When the public thinks up is down, it’s time to rethink coverage

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

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:

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.

9 COMMENTS

  1. “Sure those are factors,” wrote the rich, arrogant, smug Eastern liberal who wonders why his precious industry’s trust ratings have fallen through the floorboards.

    To paraphrase James Carville: “It’s about your lies, stupid.”

  2. If i have a bigger better noire, as it were, with the MSM failure in reporting than in the area of politics, it’s economics and finance.
    For the youngs: The MSM pretty much limited finance/economic reporting to the Dow’s closing number until the 70s when inflation rightly became a story. At or about the same time the monthly unemployment number became a regular story. Omitted in that area was what should be a caveat every month: That what was being reported was a flash number subject to change. And that was never mentioned nor, as a rule were the corrected numbers reported. And that failure continues to the present where the flash numbers are even worse because the person at BLS signing off on them is a Trump appointee more concerned with issuing bad-for-Biden numbers no matter how inaccurate they are. Which is also being ignored by the MSM.
    Among MSM failures in reporting in this area, my favorite is the failure to address the recovery from the post-2008 financial collapse, in particular that the new jobs generated were far worse than normal in such bust/recovery cycles. The norm was that higher paid employees were let go with their eventual replacements being younger and paid less. Which, up to a point, makes sense. What happened post-2008, though, was new: Full-time jobs with benefits got replaced to too large an extent with part-time jobs without benefits and — worse — gigs. So little mainstream coverage of that that it’s insignificant. Post-2008, you have ~25% of full-time workers making so little money that the need public assistance, Medicaid, easy (but not cheap) credit and/or additional employment to make a living wage. Likewise not reported to any degree that matters.
    And my favorite fail at late: Blaming the spike of inflation on workers at the bottom getting piddling. Increases in pay. Please, no. Not enough there to create much inflation. Now, gratuitous price increases related to greed, not underlying costs and a pandemic-caused crash of the supply chain, exacerbated by a non-competitive shipping industry, likewise is ignored.
    And back to the political, a thought experiment: What if in the first couple months of the pandemic, in the run-up to the election, the MSM reported that people were allowed to die because POTUS refused to respond to a global pandemic in any meaningful way?
    It’s been my long term belief that the mainstream’s reporters know full well what’s going on and their failures are by choice. Honest reporting, in this area, would by definition be radical, to say the least. Post-80s unrestrained capitalism has failed the masses, at least in this nation. Should be newsworthy, can’t be. Literally, the press is not paid by their corporate media employers to report any such thing.
    And here we are, being disserved and, in fact, being literally harmed.

  3. Exactly who is “blaming the spike of inflation on workers at the bottom getting piddling,” Mr. Strawman? Your “solution” seems to be to have the collapsing legacy media become even more leftist. Why not just rename the New York Times “Pravda” and the Washington Post “Izvestia” and be done with it?

    Maybe it’ll work. Look, the Post doesn’t need to care about readers or make any money. It’s a leisure-time plaything of Amazon. The New York Times is now a slave to its radical readership, with no meaningful cushion from advertising. NPR is state media, and the drug companies keep the broadcast and cable “news” operations in business.

    All of this allows the “journalists” to maintain their illusions while people with real interest in what’s going on see that the media we once trusted have sold their ethics. To be even blunter than I’ve been: We don’t believe you any more. This is right smack out of Aesop. God help us when the wolf really appears.

    • Facts have a liberal bias. If adhering to honest reporting means making the media move left that’s an incredibly stupid reason to keep spewing BS.
      As for the collapsing media: A) much of the collapse is the hit print’s business model took from lost classifieds and B) the audience isn’t shrinking so much as being atomized and moving all over the place to countless alternatives.
      More:
      The Post is not owned by Amazon.
      The Times’ readership is not radical and only ~55% subscribe to the news side; the rest subscribe to cooking, games, etc.
      Mainstream reporters by and by know what they’re reporting about but they’re sell outs reporting what how their employers dictate. It’s a business, and a corrupted one at that.

