Apr
01
2006

Good News! The Rich Get Richer

Lack of applause for falling wages is media mystery

The Bush administration made a concerted effort to trumpet a “booming” U.S. economy in early December, widely understood as an attempt to reverse what polls indicate to be the public’s largely negative views on the matter.

There are, of course, obvious reasons the majority of Americans dissent from the White House’s rosy presentation of the economy: Most American households are not, in fact, seeing their economic fortunes improve. GDP is up, but virtually all the growth has gone into corporate profits and the incomes of the highest economic brackets. Wages and incomes for average workers, adjusted for inflation, are down in recent years; the median income for non-elderly households is down 4.8 percent since 2000 (Economic Policy Institute, 8/31/05). The poverty rate is rising, as is the number of people in debt.

But rather than confront these realities, and explore the implications of the White House’s efforts to deny them, most mainstream media instead assisted the Bush team’s PR by themselves feigning confusion over the gap between the official view and the public mood.

As the New York Times put it (12/6/05), the economy “has improved in the past two years, though polls show that most people think it has gotten worse.” USA Today (12/5/05) had it that “despite positive economic numbers, polls show that many Americans believe the economy remains weak.” And the Los Angeles Times (12/6/05) referred matter-of-factly to economic “good news,” noting Bush’s concern that “voters give him little credit for the improving economy.”

Again and again, the majority of Americans’ understanding of their own economic situation was presented as somehow disconnected from reality, ascribed to “pessimism,” ignorance or irrationality. The Wall Street Journal (12/6/05), among others, suggested poll respondents’ negative assessments might be “spillover from concerns about the Iraq War,” as if the war rendered people incapable of noting whether or not they can pay their bills.

Conservative pundit George Will (ABC’s This Week, 12/4/05) blamed media coverage for the public’s failure to understand that “the economy is booming,” attributing this misapprehension to “Will’s two laws of economic journalism,” which mandate that “there’s no such thing as good news.” On Fox (Special Report, 12/2/05), Charles Krauthammer likewise cited the press, which “emphasizes the negative,” for the fact that the public didn’t appreciate the “incredible resilience of this economy,” which he called “a tribute to the tax cuts which kept our economy strong.”

Even the inclusion of significant countervailing data, like sluggish wage growth or escalating healthcare costs—data that demonstrate that Bush’s vision of an economic horizon “as bright as it’s been in a long time” (UPI, 12/2/05) is simply not the reality for most people—was insufficient to shift the story from one of essentially “good news.” The most outlets could manage was to say that such factors suggest “that recent gains in the economy do not apply across the board” (L.A. Times, 12/6/05), that many workers are not “fully participating in the economy’s gains” (Wall Street Journal, 12/6/05), or that “many economic benefits are not making their way to ordinary workers” (Washington Post, 12/6/05). But why these ordinary workers, representing the majority of households, should not be considered the arbiters of whether or not “the economy” is good is never explained.

There were a couple of high-profile exceptions to this upside-down framing, in which the existence of an “upswing” was taken as a given and journalists sought only to account for the public’s failure to “get” it, or to sufficiently credit the White House. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich (ABC’s This Week, 12/4/05) pointed out that the much-cited report of 215,000 new jobs created in November, which Bush held a Rose Garden ceremony to crow about, was “nothing to celebrate,” noting that it was less than the average per month growth in the Clinton administration, and that 150,000 new jobs are required just to keep up with population growth. Reich urged consideration of job instability along with health care and energy costs.

The New York Times’ Paul Krugman was likewise direct. “Americans don’t feel good about the economy because it hasn’t been good for them,” he wrote (12/5/05). While “GDP growth has been reasonably good, and corporate profits have soared” in recent years, Krugman explained, “most families actually lost economic ground,” with real median household income falling for the fifth year in a row.

But in their hardly radical suggestion that discussion of the economy ought to reflect the concerns of average salaried workers at least as much as those of the investor class, the likes of Krugman and Reich are not just a tiny minority in media opinion forums; they are effectively shouted down by a daily litany of stories that privilege the views of economic elites—with the most significant biases often lurking in the unspoken premises and parameters of supposedly neutral, “straight” reporting.

Media’s tendency to tacitly promote the official storyline came through in the decision by a number of outlets (ABC’s Good Morning America, NBC’s Today, CBS’s Early Show, CNN’s American Morning, 12/5/05) to “cover” Bush’s economic stumping with solo interviews of White House counsel Dan Bartlett; and in the ubiquitous tactic of bracketing straightforward information that might undermine the White House view as the detractions of “Democrats.”

Thus for the L.A. Times (12/6/05) it was only “Democrats” who were “not persuaded by Bush’s upbeat rhetoric, arguing that his policies, especially the across-the-board tax cuts, have disproportionately benefited the wealthiest segments of society.” Having devoted the first 15 of 17 paragraphs to unchallenged stenography of Bush and his advisers, AP’s account (12/5/05) offered a comment from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, prefaced with the line, “Democrats were quick to criticize the president’s speech.”

Ingenuous reporting of Bush rhetoric was pervasive, as with his exhortation of corporate America to “keep your promises” to workers. That phrase made headlines, but reporters merely wrote it down, rather than take the somewhat obvious step of researching Bush’s record on the issue. As David Sirota noted (Huffington Post, 12/6/05), a quick Google search would’ve shown Bush’s “major concrete action” in this arena to be his push to legalize controversial “cash balance pensions” schemes, though government auditors have said these reduce the pensions promised to longtime workers (New York Times, 3/9/03).

Finally, there is the gaggle of unabashedly pro-business shows like CNBC’s Kudlow and Company, where Treasury Secretary John Snow was invited (12/5/05) to exult, “There’s just so much good news,” and to explain that that’s due to Bush and “his leadership in lower taxes that created the condition under which this economy could take off.” Kudlow also gave Snow a chance to respond to Paul Krugman (described by the host as a “Princeton economist and so forth and so on”) with a supply-side primer about how “high returns to capital” lead directly to “better wages and better compensation.”

Nowhere in mainstream media do such shows have an opposite number, in which progressive economists regularly lay out their worldview at length and in hospitable company. Or even a show where labor, poverty or consumer rights organizations get to respond directly to the selective numbers and analysis put forward by the administration.

Such a program couldn’t balance the slant of a press corps that headlines economic “good news” when most families fall behind; but it would be a start.