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Free Market Project

2/16/2006 7:32:16 PM

Updated 01/25/06

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One Economy, Two Spins
Economic Conditions Portrayed as Positive During Clinton Presented as Negative for Bush

See Executive Summary

By Dan Gainor

     The media have hammered President George W. Bush on the employment issue despite 13 straight months of positive job creation and other good economic news. The October 8, 2004 jobs report was the latest evidence that they treat Bush far more critically than they treated President Bill Clinton on the same issue sometimes even for the same results. The data indicated that the economy added 96,000 new jobs in September and nearly a quarter million adjusted to the totals earlier in the year.

     But media reports spun the new job numbers as a strong negative and stories either totally ignored the quarter-million job adjustment or buried it. This is not primarily a problem of economic interpretation. Instead, the medias slanted coverage of employment reflects a political bias that colors their overall economic reporting.

     News organizations gave Bush consistently negative press about perceived poor job creation and unemployment in the summer of 2004 but their reports were overwhelmingly positive when Clinton ran for reelection in the summer of 1996 under similar economic circumstances. Stories about jobs under Clinton were positive 85 percent of the time, more than six times as often as they were for Bush, despite similar economic data.

     The media repeatedly criticized the Bush record, including 13 straight months of positive job creation, 1.5 million more new jobs in 2004 and an unemployment rate that dropped from 6.3 percent to 5.4 percent. In contrast the same news organizations consistently hailed the Clinton record of seven straight months of positive job creation, more than 2 million jobs in 1996 and an unemployment rate that dropped from 5.8 percent to 5.2 percent.

     The Media Research Centers Free Market Project (FMP) examined news coverage of the Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation reports during the summer re-election season (May through September in both 1996 and 2004). The changes in unemployment are covered every month when the Department of Labor releases the latest data. FMP researchers analyzed ABC, NBC and CBS evening news broadcasts, the primary evening newscast on CNN, and news articles in The Washington Post and The New York Times. The time period for the study predates the founding of the Fox News Channel so it was not included.


Similar Summers for Clinton and Bush

     The summer of 1996 was proclaimed a time of strong economic growth and low unemployment by reporter Jerry King of ABCs World News Tonight Sunday. That story aired on August 4, 1996, but the comment could easily apply to 2004. BusinessWeek Chief Economist Michael J. Mandel, PhD, wrote a piece for the September 6, 2004 issue comparing summer 1996 with summer 2004. According to Mandel, The good news for Bush: On many of the key variables that voters care about, the economy looks uncannily like it did in the summer of 1996, a year when the incumbent was reelected.

Mandel, author of Rational Exuberance: Silencing the Enemies of Growth, listed several variables unemployment rate, inflation, consumer confidence, housing affordability and unemployment claims as similar for both incumbents. Financial columnist and author James K. Glassman followed with a September 2 piece for Tech Central Station that agreed with Mandels assessment and added that Bush was dealt an extremely miserable hand by his predecessor. Glassman pointed out that the tech stock bubble was deflating, gross domestic product (GDP) and employment growth were slowing and the corporate scandals of Enron, WorldCom and others all occurred under Clinton. And, then, of course, there was 9/11, he added.

     While the business press reflected this reality, mainstream media coverage of employment didnt. The reporting under Clinton was overwhelmingly positive. For Bush, it was overwhelmingly negative. Eighty-five percent of the stories (35 out of 41) portrayed the economy under Clinton in a good light. Only 13 percent of the stories (six out of 46) gave the employment situation under Bush the same treatment.

     The media comments about employment and job growth during the Bush reelection campaign tell the whole story. They used terms like: poor, stalled, struggling or lackluster. Comments during the similar time period during the Clinton presidency were the exact opposite. The media instead used terms like: showing its muscle, encouraging, surprisingly strong and impressive but not excessive.

     The FMP researchers evaluated the news broadcasts and articles on several factors. First, did the reporter use any explicit adjectives (such as robust or lackluster) to characterize the employment report? Second, did the story lead with a negative aspect of an otherwise positive report, such as a decrease in jobs in one sector while most others were growing, or vice versa? Finally, the researchers looked at any soundbites or quotes from any independent economists selected to help characterize the meaning of the job numbers. Stories were categorized as positive if the positive elements of the story outweighed the negative elements by a greater than two-to-one margin, while negative stories carried the opposite spin. Any stories with a less than two-to-one disparity were classified as neutral.


Media Compare Bush to Hoover, not Clinton

     The October 8, 2004 jobs report was a prime example of how the media slanted the employment picture. The Bureau of Labor Statistics data indicated that the economy added 96,000 new jobs in September the 13th straight month of positive job growth. The report also included a revision to earlier numbers that added 236,000 jobs to the totals earlier in the year.

