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Spinning the Economy Down

from the magazine

Spinning the Economy Down

For the liberal media, a GOP president’s economy is always crummy. Autumn 2004
Arts and Culture
Economy, finance, and budgets

Liberal media bias can sometimes be laughably blatant, as in the late-September Associated Press hit job masquerading as a news story, headlined BUSH TWISTS KERRY'S WORDS ON IRAQ, which could easily have been written by the Kerry campaign. Oh, wait—maybe it was: as the Powerline blog reminded everybody, the AP reporter who wrote the story, Jennifer Loven, is married to Kerry environmental advisor Roger Ballentine and has dumped on the president before. But such bias can also be subtler, with significant real-world consequences.

Economic coverage is a prime example, say American Enterprise Institute researchers Kevin Hassett and John Lott. In a new econometric study, the two authors methodically surveyed headlines in hundreds of newspapers and AP reports on unemployment, GDP, retail sales, and durable goods orders going back to 1985, and found them to be much gloomier overall when a Republican sat in the White House, regardless of the economic data the stories reported. For the same kind of economic news, Republican presidents received about 20 to 30 percent less positive coverage from all papers, and 20 to 40 percent less positive coverage from the nation's ten leading papers. Among the most biased news sources were—no surprises here—the New York Times and the Washington Post.

This “partisan gap,” as Hassett and Lott call it, distorts public perceptions of the economy. Positive headlines actually had more to do with whether people thought an economy was getting better than the underlying technical economic data, the authors unsurprisingly discovered.

All year long, economists have wondered why the public remains grumpy about the Bush economy, whose growth rate matched any 12-month period of the Clinton presidency. A July AP/Ipsos Public Affairs survey, for example, found that 57 percent of the respondents thought that the economy had lost more jobs than it had gained over the previous six months, when in fact it had added more than 1 million jobs. Headlines like the Chicago Tribune's, greeting news of robust 4 percent economic growth during the fourth quarter of 2003—GDP GROWTH DISAPPOINTS; JOB WORRIES QUARTER OF 2003—likely have something to do with the public mystification.

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