WashPost, N.Y. Times Paint Over Good News With "Pinched" Portraits

May 8th, 2006 11:52 AM

On Saturday, The New York Times and the Washington Post had the same idea: line up average Americans to suggest any emerging macroeconomic happy talk is ignoring how "many people" are still feeling an economic pinch.

The Post put theirs on Page One, the Times on A-10. The Post headline was "Rising Expenses Have Consumers Feeling Pinched." The Times headline was "Despite a Sound Economy, Many Feel the Pinch of Daily Costs." (Online, it’s "Statistics Aside, Many Feel the Pinch of Daily Costs.") So the Post wins for pushing the theme harder, but the theme still suggests newspaper editors who are trying to throw mud pies at Pollyanna before anyone gets too thrilled with the macroeconomic picture.

For the Washington Post, repeat after me: it's more proof of how bad news makes A-1, and good news makes D-1. The story by Nell Henderson, Cecilia Kang, and (whoa) Tomoeh Murakami Tse began:

Gas. Food. Shoes.

Sometimes it seems like everything is costing more, said Haydee Rivera, 31, who said she often works 60 hours a week at her job with a fast-food takeout vendor. "For me, it is difficult because I would like to rest, but I can't."

Oh, and she's not alone:

Most everybody these days can point to their own list of rising expenses. Electricity, air travel, medical care and even staples such as diapers cost more. Rents are jumping as the housing boom cools, just as property taxes are soaring to reflect the price appreciation of the hotter days.

Plus, interest charges are rising on credit card balances, home-equity lines of credit and adjustable-rate mortgages.

This is how it feels when the days of cheap energy and easy money give way to $70 barrels of oil and ascending interest rates. The economy may be strong, but many people are feeling pinched. Economists say that feeling overshadows the fact that inflation overall is relatively low -- running at a 3.4 percent annual clip, the same rate as all of last year.

Hmm, what a mystery, that many people have the "feeling" that the economy's in the doldrums -- as if the media elite at the Washington Post and other national outlets aren't manufacturing gloom on an assembly line -- efficiently boxed Gloom McNuggets.

The New York Times text box moans: "High gasoline prices, mortgage rates and insurance costs are causing increasing anxiety." But reporter Jennifer Steinhauer is reporting from Florida, where people are still struggling to recover from the last hurricane season. Wouldn’t any rational economic actor expect insurance premiums in coastal areas to rise? Steinhauer also notes the people who are struggling with adjustable-rate mortgages. It might be a bit impolite to use a headline like "Many Who Feel the Pinch of Rising Costs Made Bad Economic Decisions."

The story began: "As a rule, when Americans feel financially pinched, the causes are clear: high unemployment, soaring interest rates, depressed home values and a wilting stock market. But many Americans now say they are feeling squeezed in the absence of these factors. Their concerns are instead centered on a combination of high gasoline prices, creeping insurance costs and the pressure of a large number of adjustable-rate mortgages, now jumping to market rates, that helped to fuel one of the largest housing booms in American history."

But this story is mostly about the politics:

The increase in prices, particularly of gasoline, is taking a political toll on President Bush, even in a Republican area like these suburbs. A recent nationwide CBS News poll found that only 33 percent of those surveyed approved of Mr. Bush's job performance and that 74 percent disapproved of his handling of the gasoline issue.

"We went from totally believing in Bush to really having our doubts," said Wayne Toomey, who owns a house with Ms. Tuttle in the nearby suburb of Parrish. "It comes down to his lack of care about gas prices."

Ms. Tuttle, 51, and Mr. Toomey, 58, have each gotten smaller cars and have cut some household costs. "It's a total struggle," said Mr. Toomey, who owns the vending machine business with Ms. Tuttle. "You would have to have your head in the sand to think things are going well in the United States."

It’s also about economics: polls like the CBS News one solicit (and elicit) the viewpoint that the government should play a major intervening role in establishing prices – at least when the news media are highlighting one particular price as "sky-high" and one industry as a cabal making "obscene profits." The one-dollar price for a daily Times might seem a bit steep, but at least no one can claim there making "obscene profits" at The New York Times Company.