     None of the TV news media in our study even mentioned anything about the quarter-million new jobs and all four TV newscasts portrayed the report as a strong negative for President Bush. While the print media we examined did mention the revision, they buried it. The New York Times placed the news in the 12th paragraph of its unemployment story and the Post buried it even deeper -  the 18th paragraph.

     CBS Evening News was the most slanted of all the media in our study and their approach to the October 2004 job numbers typified their bias. In all, CBS reported seven employment stories during the Bush portion of our study. Every single one was negative. They aired six such stories during the Clinton period of our study. Every one of those was positive.

     Anchor Dan Rather started off his October 8, 2004 broadcast on a dubious note, Tonight, where are the jobs? He then drove home the political implications: A disappointing report on the economy is out just weeks before the election.

     Rather asserted, in setting up the lead story, that whats troubling is the number of jobs the economy did and did not create. CBSs Anthony Mason reports its far fewer than expected, far fewer than needed. Mason described how an economist who likens the latest jobs numbers to a bloop single in the bottom of the ninth when your team is way behind. They might offer some hope, he says, but theyre not going to win the game.

     Introducing a second story, Rather stressed: Its the first net job loss on a Presidents watch since Herbert Hoover during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

     At CBS, even a drop in unemployment isnt always good news. On August 6, 2004, when unemployment continued to decline, falling to 5.5 percent, CBS turned negative. Anchor John Roberts had the helm at CBS Evening News: When the U.S. economy is humming, it is a rapid and reliable job generator, and lately, that pattern seemed to be making a long-awaited comeback. But a Labor Department report out today puts that in doubt. Roberts went on to talk about how only 32,000 jobs were created and called it, a big disappointment.

     CBS wasnt alone in how it handled unemployment. ABCs World News Tonight did seven employment stories during the Bush reelection period of the study. Only one of the employment stories during the Bush summer reelection campaign was positive.

     The October 8, 2004 jobs report was indicative of the coverage on World News Tonight. The show led with the employment numbers. Reporter Betsy Stark contended that economists generally agree. This was another surprisingly weak jobs report. The Labor Department put some of the blame for last months poor performance on all those hurricanes. What troubled economists is that September marked the fourth straight month of anemic gains.

     Both the ABC and CBS pieces featured negative assessments from the same economist, Bill Cheney of MFC Global Investment Management. The troubled economists in this case included one Bill Cheney twice.

     Like CBS, World News Tonight treated the August 6, 2004 results in a negative way. Reporter Kate Snow scoffed, The President says four more years of his policies made the economy stronger, but he cant afford any more bad news.

     NBC Nightly News showed the same pattern as the other two broadcast networks. It reported only one positive story about employment under Bush during our survey.

     The October jobs report was no exception. Anchor Tom Brokaw emphasized the negative when he introduced the story: Employers payrolls grew by 96,000 in September, thats much weaker than analysts expected. The nations unemployment rate held steady at 5.4 percent last month, as more than 200,000 job seekers dropped out of the labor pool.

     Like the other TV newscasts, NBC utterly ignored the large revision that added 236,000 jobs to the Bush results.

     NBC Nightly News wasnt completely negative toward Bush. On June 4, 2004, it produced a positive take on the news of unemployment remaining steady at 5.6 percent and the creation of 248,000 new jobs. Reporter Anne Thompson delivered a report that focused on all of the good economic news in May. She quoted people talking about an improving economy or finding jobs. Then she added her own two cents, The job market, finally gaining momentum. But is it enough to get over eight million unemployed Americans back to work?

     Viewers who werent watching closely had to be baffled by the sudden reference to eight million unemployed Americans that Thompson described. That number is the total of the unemployed. Not only is it the identical percentage to the same month during the Clinton presidency (May 1996), but had Thompson bothered to ask any economist, they would have told her that the economy never provides total employment.

     None of the media studied did a good job of covering the issue consistently. CNN was the best of the bunch. They did six stories about Clinton three positive and three negative. With Bush, that balance went out the window. Only one of the five stories was positive.

     The comments on Newsnight With Aaron Brown show the spin put on the October 8, 2004 jobs report. The program, which aired the next morning, included several negative comments about the Labor Department report starting with host Aaron Brown referring to the results as, a less than stellar employment report.

     Judy Woodruff followed by talking about the just concluded Presidential debate. No surprise, the economy was a favorite focus, with Kerry noting the latest not-so-rosy jobs figures. She followed with a quote from Kerry about job losses at 1.6 million without pointing out it was incorrect.

     Later on in the broadcast, reporter Joe Johns corrected that error: For his part, Kerry appears to have overstated the number of lost jobs since Bush took office. Kerry said the economy has lost 1.6 million jobs since 2001. That is true, if all youre considering is the private sector. If you add the government jobs created during that period, the net job loss is 821,000, almost half the figure Kerry cited.

