Media coverage of economic news has declined sharply over the past three months.
Media Matters research reveals a roughly 80 percent cumulative decline in segments dedicated to economic issues from April 1 through June 30. The week of the Boston Marathon bombings yielded zero news segments dedicated to economic coverage. Media diverted from its traditional lineup to cover the attack and ensuing manhunt. Even after accounting for this outlier in the data, economic coverage across the three major cable and broadcast networks displayed a strong negative trend.
According to a Gallup survey released June 28, Americans are most concerned about the economy when thinking about this nation's future. Economic issues remain at the forefront of American public interest polling, while media focus elsewhere.
American's concerns about the economy are not unfounded. Through the first quarter of 2013, the United States economy is on pace to produce $843 billion less than its ideal economic potential. This "output gap" is estimated to have cost the economy more than $4.6 trillion since the onset of the recession.
One major story consistently overlooked in the media is the pervasive negative effect of a weak economic recovery. Television pundits are often quick to pronounce that individual monthly job growth is insufficient but rarely discuss why those numbers are insufficient or what policy changes might be enacted to spur growth.
The primary factor holding back economic growth has been so-called "fiscal drag," or the economic policies out of Washington that emphasize austerity and deficit reduction ahead of stimulus and growth. Economists agree that fiscal austerity harms growth and has slowed economic recovery, but television news has largely ignored these expert opinions.
Despite the emergence of internet-based alternatives, television remains the primary news source for most Americans. According to a recent Gallup survey, 55 percent of Americans rely on television for current events. With finite time and resources to report developments, and with an industry-wide focus on alleged Washington "scandals," huge portions of the American public are not exposed to valuable economic coverage.
Broadcast and cable evening news coverage touched upon a variety of economic topics, including deficit reduction, economic growth, and entitlement reform throughout the second quarter of 2013. A Media Matters analysis shows that many segments lacked proper context or input from economists, while some topics went largely underreported.
Cable and television news outlets have overwhelmingly presented Social Security as a program that should be cut, giving little to no airtime for proposals that would instead strengthen the program for beneficiaries.
Media Matters research revealed significant media selection bias in the Social Security debate. Through the first six months of 2013, the three largest broadcast and cable news networks dedicated nearly 300 segments to discussions of Social Security. More than two-thirds of those segments framed the entire Social Security debate as a problem of long-term solvency and the national debt, which can only be solved through drastic cuts to beneficiaries.
Media's heavy focus on "fixing" the solvency of the program belies the fact that Social Security is funded for at least the next two decades.
On May 31, the Social Security Board of Trustees submitted its annual report to members of Congress and the White House, which concluded that Social Security "does not face an immediate crisis," as noted by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities' summary of the report. The report recommends that lawmakers prudently address long-term solvency concerns, but need not immediately adopt deep benefit cuts.
The Economic Policy Institute argued, contrary to most news coverage, that the challenges facing Social Security are "modest and manageable." Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman had a similar reaction to the latest Social Security report, noting "the system will be able to pay most of its scheduled benefits as far as the eye can see." Krugman also recognized the irrationality of arguments made by those who claim to want to save Social Security from eventual collapse:
The risk is that we might, at some point in the future, have to cut benefits; to avoid this risk of future benefit cuts, we are supposed to act pre-emptively by...cutting future benefits. What problem, exactly, are we solving here?
While media coverage of Social Security paints the debate of the program as one-sided, members of Congress have put forth plans that would expand the program through need-based benefit increases and tax reform.
The most prominent Social Security expansion proposal involves raising the payroll tax cap from its current $113,700 annual limit. The payroll tax is the primary source of revenue for Social Security. A report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research revealed that placing a cap on taxable income causes low wage workers to pay higher effective rates than high wage workers. Eliminating the payroll tax cap would more evenly distribute payroll taxes to all workers while extending the life of the Social Security trust fund indefinitely.
