May 1 1995

Seeing the Bright Side at the New York Times

For those fearing inflation, analysts said, one of the most reassuring elements of today’s report [of rising employment] was that average hourly earnings declined by 2 cents, after an October surge of 7 cents.

New York Times, Dec. 3, 1994

A common complaint is that the media favor bad news, but that isn’t fair. Given that news, as Voltaire says of history, is “indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind,” it’s hard for mainstream reporters to be upbeat, but they do try.

One way is by euphemism, like calling the military budget “defense spending,” or what the CIA does “intelligence.” Another is the glass-is-half-full ploy, much used in environmental reporting: When half of a surviving forest has been turned over to the loggers, you announce that half has been saved.

Or there is outright denial, as in a New York Times front-pager headed: “As Parties Skirmish Over Budget, Greenspan Offers a Painless Cure.” The “painless cure” is a revision of the Consumer Price Index that would reduce cost-of-living adjustments on Social Security and other pensions and wages. It’s painful only if you laugh.

But you can’t beat the financial pages for turning bad news into good and vice versa. This is so entrenched that when the government announced the best gain in employment in 10 years, the market report exclaimed, “Stock Prices Advance Despite Report on Jobs” (New York Times, 1/7/95).

What is good news (which is mercifully rare) to the layman is actually bad news to the cognoscenti, i.e., reporters. If unemployment falls below its “natural rate” of maybe 6 percent, the thinking goes, then employers will begin stealing help from one another by raising wages, and the workers will spend that largess, and prices will go up. Get it?

This is old hat on the financial beat. Eileen Shanahan, who used to cover it in Washington for the New York Times, and Paul Starobin of the National Journal nicely relate in the Columbia Journalism Review (1-2/95) how Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve, jerks the strings of the media. Since even the White House meekly accepted increases in interest rates that were dangerous to its political health, the approval of the little group of Fed reporters–should I say spoon-Fed?– should be no surprise.

I harp on the New York Times (hereafter referred to as the Times) because it is the bellwether for the entire media flock, especially for heavy stuff like economics. And it is marvelous at locating a silver lining in the darkest cloud, as when Peter Passell, its economics columnist, reported (4/8/93) that the bombing of the World Trade Center “actually provided a lift for the local economy.”

For a special business section headed “Outlook ’95” (1/4/95), David Sanger led off, “It is hard to put a finger on why everyone seems so jittery at a time when celebration seems more in order,” and the Times‘ resident Dr. Pangloss, Sylvia Nasar, scolded readers for “all the naysaying” she thought she detected in spite of her own spectacular effort at yeasaying. She insisted that today, compared to previous recoveries, “income per worker–including bonuses, sales commissions, profit-sharing plans, 401 (k) plans, consulting fees and the like–has been climbing much faster.” Yes, and don’t forget the stock options.

Another silver lining: The next day, after noting widespread concerns that the crisis in Mexico would send a wave of illegal immigrants across our border, Sanger remarked: “Certainly there is good news as well for Washington in the economic recovery package announced today by [President] Zedillo…. Mr. Zedillo’s insistence that unions agree to wage increases of no more than 7 percent and that corporations keep their profits minimal.”

He overlooked a further bright aspect: that an increase in illegal immigration should help hold U.S. wages down and, also, that the drop of some 40 percent in real wages in Mexico should prove a bonanza to U.S. employers already there, and encourage the shipment of more jobs south of the border.

Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. For months the media, led by the Times, assured us that NAFTA had already in its first year created 100,000 new U.S. jobs. GATT, the Times editorial page promised us, would bring us economic gains of $200 billion a year (9/29/94) or $100 billion (10/5/94) each year, or $1,000 (11/29/94) or $1,700 (2/2/94) per family per year. No authority was offered for any of these figures, nor was there any guess at the number of U.S. jobs already lost to NAFTA and to be lost to GATT.

Rather, the Times executed a remarkable about-face in that Nov. 29, 1994 editorial, declaring: “Trade neither creates nor destroys jobs. Employment in the U.S. is primarily determined by the Federal Reserve Board’s efforts to push the economy as close to full employment as possible.” This from a paper that had been explaining all year how NAFTA and GAIT would raise employment and why the Fed had to raise interest rates to hold employment down. Anyhow, at the end of the year, the Mexican monetary crisis made all those happy forecasts obsolete, and presented new fields for reassurances.

Statistics have always been treacherous for journalists. A remarkable example, one of many, was the front-page announcement on December 15 that a Times/CBS poll had found that “Americans Like Republican Contract.” Three out of four respondents hadn’t even heard of the contract; on the whole, they had mixed opinions about individual clauses. Two out of three didn’t know Newt Gingrich, either, and two-thirds of those who did, didn’t like him. As Gilda Radner would say, never mind.

A severe test for the dogma that good news is bad was posed by the continuing, even accelerating, decline in crime. It’s easy to see why this would be disconcerting to politicians and the media, since crime is their daily bread. Coverage of crime on TV network news has increased while crime has declined (Extra!, 5-6/94); space devoted to crime in the Times has likewise exploded. But having made crime the No. 1 issue in the opinion polls, how can one persuade the public that a significant drop in crime is no big deal?

The Times made a valiant effort in a front-page follow-up to the annual crime report (1/7/95), saying, “In Sunset Park, a mother believes the gunshots, not the statistics.” As if to prove the woman right, the Times got the statistics wrong: A correction the next day revealed that it had far overstated the arrest statistics for that Brooklyn precinct. (It had also erred in reporting as fact that crime from a black neighborhood in Queens was seeping into nearby white neighborhoods; the crime figures had been about the same for years, but never mind.)

Nonetheless, take it from a Times veteran that a great majority of journalists mean to tell the truth. They often fail, but that’s a matter of their being taken in by “authoritative sources.” That’s what makes extraordinary a passing comment by Peter Passell in his “Economic Scene” column last December 15.

He was berating the failure of President Clinton’s Bipartisan Commission on Entitlements and Tax Reform to recommend further cuts in the safety net. He explained that the absence of an economic crisis “leaves policy makers without a convenient moment to rise above interest-group politics in the name of the greater good”– another case where good news, the absence of a crisis, is bad news, and where the public is a special-interest group. Passell continued: “The only real whack ever taken at Social Security came a decade ago, when Congress hid behind the big white lie that the system was on the verge of bankruptcy.”

That is, to my knowledge, the first time that a mainstream publication (other than the few papers that published my columns at the time) ever acknowledged that the Social Security “rescue” of 1983, which cut benefits and raised payroll taxes, was based on a hoax (Extra!, 1-2/88).

Passell’s cheerful admission referred to the hoax as a white lie, suggesting that it was virtuous of Reagan, David Stockman and Alan Greenspan et al. to issue fake figures– and for the press, including Passell, to relay them to an unsuspecting public. That casts a rather lurid light on Passell’s continuing forecasts of future bankruptcy for Sodal Security. Indeed, it casts doubt on anything Passell cares to say. That’s bad, but, come to think of it, that’s good, isn’t it?

John Hess worked as a reporter for the New York Times from 1954 to 1978.