     The CNN correction did not include mentioning the 236,000 job adjustment in the latest unemployment report.

     CNN Senior White House Correspondent John King included his own views of the jobs report. In states where manufacturing jobs have been lost, look for the President to do what he did today. A relatively modest job growth comes out. You would think the President would run from that a bit. Instead, they put out a new ad saying nearly two million jobs created in the past year, trying to spin that news to the most favorable light for them.

     The major print media mirrored the results of broadcast TV. Seventy-seven percent of the stories about Bush were negative. The Post was only slightly better than its New York competitor. Only two out of seven (28 percent) of the Bush stories were positive.

     The October 2004 labor report gave Post reporters Dan Balz and Mike Allen a chance to promote a Democratic talking point predicting employment results for the Bush term four months before anyone knows them. In their in their October 9 article, they said, The debate took place on a day when the Labor Department issued a monthly employment report showing the economy had produced 96,000 jobs last month, well below forecasts, with the unemployment rate unchanged at 5.4 percent. That left Bush in the position of being the first President since Herbert Hoover not to have produced job gains during his first term in office.

     The story also included the false claim by Senator Kerry that, The President has presided over an economy where weve lost 1.6 million jobs. The first President in 72 years to lose jobs. Readers had to consult a separate article by Post reporters Glenn Kessler and Ceci Connolly to know that wasnt true. Kerry at one point said that the President has presided over an economy where weve lost 1.6 million jobs. Kerry misspoke. He meant to qualify that statistic by referring to private sector jobs. The net number of jobs lost since Bush became President is about 800,000, because of growth in the public sector.

     Readers had to consult yet another Post story to find even that wasnt true. Buried in the 18th paragraph of a piece by Nell Henderson and Amy Joyce was the explanation of how the Bureau of Labor Statistics was adjusting the numbers by nearly 250,000. The number of workers on the nations payrolls in September was 821,000 lower than when Bush was inaugurated, although that figure may shrink by about 236,000 when the Labor Department makes its annual revisions to the job data, in February. That revision already shows on the report as a preliminary result.

     Even when unemployment actually dropped, Henderson buried it in the third paragraph of the August 7, 2004 story after starting off like this: U.S. job growth nearly stalled last month, the government reported yesterday, reinforcing other signs that the economic recovery lost steam this summer, just months before the Presidential election.

     The following month on September 4, 2004, Henderson explained another decline in unemployment in negative terms, saying, the decline occurred largely because many people stopped working or gave up looking for work, resulting in a smaller labor force.

     The New York Times was also unbalanced in its reporting. Only one employment story during the Bush reelection campaign was positive or just 8 percent (one of 12 stories).

     The Times coverage of the latest jobs report was consistent with its coverage of Bush throughout the summer of 2004. Reporter Edmund L. Andrews delivered the favored employment talking point of the Kerry camp with his Oct. 9, 2004 article. Its official. President Bush will be the first President since Herbert Hoover to face re-election with fewer people working than when he started.

     Andrews softened it a bit with the next paragraph. No President may have more than an indirect influence on unemployment, and Mr. Bush had the bad luck to take office in January 2001, just before the economy was about to slide into a recession. Andrews also reported the job losses at 585,000 fewer jobs now than when Mr. Bush took office, rather than simply restate the incorrect claims cited by Senator Kerry.

     Andrews didnt mention anything about the revision in the employment report that added a quarter-million jobs to the Bush record.

     The other Times story, written by Eduardo Porter with reporting from Jodi Wilgoren and Terry Aguayo, didnt begin as harshly, but still went negative. Employment grew by less than 100,000 last month, the Labor Department reported yesterday, well below the level needed to keep pace with the expansion in the labor force and presenting a weak picture of the economy in the last employment report before President Bush faces the voters in his bid for re-election.

     Porters story didnt begin with the Hoover comment though he included it in only the fifth paragraph after a short qualifier that Many economists argue that Presidents have only limited influence on job creation. Moreover, Mr. Bush entered office in 2001, just before the economy started to slide into a recession.

     The revision in the job numbers was buried in the 12th paragraph. With the current employment report, the government released a preliminary annual revision to the employment figures, which increased its estimate of jobs held in March by 236,000.

     On Sept. 4, 2004, when unemployment dropped to 5.4 percent the same level it had been at in August 1996 Edmund L. Andrews of the Times tried a new tactic that presented positive economic news and undermined it simultaneously.

     He started off with four paragraphs of good economic news and included a but in every case. The pace of job creation picked up modestly in August and the unemployment rate edged down, the Labor Department said on Friday in a report that offered some political relief to the White House but only tepid signs of a rebound in employment. Andrews followed with three paragraphs of buts, undermining the positive news.

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