Imagine you’re the editor of a major national news organization and you learn that the general public is terribly misinformed about an important issue that your reporters cover intensely — say you see poll results showing that a lot of people believe something that is diametrically opposed to the truth.
You’d probably call a meeting. You’d say: “Hey, what we’re doing isn’t working.” You’d ask: “What are we doing wrong?” And once you figured out, you’d say: “Well, let’s stop that. Let’s try something else.”:
But you aren’t the editor of a major national news organization, are you.
And what they say is: “Whatever.”
For a change, I’m not talking about political reporting. I’m talking about economics reporting, which is arguably worse. It’s certainly chronically bad.
Dean Baker is my guru on this stuff. He has long bemoaned the state of big-media economic coverage on his Beat the Press blog, which is hosted by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), a group Baker co-founded in 1999 and where he still serves as senior economist.
Baker recently called my attention to Emily Peck’s article in Axios headlined “Voters aren’t feeling the record job gains, polling finds“.
Peck reported that the country saw stunning, record job growth last year, but according to a poll from Navigator Research, a progressive polling group, 35 percent of voters believe jobs were actually lost.
An additional 21 percent didn’t know one way or the other. Only 28 percent said, correctly, that jobs were created. Less than half of those — only 12 percent — knew that it was more jobs created than in any other year in history.
Similarly, only 19 percent said they thought the U.S. economy experienced more job growth than normal in the past year. The plurality – 35 percent – said they thought more jobs were lost than usual, which is of course spectacularly wrong.
Others polls have shown the public feeling a malaise about the economy seemingly out of proportion with how it’s really doing. Wall Street Journal reporter Josh Mitchell wrote in late February about a Gallup poll that showed consumers feeling “as bad as they did in the financial-crisis year of 2009”. He wrote:
Americans normally are happiest when the economy is growing rapidly. The unusual nature of today’s recovery has upended that pattern.
Booming home and stock-market values have lifted household wealth to records.
What’s driving the funk?
[T]he record job growth followed record job losses in 2020, due to the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns. Inflation at 7.5% is eating up those wage gains for many Americans. And the unsettling effects of the pandemic, such as product shortages, are still playing out.
Sure those are factors.
But how big a factor is it that almost everything they hear on the news about the economy is negative?
And it’s not just right-wing media. I took a close look last month at MSM coverage of the December jobs report, and what I found is that the Washington Post and the New York Times seemed to go out of their way to find bad things to say about it.
Not coincidentally, Post and Times reporters often link President Biden’s re-election hopes to the health of the economy.
Incidentally, the most positive report came from the Wall Street Journal, whose business-minded readers presumably care about how the economy is actually doing, rather than the optics or the politics.
You know what really ticks me off? I have yet to see a single corporate-media story even raising the possibility that the media itself is responsible for the disproportionately negative (and inaccurate) views of the economy.
And remember that in those Navigator Research questions, people weren’t being asked about their feelings. They were asked about facts. And they got them wildly wrong.
That should be highly alarming the news executives. As Baker tweeted, it should at the very least encourage them to assign further stories:
Since we now know that people are horribly confused on job growth (they think up is down), let’s see the news stories in NYT, WaPo, NPR etc. asking why. After all, if most people thought the moon was made of green cheese, we would want to know why.
Realistically, one factor has got to be the media’s overwrought coverage of inflation. As Baker wrote here:
The nonstop hype of “inflation, inflation, inflation” unsurprisingly leads many people to believe inflation is a really big problem, even if their own finances are pretty good, because they hear all those wise reporters at CNN, NPR, the NYT and elsewhere telling them it’s a really big problem.
Indeed, Baker’s media criticism – over decades – has been insufficiently appreciated.
His asks of economics reporters are actually often quite modest. For instance, he has urged them to consider using denominators as well as numerators:
— Dan Froomkin/PressWatchers.org (@froomkin) February 10, 2020
He has been a scourge of the Washington consensus – especially as expressed in the Washington Post editorial pages — that if one is serious about cutting the deficit, which one should be, one must cut entitlements.
Just this week, in an interview with Substack writer Andrew Van Wagner, Baker made a strong case that the corporate media coverage of Biden in general is overwhelmingly negative. His conclusion:
The media has basically branded Biden as a failure.
They’ve substituted this “failure” branding for reality again and again. And Afghanistan is probably the most dramatic example. It’s true that Biden made a serious blunder with his foolish statement that we wouldn’t see a Vietnam-style collapse and evacuation—I’m not sure whether Biden got bad information or actually ignored good information. But the media routinely refers to the withdrawal as disastrous when in reality Biden managed to get somewhere around 120,000 people out of the country in the span of two to three weeks—that’s truly remarkable and far more than most observers had thought possible. So rather than giving Biden credit on a remarkably successful evacuation performance, the media pushed the idea that the withdrawal was a disaster.
Specifically on the economic coverage, Baker says:
We’ve had a remarkably fast recovery as a direct result of Biden’s ARP—thanks to the recovery, millions of low-income workers have gotten unprecedented wage hikes and also gotten an unprecedented freedom to quit their jobs, so the recovery is a really big deal.
And yet we hear almost none of this positive story. Most families actually have a considerably higher inflation-adjusted income now than they had before the pandemic, but the media talks about inflation all the time and gives us endless stories of inflation-caused hardship—it makes no sense to say that people were doing well in 2019 and that people are now experiencing great hardship, since people’s real incomes are actually higher now.
And he very accurately points out that journalists have entirely different baselines and expectations for the two parties:
It’s taken for granted that Democrats are actually trying to do things—Democrats are evaluated based on their success in getting things done. But in contrast, the media seems to assume that the Republicans have no policy agenda—Republicans are graded based on their ability to obstruct the Democrats’ progress and create bad press for the Democrats.
Those two baselines are actually accurate, and it’s reasonable for journalists to think that way – but only if they openly acknowledge that’s where they’re coming from.
Otherwise, their coverage makes no sense.
Which it doesn’t.
Daily journalists, for better or for worse, are hard-wired to leap on departures from the norm, regardless of how miserable, unethical, unfair, and doomed the norm is.
So it’s not “news” when the GOP lies and obstructs. That’s dog bites man; who cares? It’s not “news” when the Democrats attempt to govern. Political reporters looking for “news” instead focus on how well each party is doing at their thing.
That is not an excuse. That is an explanation. Obviously, the results are dire.
I hold out little hope that our newsroom leaders will change any of this anytime soon. Rather, it reminds me of the first time I fully, viscerally realized just how badly modern big-media political reporting was failing to accurately inform the public about matters of great national import.
It was 2003, and what did it was a Washington Post story noting that nearly six months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq on false pretenses, seven in 10 Americans still believed the lie that Saddam Hussein had a role in the 9/11 attacks.
President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney had encouraged that misconception countless times, while the media only once in a blue moon pointed out that they “lacked evidence” or some such.
That poll result should have been a wake-up call to every newsroom leader in America, rousing them to champion the truth when lies abound. To reset. It wasn’t.
The fact that so many people think the U.S. is shedding jobs when it’s breaking records for job growth should be a wake-up call, too. But they still sleep.