One Economy, Two Spins: Executive Report

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The media gave President Bush consistently negative press about perceived poor job creation and unemployment in the summer of 2004 but their reports were overwhelmingly positive when President Clinton ran for reelection in the summer of 1996 under similar economic circumstances. The media have consistently criticized the Bush record, minimizing 13 straight months of positive job creation, more than 1.5 million new jobs in 2004 and an unemployment rate that dropped from 6.3 percent to 5.4 percent. In contrast, the media consistently hailed the Clinton record of seven straight months of positive job creation, more than 2 million jobs in 1996 and an unemployment rate that dropped from 5.8 percent to 5.2 percent.

     The analysis was completed by the Media Research Center’s Business & Media Institute. It focused on TV news coverage the day of or newspaper coverage the day after the release of unemployment and job creation reports during the summer reelection season in 1996 and 2004. (The 10 EMPLOYMENT SITUATION reports, five from May through September each year, came out the month following their survey date.) BMI researchers analyzed ABC, NBC and CBS, CNN, The Washington Post andThe New York Times. Their findings include:

    Clinton Good; Bush Bad: Stories about jobs during Bill Clinton’s reelection campaign were positive 85 percent of the time – more than six times as often as they were for Bush, despite similar economic data. Reporters praised the Clinton unemployment rate of 5.6 percent as “low,” but they downplayed a 5.4 percent rate under Bush and called job growth “anemic.”

    Good News Becomes Bad News: Under Bush, reporters presented good economic data as bad news stories by minimizing positive achievements and emphasizing people who might be out of work or regions of the U.S. that were still “struggling.” The opposite approach was taken under President Clinton. Then, reporters explained away a 0.2 percent rise in unemployment as minor or, “not necessarily bad news.”

    Ignoring Job Impact from the 9/11 Attacks: The media we examined never quantified the more than one million jobs that were lost due to the 9/11 attacks. Only six of the stories dealing with jobs during the study period (13 percent) discussed terrorism or 9/11. No story detailed the enormous job losses as a result of the attacks.

    CNN the Best; CBS the Worst: No network has been consistent in its coverage of Clinton and Bush. CNN did the best job covering jobs and unemployment. The network was balanced in its coverage of the Clinton economy and did characterize one month under Bush as positive. CBS was the most unbalanced in its coverage. After the five Employment Situation reports in the summer of 2004, the network didn’t find any good news to report. CBS didn’t air any negative job creation and unemployment stories during the Clinton months. CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather merits criticism. He handled an unemployment increase during Clinton by downplaying it. Then the reporter covering the story claimed it wasn’t even bad news.

     The Business & Media Institute offers a series of recommendations for the media in an effort to help journalists provide more balanced reporting on unemployment and job issues. Those recommendations include:

    Urging the media to report stories that actually reflect the data and to find a consistent way to cover the monthly release of labor data so that it isn’t spun any direction.

    Encouraging the media to help the public understand unemployment rates and job creation.

    Suggesting the media find a way to make balanced news coverage an ongoing priority.

     Along with these recommendations, this study includes a commentary by Dr. Gary Wolfram, a George Munson Professor of Political Economy at Hillsdale College. Wolfram explains that the media should look at the existing employment picture from a more informed view and understand “when one compares the current unemployment rate of 5.4% to historical levels, it is quite low.” (See page 18).