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Special Report
Free Market Project
October 14, 2004

Clinton Economy: Good news for just about everyone

     All of the media we studied were much more upbeat when they covered jobs reports under Clinton. CBS Evening News was a good example. On August 2, 1996, Paula Zahns report put a positive spin on a 0.1 percent increase in unemployment by focusing on stock market results. The government says the U.S. unemployment rate rose slightly in July to 5.4 percent. The news was well received on Wall Street. The stock market was up as fears of inflation went down.

     Rather went to even greater lengths to de-emphasize the negative on his June 7, 1996 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 tonight has the story behind them.

     Brady went on to say, There was a slight rise in the unemployment rate, but thats not necessarily bad news. He then focused on the job creation numbers and said, Whenever the economy picks up, more discouraged workers start looking for jobs again, and that drives up the rate.

     Viewers of ABCs World News Tonight saw Peter Jennings narrate a typical Clinton report on June 7, 1996. The story followed new Labor Department data showing both bad and good news. The bad news was a 0.2 percent increase in unemployment. The good news was the creation of 348,000 new jobs. We begin tonight, said Jennings, with this months portrait of America at work. And the Labor Department reports today that the overall unemployment rate in May was 5.6 percent, which is just a touch above where it was the month before.

     NBC Nightly News also downplayed the unemployment increase for Clinton. On June 7, 1996, Brokaw focused on the positive side of the employment news: Some encouraging news about jobs tonight. The nations unemployment rate crept up a bit from 5.4 percent in April to 5.6 in May, but the big news came in a separate report showing the economy added 348,000 new jobs last month. Thats about double the average monthly job growth.

     There were a few stories that looked at unemployment under Clinton with a critical eye. In a September 7, 1996 Washington Post piece, John M. Berry went behind the numbers to give more explanation about a sudden 0.3 percent drop in unemployment from 5.4 percent to 5.1 percent. Buried deep in an article that was headlined, Jobless Rate Fell to 5.1 percent in August, a 7-Year Low, Berry got to the heart of the matter. He spoke with Commissioner of Labor Statistics Katharine G. Abraham who said that there was an unusual five-week gap between surveys. According to Berry, That difference may have been partly responsible for a seasonally adjusted 300,000-person decline in the size of the labor force, as more young people were shown having left jobs to return to school than is usually the case.

     Still, the Post was mostly upbeat with results during Clintons reelection time even when reporting on negative results. A Post story that ran without a byline on August 3, 1996 put a positive face on a 0.1 percent increase in unemployment. Stocks soared for the fourth straight session today after a weaker-than-expected July employment report capped a week of data that quelled fears the Federal Reserve would raise interest rates this month.

     In the same edition, reporter Steve Pearlstein made an even more upbeat assessment, The U.S. economy added an impressive but not excessive 193,000 jobs in July, the government reported yesterday the latest in a weeks worth of economic data that seemed to have good news for just about everyone.

     The Post consistently presented the Clinton economy in positive ways. Six out of seven (86 percent) of those stories were positive.

     The New York Times was even more unbalanced in its reporting. Ninety-two percent of their employment stories during the Clinton reelection portion of our study (12 of 13 stories) were positive. When unemployment jumped 0.1 percent for Clinton, Times reporters David E. Rosenbaum and Steve Lohr said, Now the President is basing his re-election campaign on a substantially improved economy. At the time of that story on August 13, 1996, unemployment was 5.4 percent, just as it was for both the September and October 2004 reports under Bush.

     In all, the study results for the summer of 1996 are incredibly consistent. While CBS Evening News led the pack with six stories all positive, only CNN presented a balanced picture with six stories three positive and three negative. NBC Nightly News did fewer stories than CBS, but the result was the same. Every one of them was positive. Four out of five of ABCs reports were positive.


Good News Became Bad News

     Spinning the positive economic news into a negative was another common problem during the summer of 2004. The way the media ignored the job adjustments in the October 8, 2004 Employment Situation report is a fine example. Only two of the 11 stories even mentioned the quarter-million increase in Bushs job performance.

     Take a look at how ABC and NBC cover the same unemployment and job creation news on September 3, 2004. On ABCs World News Tonight, Peter Jennings claimed the results didnt live up to expectations. The government said today that the economy added 144,000 jobs in August. That was better than the previous two months, when job growth essentially stalled. But it fell short of the 200,000 jobs per month that most economists consider the minimum for strong employment growth.

