Networks Practically Silent on GDP in 2012 Despite Its Decline

With a fragile economy during a heated election cycle, the news media should be focused on economic data. But when it comes to the growth of the U.S. economy as measured by gross domestic product (GDP), the three broadcasts networks were silent.

ABC, CBS and NBC news programs ignored the falling GDP numbers for six straight months from Jan. 28 to July 26, 2012, according to Nexis transcripts. In 2012, the only coverage on the morning and evenings shows was three stories on Jan. 27, and two more about the “dismal” report on July 27, 2012. But for the six months in between, the network new programs had nothing to say about the economic growth rate even though it was falling.

In prior years, including 2009-2011, the networks didn’t hide from reporting and spinning the gross domestic product announcements. In July 2009, Katie Couric called a -1 percent GDP estimate “the latest evidence the recession is easing” the same night ABC anchor Elizabeth Vargas found “new optimism about an economic recovery.” Two years later, in July 2011, an anemic 1.3 percent GDP rate was used to justify a debt ceiling deal.

According to the Commerce Department, GDP is “The market value of goods and services produced by labor and property in the United States regardless of nationality.” Investopedia said it is “one of the primary indicators used to gauge the health of a country’s economy.”

That importance hasn’t translated into much news coverage. In fact, one of the three networks ignored the important GDP announcement July 27 that showed the economy continued to slow -- to a very weak 1.5 percent in the second quarter. That night CBS “Evening News” reported that “The U.S. economy slows sharply, raising the risk of a new recession.” NBC also aired a report that evening about the weak data, but ABC ignored the story -- preferring to tout a "giant rally on Wall Street," cover Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign in London, and mention a study that proved the “five-second rule” is wrong instead.

According to The Associated Press, the news “adds to worries that the economy could be stalling three years after the recession ended.” Gene Epstein’s wrote in Barron’s that the past three years’ economic growth averaged “just 2.2%, anemic by any measure.” He then put that slow growth into disconcerting historic context on July 30 saying, “Reach back to 1950, and examine all periods that exclude recessions, and you’ll find there has never been a three-year interval that ran as low as 2.2% [average].”

And even Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner testified to Congress July 25 saying, “The economy is not growing fast enough,” and that was before the latest disappointing report.

With such bad economic news coming during a heated race for the White House, it is odd for the networks to be so quiet. After all, they repeatedly bashed President Ronald Reagan and President George W. Bush with the economies they presided over. But as the Business and Media Institute has reported, during Obama’s tenure the networks have either ignored, downplayed or spun bad economic news.

The disappointing second quarter rate was not unexpected by economists or other news outlets, although it might have been a surprise to people relying on the network news to cover gross domestic product. Before the latest announcement, CNN Money reported that the second quarter was expected to be even lower than the first quarter growth of 1.9 percent. CNN Money said that the economists they surveyed were expecting a 1.4 percent rate of growth, “down significantly” from the prior quarter.

“The outlook is very bleak from a consumer’s perspective,” Wells Fargo economist Sam Bullard told CNN Money. Paul Edelstein, another expert was cited, who said economic growth must be at a yearly rate of 3 percent or more to lower the unemployment rate.

Despite the networks’ six months of silence, some media outlets have acknowledged the difficulty a slow growing economy will be for the incumbent president come November. The Christian Science Monitor wrote on April 27, that “The US economy started the year at a less than scintillating pace, giving the Republicans, especially likely presidential challenger Mitt Romney, fodder against President Obama.”

At that time, CS Monitor said: “Although the economy is in no danger of sinking into another recession, the slower rate of growth is now in what economists term the ‘gray zone’ for Mr. Obama ...If the economy grows at 2 percent or less, voters are antsy.”

CS Monitor also noted that economists had expected a growth rate of around 2.5 percent that month, but the Commerce Department found it was a lower 2.2 percent rate. That quarter was revised further down to 1.9 percent the next month (and then back up to 2 percent on July 27).

The New York Times is also aware of the political ramifications of the dismal economic growth. A headline on The New York Times FiveThirtyEight blog read: “July 17: Obama’s Re-election Chances Fall on Gloomy G.D.P. Forecast.” That post warned that the economy is expected to remain sluggish: “Economists now expect the below-average growth that the economy has been experiencing to continue for quite a while, with G.D.P. growing at a rate of about 2 percent into early 2013. The panel’s previous projections had not been especially bullish, but had been closer to 2.5 percent.”

Of course, the economy would be a major problem for Obama, if the media were covering it instead of covering for it. While the networks have shielded the president by ignoring GDP altogether between Jan. 28,  and July 26, other outlets have downplayed the bad news or found a silver lining.

On April 27, it took The Washington Post 16 paragraphs to mention that the 2.2 percent growth rate “fell below expectations.” The same day, the Posts’ WonkBlog told people on April 27 “don’t get too worked up” about the disappointing estimates of 2.2 percent growth in the first quarter of 2012 because it was only an initial estimate (with two revisions to follow). That same WonkBlog post claimed it was not “an attempt to spin away bad news for President Obama’s re-election bid. But it’s not.” The rate was later revised down to 1.9 percent, before being finalized at 2 percent.

According to the Jan. 27 Times, “Last year was the slowest growth in a nonrecessionary year since 1947, economists at Credit Suisse said.” They were talking about 2011, and 2012 is looking like it will be even slower.

But back in October the Times found it “encouraging” that GDP had grown at a 2.5 percent rate between July and September 2011. Why? Because, they claimed it was a “sign that the recovery, while painfully slow, had not stalled.”

Methodology

The Business and Media Institute searched Nexis transcripts of ABC, CBS and NBC for mentions of GDP or gross domestic product on "The Early Show, "Today," "Good Morning America" and "Nightly News," "Evening News," and "World News" in 2012. Three unrelated stories mentioning GDP were excluding: one story that mentioned China's GDP, one mentioned how much a space starup company could add to global GDP and one included an interview referring to the nation's debt to GDP ratio.

Julia A. Seymour
Julia A. Seymour
Julia A. Seymour is the Assistant Managing Editor for the MRC's Business and Media Institute.