline of the Gross Domestic Product was barely mentioned in 2004 or 2012, but in 2012 the networks fixated on a claim that sales of the iPhone 5 could “boost” GDP 1/2 of a percentage point. That was repeated in 9 reports, 3 times more often than they mentioned the latest report that showed economic growth forecasts for the second quarter had been downgraded to an anemic 1.3 percent.

The Business and Media Institute offers a series of recommendations for the media in an effort to help journalists provide more balanced reporting on the economy, especially during a heated election season. Those recommendations include:

  • Don't Spin the Economy: Reporters should be embarrassed over their glee at the prospect of iPhone sales boosting GDP, the same month they barely mentioned that economic growth was downgraded from 1.7 percent to 1.3 percent. They should also be ashamed of refusing to talk about sustained high gasoline prices under Obama, after years of predicting $4, $5 and $6 gasoline under Bush. Networks should drop the spin and tell negative stories negatively, and positive ones positively.
  • Be Consistent: If 5.4 percent unemployment was bad for Bush, shouldn’t 8.1 percent unemployment have been an even bigger problem facing Obama? Economic data should be treated consistently regardless of who is president. If the number discredits a Republican administration, it should also discredit a Democrat.
  • Mention Economic Data More Often and Make it Relatable: One of the sad facts about network coverage of economics is how little there is of it. In both time periods, there was little coverage of GDP, the labor participation rate and consumer confidence. The networks should try harder to talk about these data points, not with a one sentence anchor read, but with an explanation of what those numbers mean or reflect about our nation’s economy.