Just four days before the election, the network news shows downplayed reports of a major drop in the unemployment rate and the creation of 231,000 new jobs. CBS’s Katie Couric groused, “But do the jobs out there pay enough?” NBC’s Brian Williams declared, “That was below expectations,” and ABC’s Charles Gibson gave the issue a total of 15 seconds.
That wasn’t the way the networks handled bad news in 2002 and 2004, when the final employment reports before Election Day were disappointing. On both occasions, ABC’s “World News Tonight” began its broadcast discussing the negative reports.
Good News Not Newsworthy
Friday’s Labor Department news showed a decline in unemployment to just 4.4 percent. In addition, 92,000 new jobs were added along with 139,000 jobs as a revision to the previous two months. According to Marketwatch, “The separate household survey showed robust job growth of 437,000 in October, and a sharp 238,000 drop in unemployment.”
But somehow that good news didn’t sink at the networks. The worst offender was the “CBS Evening News,” which was consistent with findings in a recent study by the Business & Media Institute that showed CBS was the worst network handling the economy.
Anchor Katie Couric set up the November 3 downbeat look at the employment situation: “But do the jobs out there pay enough? A big issue in the battle for Congress this year is how much the lowest-paid workers make,” she asked. Correspondent Lee Cowan spoke with “ball buffers and shoe sorters” at a Cincinnati bowling alley who “[sweep] up a few extra bucks at just over the minimum wage,” as well as a mother of five who “makes just 25 cents an hour more … working at a McDonald’s.” Cowan declared, “That resonates here in Ohio, which ranks near the bottom in terms of the nation’s job growth.”
The “Evening News” skipped crucial information that was reported by Bloomberg: “Last month’s gain in employment followed increases of 148,000 in September and 230,000 in August, both higher than previously reported, the Labor Department said.” And, despite her comments about low-paying jobs, Couric failed to share the stronger than expected wage gains in October also reported by Bloomberg:
Workers’ average hourly earnings rose 0.4 percent in October after increasing 0.2 percent the previous month. Economists expected a 0.3 percent increase in hourly wages. Earnings were up 3.9 percent from October 2005.
ABC and NBC also downplayed the good news from the employment report. First, they ignored the strong upward revisions in Friday’s report. Then, they employed the strategy of presenting good news as briefly as possible.
NBC anchor Brian Williams gave a strongly negative look at the news by ignoring the positive details of Friday’s report – such as the August and September revisions to job totals, and the upside wage surprise. Then he told viewers: “Employers added 92,000 jobs in October. That was below expectations.” Williams also cautioned that the unemployment rate “is the lowest level since the spring of 2001” and that this “raised fears about more interest rate hikes.”
Williams was incorrect with this final statement and the Bloomberg article showed the issue wasn’t about rates going up: “Traders trimmed bets the Federal Reserve early next year would lower the overnight lending rate on loans between banks from a 5 1/2-year high of 5.25 percent.” Bloomberg made clear that the Federal Reserve instead may not be able to lower interest rates as soon as traders had hoped.
At ABC’s “World News Tonight with Charles Gibson,” Gibson couldn’t get this jobs announcement over quickly enough. As the Media Research Center’s Brent Baker reported, the anchor spent a grand total of 15 seconds “nearly 19 minutes into the newscast” on this strong piece of economic data.
All of this is consistent with how the three networks have portrayed employment data in the past. A Business & Media Institute Special Report in January titled Hit Job, showed how the networks reported job losses more than half the time during 2005, though 2 million new jobs were added.
Be Sure to Give Negative Stories More Air Time
While the networks didn’t give this positive news fair treatment, all three were eager to present negative employment news just before the election.
The worst example of this was clearly ABC’s “World News Tonight.” On both occasions it began the broadcast with the disappointing announcements from the Labor Department. Peter Jennings started the October 8, 2004, show emphasizing the political link to the negative news: “There is another presidential debate tonight, and there was a new set of government numbers today about unemployment and jobs, which Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry are bound to argue about when they meet there in St. Louis.”
When he handed the baton to correspondent Betsy Stark, her assessment was quite downbeat, stating “this was another surprisingly weak jobs report.” The segment included bearish quotes from two economists, and one from then Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry: “And the president is now officially the first president in 72 years to lose jobs on his watch.”
That prediction also turned out to be false. In fact, since the August 2003 recovery began, the nation has added 6.8 million new jobs, an average of nearly 180,000 jobs per month.
ABC was just as focused on the October 2002 jobs report on the final Friday before Election Day. Again Jennings began the “World News Tonight” broadcast with several reports “which [confirmed] that the economy is weak.” He then handed it off to Betsy Stark, who gloomily reported that the economy was “Just barely bumping along, and by some measures, Peter, flat-out stalled.”
CBS wasn’t any better, as Dan Rather began the October 8, 2004, “Evening News,” “Tonight, where are the jobs?” He then drove home the political implications, “A disappointing report on the economy is out just weeks before the election,” and set up correspondent Anthony Mason’s report with: “What’s troubling is the number of jobs the economy did and did not create. CBS’s Anthony Mason reports it’s far fewer than expected, far fewer than needed”
Mason was just as dour, stating, “The U.S. economy may be growing, producing more goods and reaping more profits, it’s just not creating enough jobs.” He then paraphrased the views of an economist who “likens the latest jobs numbers to a bloop single in the bottom of the ninth when your team is way behind. They might offer some hope, he says, but they’re not going to win the game.”
In the second story of the evening, Rather was even worse. “While the economy has created nearly two million jobs in the past year, President Bush still goes into the election with 821,000 fewer jobs in the nation than when he took office. It’s the first net job loss on a president’s watch since Herbert Hoover during the Great Depression of the 1930s.” Rather also was proven wrong.
On Nov. 1, 2002, he warned of “new signs of weakness in the U.S. economy” while reporting that “the unemployment rate went up in October to 5.7 percent as the economy lost 5,000 more jobs than it created.”
Though it didn’t lead with this story, NBC seemed just as intent to focus attention on the weaker than expected jobs reports that came out before Election Day in 2002 and 2004. Tom Brokaw began the October 8, 2004, “Nightly News” segment painting a strongly negative picture. “Employers’ payrolls grew by 96,000 in September. That’s much weaker than analysts had expected. The nation’s unemployment rate held steady at 5.4 percent last month, as more than 200,000 job seekers dropped out of the labor pool,” he explained.
Yet, NBC one-upped ABC by not only including the quote of John Kerry talking about Bush being the first president in 72 years to lose jobs on his watch, but also added a clip from Kerry’s campaign wherein he stated, “And we create the jobs in the doing it.”
Two years earlier, Brokaw spoke of “news this morning of the nation’s unemployment rate, ticked up a notch to 5.7 percent,” while correspondent Anne Thompson stated, “More evidence today the recovery is stalling.” Thompson interviewed a machine shop owner that had been laying people off, declaring, “His staff, which once numbered more than 100, is now just 40…One reason why this recovery is a jobless one.”
Finally, the lack of excitement exhibited by the networks concerning the first time the unemployment rate was below 4.6 percent since June 2001 was startling, especially considering their exuberance when the rate was similar in the 1990s. The unemployment rate dropped from 4.5 percent to 4.4 percent in November 1998, and the network news shows gushed over “a surprising drop in the unemployment rate,” “a sign of a booming economy” as “unemployment is at a six-month low,” and “the U.S. economy is showing amazing strength.”
Cross-posted at the Business & Media Institute