In January 2013, the National Academy of Social Insurance conducted a comprehensive survey of American attitudes toward various Social Security reform proposals. The data revealed overwhelming support for lifting or raising the payroll tax cap, while respondents reported significant opposition to benefit cuts, including raising the retirement age and decreasing cost of living adjustments through chained CPI.
The Center for American Progress has also argued in favor of expanding Social Security through tax reform and increasing outlays to those beneficiaries who most rely on the program.
News segments devoted to the alleged demise of Social Security and other benefit programs consistently overlook these alternative proposals aimed at strengthening -- rather than cutting -- the program for beneficiaries.
Throughout the first half of 2013, broadcast and cable nightly news overwhelmingly discussed Social Security in an unbalanced and negative light by repeatedly insisting that the program is insolvent, must be cut, or poses a risk to long-term fiscal security.
Evening cable and network news have almost completely ignored the Supreme Court's sweeping decision in American Express v. Italian Colors, a 5-3 decision that further privatizes and restricts access to justice for everyday Americans by allowing corporations to immunize themselves from judicial review.
Despite the fact that American Express was a highly contentious pro-business opinion by the conservative bloc of the Supreme Court - even by their extremely corporate-friendly standards - a Media Matters search of Nexis transcripts reveals that with the exception of one brief non-primetime mention on PBS, not one cable or network evening news show addressed the decision.
Contract law has long held that certain unconscionable agreements are unenforceable. Contractual clauses are traditionally voided if they eliminate victims' ability to enforce their statutory rights, making Justice Antonin Scalia's American Express opinion to the contrary "a betrayal of our precedents, and of federal statutes like the antitrust laws," according to Justice Elena Kagan's scathing dissent.
In this case, American Express used its monopoly powers over a group of small business owners to force them to accept exorbitant credit card fees in a seemingly blatant violation of antitrust statutes. When these small businesses grouped together to pursue a class action protecting their consumer rights, American Express pointed to a clause in the card agreement that not only blocked access to the courts in favor of forced arbitration, it also prohibited plaintiffs from joining together in this mandatory forum.
But because of the high cost of bringing actions against this well-defended corporation, individual claims are financially prohibitive, leaving the small businesses without "effective vindication" of their federal rights under antitrust law. Not only are these mandatory arbitration clauses forcing victims of corporate abuse to forego the courts in favor of privatized (and confidential) justice, they are barred from making it remotely affordable. From Justice Kagan's dissent:
Here is the nutshell version of this case, unfortunately obscured in the Court's decision. The owner of a small restaurant (Italian Colors) thinks that American Express (Amex) has used its monopoly power to force merchants to accept a form contract violating the antitrust laws. The restaurateur wants to challenge the allegedly unlawful provision (imposing a tying arrangement), but the same contract's arbitration clause prevents him from doing so. That term imposes a variety of procedural bars that would make pursuit of the antitrust claim a fool's errand. So if the arbitration clause is enforceable, Amex has insulated itself from antitrust liability--even if it has in fact violated the law. The monopolist gets to use its monopoly power to insist on a contract effectively depriving its victims of all legal recourse.
And here is the nutshell version of today's opinion, admirably flaunted rather than camouflaged: Too darn bad.
A study of wildfire coverage from April through July 1 finds that print and TV media only mentioned climate change in 6 percent of coverage, although this was double the amount of coverage from a year ago. While many factors must come together for wildfires to occur, climate change has led to hotter and drier conditions in parts of the West that have increased the risk of wildfires.
In recent weeks, Sunday morning network news programs have virtually ignored economic issues, instead devoting hours of coverage to the September attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya; improper targeting of conservative nonprofits by the Internal Revenue Service; controversial federal investigations of national security leaks; and new revelations about National Security Agency surveillance programs.
Cable and network news outlets barely covered the announcement that General Motors will return to the Standard & Poor's 500, a landmark achievement for the company that was booted from the index after filing for bankruptcy four years ago.
