Does the New York Times let bias creep into its post-Christmas reports on the shopping season just completed?
Smart-aleck answer: Is Maureen Dowd obsessed with Dick Cheney? (His name appears in 295 of her columns, all but four appearing during the last seven-plus years. That would be almost 40 Cheney inclusions per year, probably close to half the number of columns she has written during that time.)
After reviewing 17 years of those reports, the answer is a definitive "Yes."
For each year from 1991 through 2007, I went back to the Times's first or near-first post-Christmas report on the shopping season. I expected to find blue sky and sunshine during the Clinton years, and gloom as far as the eye can see during Bush 41 and Bush 43. While it wasn't quite that bad, the bias is there, and it's more obvious in recent years.
(Summary and detail begin after the jump.)
Here's a quick summary of what I found:
- In most years prior to 1998 for which comparisons were possible, the Old Grey Lady's take on the shopping season matched or was worse that reality, with one exception -- its take on the 1992 season after Bill Clinton defeated Bush 41 was "Great," with lots of favorable quotes thrown in, while the reality was "Very Good."
- But for the five seasons after that, starting in 1998-2002, the paper's assessment matched reality. In 1998, the Times writer even cited Bill Clinton's impeachment and bombing in Iraq as factors that shoppers ignored.
- In each of the past five Christmas shopping seasons, the Times's assessment of the results has been worse than reality. The reality v. Times disconnect was especially glaring in 2004 - 2006. Those years, in reality were Good to Very Good, but the Times saw each result as Fair, with side helpings of snideness courtesy ofreporter Michael Barbaro in 2005 and 2006.
- Especially noteworthy is the comparison between 1998 (a 5.8% sales increase, evaluated as Very Good by the Times) and both 2004 and 2005 (increases of 6.0% and 6.3%, respectively, both evaluated as Fair).
Below, I have shown the following for each year:
- The Times headline.
- The actual retail sales increase for the Christmas shopping season, as reported by the National Retail Federation (NRF). Note that the related Times reports often use different results, such as incomplete data from either Visa USA or MasterCard International, instead of the more comprehensive NRF. Most of the increases tallied below are from this NRF graph (click on "Historical Holiday Sales" at this link for the PDF file):
- A descriptive early sentence from the report.
- An evaluation of the real result and the Times's assessment of the result.
President: Bush 43
- 12.26/2007 -- "Disappointing Sales During Holiday Season"; 3.6% (preliminary, not from NRF, whose preseason estimate was 4.0%); "American consumers ..... delivered the bleak holiday shopping season retailers had expected." Reality: Fair (pending possible adjustment); Times Assessment: Poor.
- 12/26/2006 -- "Rush at End, but Holiday Sales Fall Short"; 4.6%; "There is always next year." Reality: Good. Times Assessment: Fair
- 12/27/2005 -- "The Day After Christmas, Shoppers Take a Holiday"; 6.3%; "Better luck later this week." Reality: Very Good. Times Assessment: Fair.
- 12/28/2004 -- "Retail in Review: More Bah Than Sis-Boom"; 6.0%; "(Analysts) offered their latest judgment of the Christmas shopping season yesterday: good, but not great." Reality: Very Good. Times Assessment: Fair.
- 12/27/2003 -- "Sales Results for the Holiday Trickle In and Trickle Up"; 5.0%; "..... it became clear that this year's holiday season was only ho-hum for most retailers, far from the one bursting with consumer cheer they had once hoped for." Reality: Good. Times Assessment: Fair.
- 12/27/2002 -- "Growth in Sales for Holiday Period Is Lowest in Years"; 1.3%; "..... experts yesterday declared this year's holiday season the worst in many years." Reality: Poor. Times Assessment: Poor.
Post-9/11 Shopping Season
- 12/27/2001 -- "Late Shopping Gives Retailers A Slight Boost"; 3.4%; "A surge of last-minute shopping may have given the nation's retailers and the economy a small boost ....." Reality: Fair. Times Assessment: Fair.
The Year of the Bush-Gore Election
- 12/27/2000 -- "Sales in Holiday Season Rose, Just Barely, Over Last Year's"; 2.3%; "..... this year's holiday shopping season is shaping up as among the worst in a decade, industry analysts said yesterday." Reality: Poor. Times Assessment: Poor.
President: Bill Clinton
- 12/25/1999 -- "Growth in Holiday Season's Retail Sales May Set a 5-Year High"; 8.1%; "The millennium may turn out to be a bust, but by any measure Christmas 1999 was swinging." Reality: Great. Times Assessment: Great.
- 12/28/1998 -- "Surge of Shopping in December Gives Merchants a Lift"; 5.8%; "Largely undistracted by the impeachment of President Clinton and the bombing of Iraq, American shoppers appear to have spent freely from wallets that still feel pretty fat, giving retailers a muscular, if not stellar, holiday season." Reality: Very Good. Times Assessment: Very Good.
- 12/28/1997 -- "Retailers Finding Sales Disappoint for the Holidays"; 4.8%; "A sparkling economy, record-low unemployment and fatter paychecks failed to translate into the strapping holiday selling season American retailers were counting on." Reality: Good. Times Assessment: Fair.
- 12/25/1996 -- "Holiday Retail Refrain: Better Than '95 but Not Good Enough"; 3.6%; "As surprise led to surprise and the season faded to a close yesterday, sales appeared to have been stronger than in last year's dismal Christmas shopping season." Reality: Fair. Times Assessment: Fair.
- 12/25/1995 -- "Retailers Report a Shopping Season Worth Forgetting"; 3.1%; "Hardened shoppers, perpetual sales and a snowstorm that blanketed the Northeast during the crucial final week of Christmas shopping combined to give retailers their worst holiday season in years ....." Reality: Fair. Times Assessment: Poor.
First Christmas Season after "Gingrich Revolution"
- 12/26/1994 -- "Retailers' Christmas Wishes Didn't Come True This Year"; projected 6% (first listing at link); "The predictions of a strong holiday shopping season were apparently wishful thinking for many retailers, particularly in apparel." Reality: Unknown, probably Good to Very Good. Times Assessment: Fair.
- 12/27/1993 -- "Late Sales Lift Results For Stores"; post-season estimate of 4%-6% (third listing at link); "..... many were relieved that a late surge of shopping would produce modestly respectable sales figures." Reality: Good to Very Good. Times Assessment: Fair.
Christmas Season After Bill Clinton Elected
- 12/26/1992 -- "A Sharp Rebound in Christmas Sales"; 5% to 6%; "It was a hair-raising holiday season for many of the nation's retailers: sales started out strong, dropped off precipitously and finally skyrocketed the last weekend before Christmas ..... 'People have shopped this year like there really is a Christmas' ..... So much for the notion that Christmas was dead." Reality: Very Good. Times Assessment: Great.
President: Bush 41
- 12/26/1991 -- "Retailers Report Sales Fell Short of Dim Forecasts"; 0.7% (first item at link); "Retailers would probably like to forget Christmas 1991. While most merchants had been prepared for a sluggish season, many said sales turned out to be even worse than expected." Reality: Poor. Times Assessment: Poor.
Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.