One Economy, Two Spins

Summer was proclaimed a time of "strong economic growth and low unemployment" by Jerry King of ABC's World News Tonight.

King was right. Declining unemployment, low inflation and landmark homeownership all point to great news for the economy. There's just one problem: King wasn't talking about this summer. That story aired on Aug. 4, 1996. But his comment could easily apply now because the economic conditions are nearly identical.

Business Week chief economist Michael J. Mandel made an excellent case that "today's economic environment looks positively rosy" in the magazine's Sept. 6 issue. Mandel argued that there are strong similarities between the summer of 1996 and 2004. Both had incumbent presidents running for election. Both saw declining unemployment, an increase in jobs, and strong economic growth. Some of the numbers are so similar it's eerie.

Yet the major media covered those two time periods as differently as night and day.            During that time period, stories about job creation and unemployment under Clinton were positive 85 percent of the time--more than six times as often as they were for Bush. Reporters praised the Clinton unemployment rate of 5.6 percent as "low," but they ignored a 5.4 percent rate under George Bush.

There are bound to be some differences in the way stories are reported, but more than six times as much positive coverage? That's a problem. And there's more.

The media in question presented good economic news as bad news by minimizing positive achievements and emphasizing people who might be out of work and/or regions that were still "struggling" under the Bush administration. The opposite tack was taken for economic coverage under Clinton.

Further, the media largely ignored the more than 1 million jobs lost because of Sept. 11. Only six of the stories (13 percent) dealing with jobs during the study period discussed terrorism or 9/11.

Clearly, there's a problem, as anybody can see. Anybody, it seems, but the media themselves.

This conclusion is clear given the data and results of a new study by the Media Research Center's (search) Free Market Project: One Economy, Two Spins. The report looked at how the major media handled job creation and unemployment by tracking news shows on the broadcast networks and CNN, as well as print stories in the New York Times and Washington Post during the summer reelection season in May through September of 1996 and 2004.

CBS was the worst of the bunch. Take a look at how "CBS Evening News" handled the May 1996 report that showed an increase (0.2 percent) in unemployment from 5.4 percent to 5.6 percent. CBS anchor Dan Rather downplayed the negative impact on his June 7, 1996 "CBS Evening News" broadcast:

"The government came out today with its latest report on unemployment. It says the unemployment rate rose slightly, 2/10ths of a point last month, up to 5.6 percent - still low overall. And the numbers, pure and simple, can be misleading."

Economics correspondent Ray Brady went on to say, "There was a slight rise in the unemployment rate, but that's not necessarily bad news."

You don't have to imagine how CBS would have treated Bush. All you have to do is view CBS's June 4, 2004 story that dealt with good economic news. Unemployment held even at 5.6 percent and 248,000 new jobs were created. Earlier job growth numbers were even revised upward. Yet "CBS Evening News" focused on an Ohio company that was laying off workers.

Dan Rather began, "But while the jobs picture is improving nationally, there are still some problems locally, and CBS's Jim Axelrod reports, on that a presidential election could turn." Axelrod stressed how a Republican can't win the presidency without winning Ohio. He then showcased a local restaurant owner who voted for Bush but won't again and a worker who predicted the plant closing may push voters over to Kerry.

Rather and CBS aren't alone. Not one of the media studied had an even-handed approach to covering job creation and unemployment under the two presidents.

Yes, even-handed. No one is saying President Bush should get preferential treatment. But since the economy is such a key issue for voters, it would be nice if the media would at least balance the books and the coverage.

Herman Cain, former president and chairman of Godfather's Pizza, Inc., former Senate candidate in Georgia, and former CEO of the National Restaurant Association, is now the national director of the Media Research Center's Free Market Project. Dan Gainor is director of the  Free Market Project.