Media coverage of the effects of across-the-board spending cuts has narrowly focused on Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) furloughs, largely ignoring the broad effects of cuts on other programs and agencies.
On April 26, the House of Representatives approved legislation to end furloughs at the FAA, which had caused significant flight delays. The agency had previously warned that automatic spending cuts would force rolling furloughs of roughly 15,000 air traffic controllers and other staff.
In the week leading up to the House vote, media was heavily focused on the effects of FAA furloughs. A Media Matters analysis found that in the week of April 22 to April 28, 49 cable and broadcast evening news segments mentioned the automatic budget cuts. These segments offered little analysis beyond highlighting the long lines and flight delays expected at airports.
Media's focus on the effects of budget cuts in the past two months has largely been confined to discussing effects on the FAA. On May 24, "Furlough Friday", four federal agencies -- the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) -- forced 115,000 employees to take a day of unpaid leave. As reported by Politico, this forced closure represented the "largest nonweather related partial government shutdown in recent memory."
Despite the impact of "Furlough Friday" on the ability of federal agencies to operate, media remained largely silent. Broadcast and cable news segments were seven times more likely to cover sequestration during the week of FAA furloughs than the week of EPA, HUD, IRS and OMB furloughs. The disparity comes despite the latter round of forced leave affecting nearly eight times more workers across a broader range of government.
Despite the media's lack of coverage, sequestration is still in place and all federal agencies are being forced to cut corners. The budget cuts even altered Memorial Day celebrations across the country over the holiday weekend.
The long-term effects of fiscal austerity can be seen from low-income school closures to impaired military readiness. Another 700,000 federal employees -- mostly in the Department of Defense -- will be forced to take unpaid leave through the remainder of the year.
Media coverage of the automatic spending cuts commonly known as sequestration has tapered off since the policies went into effect on March 1. This drop in coverage comes as more Americans report having personally felt the effects of the cuts.
The news that electric carmaker Tesla Motors has repaid its federal loan early is being ignored by some of the same outlets that tried to make the bankrupt solar company Solyndra the face of the Obama administration's green initiatives -- including ABC, which suggested Tesla wouldn't be able to repay its loan.
On Wednesday, Tesla announced that it was paying back its $465 million Department of Energy loan with interest. The move came about nine years ahead of schedule and is expected to net taxpayers somewhere in the range of $15 to $26 million. Once derided as a "loser" by then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney and a "failure" by Fox News, Tesla is now profitable and critically-acclaimed.
Yet many in the media have ignored Tesla's loan repayment, which flies in the face of the media narrative that Solyndra was representative of the Department of Energy's loan guarantee program. Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, ABC and NBC have so far failed to cover Tesla's loan repayment (CBS gave a news brief on its morning news show). An analysis by Media Matters showed that those same outlets (excluding CBS) devoted 188 segments totaling over 10 hours to Solyndra in the month after the company suspended operations, as seen in these charts comparing coverage to that surrounding a government corruption case at the Minerals Management Service and a report on military contracting waste and fraud:
The bout of positive news surrounding Tesla follows several skeptical media reports about its fortunes. In 2011, ABC suggested that "Tesla's business plan doesn't work" and thus it wouldn't repay its loan:
Since that segment, a Nexis search shows that neither Nightline nor any other primetime ABC News show has followed up with a report on the company's fortunes.
UPDATE (5/31/13): On the May 30 edition of The Last Word With Lawrence O'Donnell, MSNBC covered Tesla's loan repayment in a report on the successes of the clean energy loan programs. The only other coverage of the loan repayment from the networks above came on the May 25 edition of Fox News' The Journal Editorial Report, when Wall Street Journal editorial board member Kimberly Strassel mentioned it while suggesting Tesla might not be "sustainable" in the long run.
From the May 19 edition of NBC's Meet the Press:
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Economic media coverage has been heavily focused on advocating for deficit reduction, even as deficits decline and the federal government posts a surplus.
