Facts or Feelings? Inside the Media’s Misleading Economic Coverage

By Mark Jacob

In the last month, much of the economic news has been negative.

But don’t get me wrong: The economic facts haven’t been negative. Far from it. A revision in the first-quarter 2023 gross national product put growth at a healthy 2%. And inflation is coming down, so the misery index – combining the inflation rate and the jobless rate – is now 7.8%. That’s about average for recent decades and less severe than it was in the months when Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama got re-elected.

Even so, much of the economic news has been negative. Because news reporters have been negative about the economy.

Inc. magazine wrote: “How to Keep Your Sales Strong in a Flagging Economy.”

CNBC warned: “Recession worries are likely to carry over into the second half of 2023.”

And Fox News came up with one of its holiday favorites: “Americans battle high food costs for Fourth of July.”

Public opinion polls show pessimism about the economy too. Just 30% of Americans and just 13% of Republicans think the economy is “good,” according to a recent poll. In that same survey, 69% said the economy was either “leaning toward poor,” “somewhat poor” or “very poor.” About a quarter picked “very poor,” even though – reality check – the jobless rate is near a 50-year low.

Don’t get me wrong: Inflation is too high. But it’s an unsurprising result of the government pumping money into the economy to help people who were made vulnerable by a pandemic. Plus there’s been outrageous price gouging in certain industries. For example, major oil companies doubled their profits in 2022.

Despite inflation, it’s simply wrong to think the economy is in serious distress. Yet that’s what the public thinks, according to the polls.

It’s impossible to sort out whether the polls are reflecting what people think or are telling them what to think. We’re in a feedback loop in which people believe the economy is bad, and they tell pollsters that the economy is bad, and news outlets trumpet those polls loudly, and people hear those reports and think the economy is bad.

Plus there’s outright lying.

Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican presidential candidate, tweeted last week that “three years ago, our economy was thriving.” But in fact, the pandemic and Trump’s mismanagement of it gave us an awful jobless rate of 11.1% in June 2020. Now under Joe Biden, it’s dramatically better: 3.7%. Scott had to know that. But he doesn’t care about the truth.

Biden has begun fighting back against doomsday disinformation by touting “Bidenomics.” But it’s tough battling both right-wing propagandists and the news media at the same time. Even when there’s good news, Biden doesn’t get the credit. A New York Times headline read: “Inflation Is Way Down. Is It by Design or Just Luck?” Just luck? Back when inflation was rising, I don’t recall the Times claiming it was just bad luck and Biden was blameless.

Last week when the president made his “Bidenomics” push, CBS News tweeted this downer: “President Biden had a tough sell Wednesday, trying to convince voters that the economy is flourishing.” Interestingly, the right-wing propaganda outlet Newsmax (unaffiliated with CBS, at least officially) had virtually the same tweet seven hours earlier: “President Biden had a tough sell Wednesday: Convincing voters the U.S. economy is flourishing.”

If only they’d tweeted: “Biden tries to convince voters that facts are facts.”

Why do the media focus on polls more enthusiastically than on economic data? Perhaps because polls provide answers without a reporter having to interview experts and sort through the often-conflicting economic indicators. Polls are easy. They’re a snapshot. Economic trends are difficult, and they’re constantly changing.

But the triumph of feelings over facts empowers people who traffic in bad news when their side is out of power.

The rise of MAGA fascism has been a create-your-own-reality experience. If the economic news is good next year, the Republicans don’t want it to matter. But if it’s bad – or just seems bad in the polls – they want it to matter a lot.

Mark Jacob, a former metro editor at the Chicago Tribune and co-author of eight books, is a consultant for Courier Newsroom.