When we were kids, network anchors like Walter Cronkite read us news each night like parents telling stories. But as we’ve grown older, the nightly news stories have transformed into grim fairy tales about some terrifying threat to you and me.
When Republicans were in office in the early ’90s, it was the economy. TV told us it was in bad shape and hyped the slogan “It’s the economy, stupid”—helping Bill Clinton slink into the West Wing in 1992. Afterward, the Washington Post admitted the media had been wrong. A Jan. 29, 1993, report admitted that “growth for the second half of last year was the strongest in five years.”
The economic reporting was just another fairy tale.
Fourteen years later, the media are telling the same economic story—trying to convince us that what goes up must be down.
It has many names—housing bubble, recession, gas prices or even hurricanes like Katrina or Rita—but the boogeyman is always the same. The media portray it as another Big Bad Wolf out to huff and puff and blow away the economy.
CBS viewers started New Year’s Day 2006 with reporter Sharyn Alfonsi warning the outlook for this year was ominous. “With big business struggling, unsteady interest rates and signs of a recession, the best some forecasters are hoping for in 2006 is an average year,” she claimed.
It’s almost a year later and the wolf still isn’t at the door. Instead, we get good economic report after good economic report. Gas prices have plummeted more than 75 cents a gallon. Retail sales are strong. And the Bureau of Labor Statistics just added 810,000 jobs to the recent total for the Bush presidency.
Think about that number for one minute. Just that revision equals more than a job and a half every 60 seconds for an entire year. That works out to 6.6 million new jobs in the post-9/11 recovery. Positive job growth every single month for more than three years.
But the media spent the last year telling us the economy was a damsel in distress. April 28 was a night of particularly good news. The first-quarter growth rate had come out and initial reports had it at a strong 4.8%.
That wasn’t the fractured fairy tale we got on the “World News Tonight” broadcast. After telling the news, reporter Elizabeth Vargas showed how even one of the best economic days of the whole year was turned into a frog. “It’s all the more remarkable when you consider the growth came despite a lot of negatives.”
If you watched the network news in the last year, you had no problem finding those “negatives.” The Media Research Center’s Business & Media Institute looked at an entire year’s worth of network reporting on the economy. It found more than twice as many stories focused on negative aspects of the economy as pointed out the many positives.
CBS was particularly skillful at how it created the myth of the bad economy. Bad news inevitably got more air time. More than 80% of the full-length stories on the “CBS Evening News” were negative about the economy. The good news was hidden in short summaries of only a few words.
On June 29, anchor Bob Schieffer used just 43 words and a graphic to tell viewers that the economy “grew at a sizzling annual rate of 5.6 percent” in the first quarter. Just moments later, he introduced a much longer story about how some homeowners were “losing their homes to bank foreclosures.” Which story do you think viewers remembered?
It wasn’t all bad—even at CBS. Business reporter Anthony Mason gave us the perfect description of the economy in the May 5 “Evening News.” “It’s been a long road back for the Dow, but today I actually heard someone use a phrase I last heard in the late ’90s calling this a ‘Goldilocks’ economy. Not too hot, not too cold, but just right.”
Just like the story, the three bears—ABC, CBS and NBC—were unhappy with the Goldilocks economy. They’ve used every trick in the book to make things look bleak as we head into a pivotal election season.
For a long time, Americans believed the fairy tale. After all, we had high gas prices. People thought that meant the economy was bad. Only that’s no longer true. So the media decided to blow our house down with “bubble” reports. That hasn’t had the same impact. Though housing has softened, that follows two record years.
The good news finally seems to be getting out to the public, and Bush’s poll numbers have been improving. If the media would tell the economy’s true Cinderella story, those numbers would be much higher.