A Media Matters analysis on economic news coverage in the month of April found that media continued their long-established focus on deficit reduction. In 45 of 123 total segments discussing policy impacts on the economy, guests or hosts on network and cable news advocated for deficit reduction as a priority.
Calls for deficit reduction beat out mentions of other economic issues, most notably the need for economic growth and job creation, and economic inequality.
The continued focus on deficit reduction is particularly interesting given the fact that, in the month of April, the federal government posted the largest budget surplus in five years. Furthermore, according to the Congressional Budget Office, current and projected deficits are expected to decline in coming years.
Even conservatives have recently acknowledged that deficit reduction is not the country's most pressing economic issue. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), agreeing with President Obama, stated that the country is not facing an immediate debt crisis, a notion shared by prominent Democrats. And John Makin, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, remarked that Congress has already enacted enough deficit reduction.
Meanwhile, economists have expressed concerns over media's focus on deficits, instead calling attention to resolving the very real immediate crisis of unemployment. Economist Jared Bernstein recently began a series on the path to full employment, and numerous other economists have advocated increased short-term spending to bolster economic growth and job creation.
Furthermore, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich has even pointed out that focusing on jobs and growth -- not spending cuts -- provides an effective avenue for deficit reduction.
Media outlets largely ignored economic inequality in discussions about the overall economy, despite mounting evidence suggesting that the problem has increased in recent years.
While media have been quick to highlight ostensibly positive gains for the economy -- notably that the Dow Jones Industrial reached 15,000 for the first time in its history, GDP grew by 2.5 percent in the first quarter of 2013, and unemployment for April edged down to 7.5 percent -- signs of rising income inequality have gone largely unmentioned.
According to a recent Media Matters analysis, economic coverage for the month of April barely mentioned issues of inequality. In 123 total segments discussing policy effects on the macroeconomy, only 12 touched upon the growing disparity in economic gains for the rich and the poor.
The discrepancy in covering economic inequality stretched across all major outlets. ABC, CBS, and NBC provided no mentions of the problem. MSNBC devoted the most coverage, with roughly 25 percent of segments on the economy discussing rising inequality.
While the media have pushed inequality out of the spotlight, mounting evidence suggests that the problem is getting worse.
As for the rising stock market, while any gains should be viewed as a positive for the economy as a whole, the distribution of those gains paints a less than perfect picture. According to a Gallup poll, 52 percent of Americans currently hold stocks, a number that has been consistently declining in recent years.
Other indicators highlight the deep-seated nature of economic inequality. According to Congressional Budget Office data, from 1979 to 2007 the top one percent of income earners have seen their after-tax share of total income rise by more than 120 percent, while the bottom 20 percent of earners have seen that share decline by almost 30 percent.
And according to an analysis by journalist David Cay Johnston, economic gains in recent history show an even darker reality - from 2009 to 2011, 149 percent of increased income was reaped by the top 10 percent of earners.
Meanwhile, the economy is currently suffering from an epidemic of long-term unemployed workers, which, as noted in a Bloomberg editorial, could create a permanent underclass of workers unable to reenter the labor force.
Some of the media's attention -- albeit very little -- has focused on the inequitable impact of sequestration on low-income individuals. The overwhelming majority of discussion of inequality in April, most notably on MSNBC, focused on Congress' unwillingness to mitigate the impacts of sequestration of the poor, while members were seemingly enthusiastic to correct inconveniences for those at the upper end of the income scale.
While some attention has been given to economic inequality, the broader trend in media is to ignore the issue, preferring instead to focus on the widely recognized non-issue of short-term deficit and debt reduction.
Evening news coverage throughout April touched upon several economic issues, including income inequality, deficit reduction, and entitlement cuts. A Media Matters analysis of this coverage reveals that many of these segments lacked proper context or necessary input from economists, while some networks ignored certain issues entirely.