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opinion | The economy continues to defy media expectations. It is part of a pattern.


News of a robust economic growth of 2.9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2022 on Thursday greeted many in the mainstream media with surprise — even shock. And on Friday, there was more good economic news: inflation fell in December compared to November, the sixth consecutive month of declines.

These numbers have often been characterized as defying expectations of a recession or despite economic headwinds. The Wall Street Journal proclaimed that while last quarter’s growth was solid, the US economy “went into the year with less momentum as rising interest rates and still high inflation weighed on demand”. Almost comically, the Associated Press wanted to know, “How do we know if the U.S. economy is in recession?”

The better question: When will the mainstream media recognize good economic news for what it is?

President Biden thought otherwise in a speech in Virginia on Thursday. “I’m not sure the news could have been better – economic growth is stronger than experts expected, 2.9 percent,” he crowed. “I don’t think it’s unfair to say all of this is evidence [the] Biden’s economic plan really works.”

Late last year, I spoke at length with Jared Bernstein, a member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers. The “streams of data,” he told me, simply did not support the bleak and doom outlook many proclaimed. Any attempt to explain a sunnier prospect was dismissed as spin. It seems, at least in the short term, that he had a better footing in the economy than the government’s legions of critics.

That is not to say that the probability of some kind of recession is zero. Inflation is still high compared to a year ago, so the Federal Reserve will continue to raise interest rates. A setback is still possible. A potential default due to MAGA House brinkmanship could unbalance the economy. But the certainty with which the mainstream media claimed for months that the United States was on the brink of recession seems wrong — and strangely familiar.

Akin to the red wave midterm elections that never happened, the media never seem to back away from their gloomy predictions for the Biden administration. And the widespread refusal to lend credit to the Fed and the government, even as good news came in, was remarkable.

Aside from the media’s penchant for highlighting negative news (due to the assumption that good news doesn’t attract as much attention), there are several factors that could explain reporters’ willingness to comment on forecasts of bearish air for Democrats.

First, the media remains terrified of accusations of liberal bias. The constant course correction in the name of illusory ‘balance’ leads to the parroting of right-wing talking points.

Second, the media is often a prisoner of historical trends. The first interim always goes to the party without power; the president’s bad ratings always mean bad news for his party; and a recession always following an interest rate hike. The problem is that “always” is rarely, if ever, accurate. (For example, the Republicans under George W. Bush did well in their first midterm elections.)

Besides, it’s different now. The pandemic and the ensuing recession is unlike any other economic event before it. And the cloud that Donald Trump has hung over his party has exerted unique pressure on Republicans in three consecutive elections. Sometimes the past is no guide to the future.

Third, as with their premature obituary for Biden’s first term, the Beltway media is treating the midterms and the economy as the permanent opposition to the White House. They are sure to hear gossip from the White House, but media members consistently refuse to give credit to the sitting president, seeing themselves as professional cynics. If the White House says it’s sunny outside, then it is should means it pours.

Finally, groupthink is a perennial problem in mainstream media. Reporters and editors circulate from one outlet to another; nobody wants to be too far from the consensus; and too many political reporters see everything through the prism of partisan horse racing politics.

All of these factors contribute to confirmation bias. The media starts with an assumption, sifts out conflicting data and duplicates facts that appear to be ‘correct’.

The solution? More diversity in editorials. More expertise in areas other than politics. Less cringing at the threat of attacks from the right and less persistent negativity. These changes would serve the media and the country well.

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