     Of course, Jennings didnt mention that the report also included an adjustment of 73,000 in those essentially stalled months. The overall total of jobs reported that month was 217,000 17,000 higher than the number he had cited.

     Compare that to NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. Unemployment and job creation numbers for August came out today, something candidates for both political parties are watching very closely. Payrolls expanded by 144,000, that is a bit less than economists had forecast. But the numbers for June and July were revised upward. The unemployment rate ticked down 1/10 of a point to 5.4 percent.

     CBS Evening News employed a similar strategy to NBC with a June 4, 2004 story. The Department of Labor announced the good economic news that the unemployment rate stayed even at 5.6 percent in May. About 248,000 new jobs were created and earlier job growth numbers were revised upward. CBS Evening News delivered this news by focusing on an Ohio company that was laying off employees.

     Dan Rather introduced the downbeat broadcast: With the U.S. economy recovering, employers have started doing some serious hiring and workers are jumping back into the job market. The government reported today that unemployment held steady in May at 5.6 percent as the economy created 248,000. So far this year the economys added nearly 1.2 million. But while the jobs picture is improving nationally, there are still some problems locally, and CBSs Jim Axelrod reports, on that a Presidential election could turn.

     After 103 years, work at this plant in Canton, Ohio is set to stop, said reporter Axelrod. The Timken Company is shutting three factories and shedding 1,300 jobs.

     Axelrod, who stressed how a Republican cannot win the presidency without winning Ohio, showcased a local restaurant owner who voted for Bush but wont again, and a Timken worker who predicted the plant closing may push over voters to Kerry: It might not be the straw that switches the election here in Ohio, but itll be one of them. Axelrod warned: Overall, the manufacturing sector in Ohio is seeing some signs of life. That would be good for the President. But the 1,300 jobs lost here, at a company whose chairman is one of his strongest supporters, thats bad for the President, very bad.

     Times reporter Edmund L. Andrews flipped good news on its head in his July 2, 2004 article. Six months ago, in an anemic job market, President Bush would almost certainly have been delighted to hear that the nation had added 112,000 jobs the month before. On Friday, though, he found himself on the defensive. Andrews ended that story with this bit of opinion, Mr. Bushs problem is that after nearly three years of relentlessly bad news on the jobs front, he needs solidly good news from now to November.


9/11 Largely Absent from Unemployment Reporting

     Watching the news about the economy, you might forget that 9/11 ever happened. The media seem to have done so. No story in our study detailed the job losses caused by 9/11. Only six stories made any mention of terrorism or 9/11 at all. The broadcast media were the worst in this area.

     As economist Gary Wolfram said {See Page 18), In the 100 days following 9/11, one million jobs were lost. When looking at the performance of an administration in relation to job growth, surely this is a relevant addendum.

     The terror attacks did enormous damage to the U.S. economy, especially to industries dependent on travel and tourism. In the final months of 2001, the United States lost more than one million jobs. Many of the stories in this study mention Bushs overall job loss numbers. Instead of discussing the 9/11 job losses, several stories repeat the Kerry and his fellow Democrats complaint that Bush would be the first President since Herbert Hoover to preside over a net job loss.

     Only one story in our study even made a passing mention of terrorist threats. That was only five percent of the time.

     The media reporting of the Friday, October 8, 2004 results was a particularly pointed example of this. In all, there were 11 stories about the employment surveys. Several compared President Bush to Hoover. Only CNNs John King even made a passing comment about 9/11. None of those reports explained the depth of job losses in the end of 2001.

     Immediately after the second debate, CNNs King made this minor comment: In terms of heading into Tempe, they know its domestic issues. This President has to make the case that, yes, he will be the first President since Herbert Hoover to have a net job loss during his presidency. Mr. Bush will say recession, September 11, the shortest one of the shortest recessions in history because of his tax cuts. That was the only comment about the attacks out of 11 stories involving the October 2004 report two words. Nothing more.

