Journalists See 'Crisis' Where Even Economists Aren't Sure

     Is the glass half-full or half-empty? The classic question is a good way to look at the economy. Even economists don’t agree whether we’re in a “crisis” and a recession looms, or we’ve turned a corner and things are getting better.

     The only people who appear to be sure of what’s going on in the economy are journalists who feed the “crisis” idea to an unwitting public. The media have warned of recession or even depression throughout a 49-month run of positive job growth. But never more than in September when it briefly looked like that streak had ended.

     The initial report showed 4,000 jobs lost instead of more than 100,000 gained. Reporters swarmed to the story like thirsty men to an oasis. ABC’s Betsy Stark explained how dire this news was to the “World News with Charles Gibson” audience. “Charlie, many consider the jobs report the single-most important barometer of the nation’s economic health. Well, right now that barometer is reading high alert.”

     The next morning, Bianna Golodryga was warning ABC’s audience of the “Road to Recession.” She summed up the reporting with this downbeat outlook: “Friday's bleak jobs report conveyed a clear message. The economy may be in worse shape than previously thought.”

     Only it wasn’t. Or at least “the single-most important barometer of the nation’s economic health” wasn’t.

     The first Friday in October brought a new jobs report far more positive than the one before. This time, 110,000 new jobs were created and two previous months were adjusted for another 118,000 added jobs. That meant the August numbers went from -4,000 to +89,000.

     The Labor Department corrected its numbers. So did the media – briefly.

     Gibson dutifully reported how “the American job market picked up steam” when the October 5 numbers were released. He also pointed out the change in the August results.

     But less than two weeks later, ABC was finding other reasons for the economy to be in turmoil. Gibson led off the October 16 broadcast with a thoroughly negative look at housing. “New numbers out tonight suggest more than ever that the housing sector of the American economy is something of a house of cards.”

     The evening broadcast went downhill from there, if that’s possible. “The housing market is just one drag on the economy. Oil prices set another record today,” began Gibson in a report where he all-but begged one economist to say we’re in a recession.

     Sadly, ABC wasn’t the only one talking out of both sides of its mouth on the economy. CNBC stock picker extraordinaire Jim Cramer had an emotional meltdown in August because of the Federal Reserve’s reluctance to cut interest rates. On his CNBC show, “Mad Money,” Cramer warned of market “Armageddon.”

     NBC rewarded that calm, collected approach by having him on the flagship network. There, as one host said, he admitted he saw “the glass half-empty.” “I believe that because we had job loss for the first time in four years on Friday. We've got a lot of problems with those who want to sell a home, no buyers. If you want to buy one, your down payment has to be huge. These are psychologically all negatives for the economy,” Cramer told September 10 “Today” viewers.

     But unlike the networks, Cramer has changed his tune. He got his rate cut and went positive during an October 9 spot on “Today.” “I think that we are not nearly in bad shape. Employment’s fine, interest rates down, stock market up. Those all translate to better numbers, not worse numbers.”

     Just not on NBC. On the anniversary of the market’s largest ever single-day decline, NBC and the rest of the media were hyping the similarities between then and now. NBC’s Amy Robach called a 2-percent drop “a major stock stumble.” “Today” host Meredith Vieira asked if it were “nail-biting time” in the markets.

     Maybe not on Wall Street, but certainly on Main Street thanks to that kind of coverage.

     Although the media can be blamed collectively for over-hyping just about everything, ABC gets points for creativity. The October 17 “Good Morning America” added several new measures of ways to track the U.S. economy, including … sweater sales.

     “When you give or get practical gifts, stuff that you need instead of the stuff you want for your birthday or holiday. When sweater sales go up, watch out,” Golodryga warned. That was just one economic “red flag” to watch, according to the report. Restaurant tables and holiday decorations now join gas prices as media measurements.

     Perhaps the real measurement should be of how the media treat the economy. Instead of taking a balanced approach to the important economic issues, journalists depict a society perpetually on edge. Call it a Gloom-And-Doom Index or maybe a Glass-Half-Empty Index. Either one delivers the same result – media reporting that’s all wet.

Dan Gainor is The Boone Pickens Free Market Fellow and director of the Media Research Center’s Business & Media Institute. He can be seen Thursday afternoon each week on the new Fox Business Network.