      • The media has an obligation to ensure an informed public even if that means reporting facts that are not helpful to one side. . That is why they were given special constitutional protection by our Founding Fathers. We all need to keep reminding them of that fact.

      • Okay, the Washington Post is owned by Jeff Bezos. Same difference. You don’t think that the NYT’s audience is radical. I do.

        As for the first amendment, I have a far stronger attachment to it than the radical cancel crowd.

        Facts have a liberal bias? More like liberals have an arrogance bias, and it’s reflected by the collapse of trust in the media, which have become radical leftist propaganda merchants. Keep talkiing to yourselves, but your audiences are running away.

        • This entire shift in the truth can be tied back to the repral of the Fairness Doctrine, by none other than Republican anointed god Ronald Reagan, which allowed Fox “News” and the entire right wing media it spawned to misinform you Jimmy! Now the entire media apparatus is fighting for clicks, and negativity sells more than anything positive ever did. Ring back the Fairness Doctrine!

  4. For years I have been saying that the journalists ought to hand their heads in shame when polls show the public is so clearly misinformed on important issues. That is proof that they are doing a terrible job. However, I disagree that they just say “whatever” when they see these kinds of polls, I have repeatedly seen them put the blame on the Democrats’ inability to message effectively and completely ignore their own culpability. I have recently seen that excuse used to explain the fact that so many people think we are in a recession, that the economy is terrible. Journalists deliberately ignore the fact that many Democrats, Biden included, have repeatedly spoken about the good economic news but are being drowned out by the media saying “but inflation” and that Democrats are being insensitive to the people hurt the most by it.

    I have been watching this terrible economic reporting go on literally for decades. Few, if any politicians can overcome this kind of media messaging when it is constantly repeated. Decades ago the media internalized the demonstrably false belief that Republicans are the fiscally responsible party. In contrast they see Democrats as the party that spends recklessly, unjustifiably raising both taxes and debt.
    The media has also internalized the belief that debt is always a threat to our economy, a claim that contradicts all the historical evidence that increasing debt to stimulate a bad economy is the thing that works best and fastest, especially if that money goes to people who need it most and will spend it quickly. Taking on debt that will support future economic growth (Eisenhower’s interstate highway spending for example) is also perfectly reasonable. Yet our media treats all debt as a bad —- unless it is debt caused by Republicans. They still seem to believe Reagan’s fairly tale that tax cuts on the rich will stimulate growth and eventually pay for themselves in new revenues. There is no evidence that that has ever been true but few in the media are willing to debunk that costly lie despite the fact that Reagan’s, Bush II’s and Trump’s tax cuts for upper incomes added huge amounts to our national debt.

    The media also shrugged off the fact that Clinton had a budget surplus, due in part to tax increases passed by Democrats. Republicans led by Newt shouted that those tax cuts would destroy economic growth, but the economy boomed. The Clinton administration was using that surplus to pay down the debt that the media had claimed was so terrible. Gore campaigned on continuing to do that; in contrast Bush campaigned on destroying the surplus with tax cuts. The same media that had been oh so concerned about our debt decided it wasn’t an issue anymore because Bush would be “more fun to have a beer with”.

  5. Blaming the press is blaming the wrong people. It’s the American people who are to blame, who are among the world’s most stupid, specifically the Republicans. They were told unanimously by the courts in more than 60 lawsuits, and in addition by Trump’s own people, like attorney general Barr, that Trump overwhelmingly lost the 2020 election. But three-quarters of Republicans still insist, a year later, that he overwhelmingly won it. Largely as a result of Trump’s incompetence, we will soon have a milllion Covid deaths, far larger than any other comparable country. He is the biggest liar in American political history, but 74 million voters chose to believe him in the face of overwhelming evidence of his lying and total incompetence. And he stands to get renominated, and may well be re-elected. Let’s not blame the press for what is primarily the voters stupidity. Put the blame where it belongs!

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