To hear MSNBC’s new class clown Lawrence O’Donnell explain it, most voters “don't really know anything about the economy.” If he’s correct, then we can lay the blame squarely on the media and the left for years of twisting and misreporting economics and the nation’s financial picture.
Just look at recent events. We have a president who blamed ATMs as one of the “structural issues with our economy.” To Obama, technological advancement and convenience are problems. I guess I should go back and look at his last tax filing and see if he still has stock in buggy whips, telephone booths and newspapers.
Of course this comes from the same White House that kicked off “recovery summer” on June 17 – of 2010. Team Obama was hyping the infrastructure projects from the stimulus plan and the “jobs they’ll create well into the fall and through the end of the year.” More than a year later, unemployment is still at 9.1 percent. But the administration is still claiming prosperity is just around the corner. It isn’t. Obama’s deer-in-the-headlights Press Secretary Jay Carney claimed in late July that it was “uncontestably true” that the economy was “vastly improved.” Wonder if he’s heard from Obama’s Wall Street buddies recently? Doubtful.
But that’s the Obama administration. They are politicians. Politicians lie, er, spin. Surely we can rely on the media to do better?
Not a prayer. This is the media that portray conservative plans to rein in government as “threatening to torpedo the economy.” That gem came from government-funded “neutral” NPR.
Journalists spent eight years portraying the economy under President George W. Bush as awful. When Bush ran for reelection, Business Week Chief Economist Michael J. Mandel called the economy “uncannily” similar to “the summer of 1996, a year when the incumbent was reelected” – in other words when Bill Clinton was reelected. Yet journalists had hailed the Clinton economy as “showing its muscle,” “encouraging,” and “surprisingly strong.” The Bush economy, on the other hand, was “poor,” “stalled,” “struggling” or “lackluster.”
It would be fair for Obama to point out that the economy was hitting a downturn when he took over for Bush. But Bush inherited the same trouble from Clinton, courtesy of the dotcom collapse, and had the recession caused by 9/11 as well. Yet unemployment during the Bush years averaged 5.3 percent. During the 30 months Obama has been in office, it has averaged 9.4 percent. Unemployment could hit zero for the rest of Obama’s term and it still wouldn’t average as low as during the Bush years. The best it could do would be 5.9 percent – if every single American got a job.
Yet Bush job numbers were reminiscent of President Herbert Hoover, we were told. Where are the comparisons of Obama era unemployment to his predecessor FDR? Nonexistent. Unemployment under Obama climbed when he took office and has never dropped below 8.8 percent despite numerous news stories telling us the economy is getting better. Former Clinton administration official George Stephanopoulos was upbeat about an “economic turnaround” on ABC’s “This Week” more than two years ago on Aug. 2, 2009.
That’s just scratching the surface. On every major economic issue, you can count on some, many or even most of the media to be wrong. Gasoline prices are an example that hits home with most Americans – the one price we all know because it’s several feet high and often the only thing we buy when we purchase gas. Too bad journalists are so often wrong.
Back in 2005, when gas prices starting rising, the media predicted they would spike to $4 when they barely hit $3. Then there were the more outlandish predictions of $5, $6 or even $7 a gallon gas. Six years later, none of those have been true – ever. ABC financial expert Mellody Hobson predicted the high cost of overseas gasoline would become the norm here. “Those prices are astronomical. And I actually think that’s where we’re headed. Netherlands – Netherlands $7 per gallon at the pump.”
News coverage was so bad that, in 2008, ABC admitted its own reporting had been wrong and that “good economic news” had taken hold.
Every story that can be will be made economic, by some journalist somewhere. Divorces, lost pets and more are blamed or credited to the economy with little knowledge and often skewed statistics. It all impacts consumer confidence, which itself is then spun. When Bush was president, bad confidence numbers got lots of coverage, good ones very little.
In January 2008, NBC “Nightly News” reporter Savannah Guthrie told viewers “consumer confidence at an all-time low.” Only it wasn’t even close. January’s number was 87.9, down from 90.5 in December, 2007. Consumer confidence dropped to 58.6 when President Bill Clinton was in office and hit 43.2 in December 1974. The only thing I’m confident about is that journalists will get this wrong.
Now, consumer confidence has once again plummeted to 55.4, “touching its weakest level in over a year.” Is it any wonder? The American people might not always understand the economy, but they know when they are being lied to. When it comes to economics, that’s most of the time.
Dan Gainor is the Boone Pickens Fellow and the Media Research Center’s Vice President for Business and Culture. His column appears each week on The Fox Forum. He can also be contacted on Facebook and Twitter as dangainor.