     History from more than 70 years ago got more comment than the 9/11 attacks. For example, on Sept. 3, 2004, CBSs John Roberts ran a sound bite of President Bush touting the 5.4 percent unemployment rate, but then Roberts undermined the good news: What the President didnt say was that the employment numbers in August again fell short of expectations, and it is now certain he will end his first term as the first President since the Great Depression to lose jobs on his watch. Roberts painted a more pessimistic view when he stressed how the situation is worse than it seems. While the President touts the results of his economic recovery plan, job creation hasnt kept up with population growth. By that measure, experts say, he is several million more jobs in the hole.

     In those rare employment stories that mentioned terror or 9/11, they failed to discuss the job losses that were caused by the attacks. One such example came from an August 7, 2004 Washington Post article by Nell Henderson made the most obvious reference to the impact of 9/11. Henderson summarized comments from Richard Yamarone, director of economic research at Argus Research Corp. He said the economy is still recovering as much from the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks as from the recession that year. Henderson still made no mention of the job losses.

     A New York Times article from Sept. 4, 2004 made a small mention of terrorism and a much larger mention comparing President Bush to President Hoover. Reporter Richard W. Stevenson wrote about Bush portraying himself as the only safe choice in an age of terrorist threat. That story added a much clearer comment comparing Bush to Hoover. Mr. Bush still stands to become the first President since Herbert Hoover to have a net loss of jobs in his term. Stevenson failed to point out the more than one million jobs lost after 9/11.

     Another New York Times story on August 7, 2004 also used that same approach. The story by David Leonhardt linked job loss levels to the days of the Great Depression.

     The weak increases of the last two months now mean that Mr. Bush is highly likely to stand for re-election with an employment level lower that it was on his Inauguration Day. That would be the first time that has happened since 1932, when the country was mired in the Depression and enduring far worse job losses than any it has experienced recently. Leonhardts assessment ignored any mention of the attacks on September 11 or the million jobs lost in the final months of 2001.

     There is no corresponding event to 9/11 during the Clinton presidency. It is impossible to compare how the media factor the impact of the attacks into stories about unemployment.



     Media coverage of two similar summers delivered two completely opposite results. The Wall Street Journal wrote an editorial on October 11, 2004 that criticized the downbeat view of the economy following the latest jobs data. The last jobs numbers to be reported before the Presidential election are in, and predictably John Kerry is spinning them as disappointing. Well, if this is disappointment, most people would probably like to have four more years of it.

     The Journal went on to list low unemployment, job growth and strong economic growth as reasons for that position. It concluded, In short, these are good times for most American workers, even though for political reasons some are doing their best to portray them as the worst.

     Unfortunately, the media are the worst culprits in painting the current economic picture as foreboding. This analysis shows that the media need to do a better job of reporting economic and job issues. This study also shows how the media engage in a double standard by reporting two entirely different ways on two similar economies that are only eight years apart.

     But they can do better. CBS Evening News reporter Sharyl Atkisson presented a story on September 1, 1996, where she referred to 5.4 percent unemployment as, Low unemployment and part of, a strong economy She was right then and, since the numbers are similar and unemployment is identical in 2004, she would be correct now. The problem was not her initial reporting, but it is how the media report the issue when a Republican is President. If you have relatively the same economic numbers, then why isnt it the same story?

     There are several things the media can do to improve their coverage of the employment picture:

  • Cover Stories That Reflect The Data: The media need to find a consistent way to cover the monthly release of labor data so that it isnt spun to show negatives when the news is otherwise or vice versa. If the unemployment rate and jobs report are both positive, let the story reflect that. Dont try to report the opposite by finding the pocket of unemployment that is worse. The nationwide unemployment number is an general survey. It is virtually impossible for unemployment not to be worse somewhere.
  • Educate the Public: The news media have an obligation to inform the public. Complex economic issues remain complex because no one explains them. Even unemployment rates and job creation are more elaborate than they seem. The media need to help the public better understand so that the numbers have significance.
  • Make Balanced News Coverage a Priority: This analysis shows that unemployment and job creation are treated differently over time. The media are aware there are problems of balance in coverage; the question remains what to do about it. Media organizations should find ways to monitor their own coverage and ensure that it is balanced. An ombudsman should be hired to monitor and track stories to ensure that economic data are being treated fair with both sides of an issue receiving equal time.

* also see FMP commentary "Reporting Labor Statistics Correctly"

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