MediaWatch: November 1988

Vol. Two No. 10

Study: Election Year Economic Doom and Gloom

"Americans believe the state of the economy is the most important issue in the presidential campaign," announced Peter Jennings in opening ABC's World News Tonight on September 21. Reporter Ken Prewitt then reviewed the state of the economy, concluding: "When you look at the overall economy, the average American voter is doing fine....and that makes economic issues a difficult pitch for the Democrats." But that didn't prevent numerous other network reporters from emphasizing economic themes matching the Democratic campaign pitch. A MediaWatch study has determined that despite the continuing economic boom, the networks have depicted an overwhelmingly unhealthy economy.

Of 60 feature length stories analyzed from ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, CNN PrimeNews, and NBC Nightly News, from when the primaries ended in early June through October 15, 40 stories, (67 percent), stressed weaknesses in the economy. Only 11, (18 percent), focused on economic strengths, while another nine stories were mixed or neutral in their assessment of the economy. Moreover, the networks have aired more than three times as many negative reports that reinforce Dukakis campaign themes as reports echoing Bush campaign themes.

Stories considered mixed included an August 5 Evening News look at the growing number of temporary workers. Reporter Terry Drinkwater gave both sides: "Companies say the temporaries give them flexibility; some workers agree...But for many other temporaries, the insecurities are so severe, they use their free time to look for a permanent job." CNN's Chris Abel gave a mixed picture of the economic impact of dropping oil prices, concluding: "There are ten states hit hardest by the oil slide... But while the economies in oil-producing states worsen, experts say the oil price drop will mean good news for consumers."

Forty percent of the negative pieces emphasized themes pushed by Dukakis, such as the supposed growth of low pay jobs at the expense of higher paying ones, increasing income inequality, and the inability of the middle class to afford a home. For instance, ABC's Kathleen deLaski vigorously attacked the Reagan legacy on August 31. She announced the census report showing an increase in family income to $31,000 per year, but quickly added, "most of the additional income went to those who were already well off." After interviewing Bob Greenstein of the liberal (though not identified as such) Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, deLaski highlighted the 15.5 percent poverty figure, concluding "the report gives Michael Dukakis some evidence that the poor and middle class are losing ground."

Three days later deLaski was at it again, featuring a group of economic "losers": this time, "urban migrants," workers who have only been able to find jobs far away from home. "So they are being forced to the great outdoors, because their paychecks cannot put a roof over their heads." Her examples included a man who claimed he could not afford housing for his family on an $11 per hour construction income. DeLaski explored only liberal solutions: "public or subsidized housing." Back on June 7 ABC aired back to back stories on how "the dream of owning a home is fading in the 1980's" as values increase far faster than incomes, a theme repeated two months later by CBS.

A trade deficit study from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) on October 15 prompted CNN's Patricia Ochs to warn: "One of Ronald Reagan's thorniest economic problems has cost millions of jobs in manufacturing and related industries." With a clear political angle that echoed Dukakis's promise of "good jobs at good wages," Ochs continued: "The jobs lost are good ones; about half pay more than $400 a week." Ochs didn't mention that Labor Department figures show more than two thirds of the jobs created since 1982 pay $20,000 per year or more. Ochs wrapped up with a leading conclusion: "The study is expected to fuel arguments by...Michael Dukakis and other Democrats, that the trade deficit is a growing burden on the U.S. economy, and Americans are already paying."

Viewers could have put the story in better perspective if Ochs mentioned a key fact about EPI: It is headed by Jeffrey Faux, listed by Business Month as an advisor to the Dukakis campaign.

Even when the news was unabashedly good, CBS and CNN managed to add a sour note. On October 7 Dan Rather quickly reported the unemployment rate fell by 0.2 percent to 5.4 percent, but then turned to Ray Brady who spent a minute and a half bemoaning the relative decreasing productivity of the American worker. The next day CNN's Dan Blackburn lamented: "Many of the jobs are in the clerical field, or they may involve the hiring of laborers on a daily basis..." Blackburn worried about the future assessment: "For most American workers....the unemployment figures offer at least some assurance. But many economists warn that the 1990s could bring trouble."

Other negative stories did not overtly reflect major Dukakis themes, though a few quoted him. An increase in the discount rate, said Ray Brady, "is the kind of move that is seldom made during an election year, and today Michael Dukakis blamed it on the economic policy followed by the administration." CNN's Lou Waters chimed in: "The move is meant to curb consumer spending and it could pose political problems for Vice President Bush if voters blame Republicans for tighter credit."

NBC, however, was the gloomiest network, with all six of its feature length economic reports accentuating the negative. Reporter Irving R. Levine felt the modest 0.2 percent increase in unemployment for August was misleading, compelling him to inform viewers what he termed the "reality" of the situation. If the Labor Department counted discouraged workers and those who "work part time because they can't find a full-time job," as out of work, "the unemployment rate would not be 5.6 percent," but much more.

A more realistic picture occasionally slipped through. On October 7 ABC's Ken Prewitt offered viewers a rare positive analysis of the employment situation. Prewitt explained that one in six people counted as unemployed are briefly unemployed between permanent jobs; half find jobs in less than six weeks. Five of the eleven positive stories analyzed reinforced themes like this, topics Bush highlighted: the record percentage of people employed, low inflation and rising family income. On October 5, Brady had offered this encouraging assessment: "Labor experts say, if you're just starting out....this is the best time to be looking for work in 20 years."

A CBS News/New York Times poll showed voters, by a margin of 51 to 38 percent, preferred Bush over Dukakis as the man to help the economy most and a September Gallup poll showed 54 percent of Americans believe they personally will be better off a year from now. But with the media distorting and misrepresenting the national picture, small wonder that only 24 percent believe the country as a whole will be better off.