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REPORT: Economists Shut Out Of Debt-Ceiling Debate

Only 4.1 Percent Of Cable Guests Were Actual Economists

A Media Matters analysis of evening cable news programs reveals that just 4.1 percent of guests who discussed the debt-ceiling debate were actual economists. This lack of credible economic experts helped create a media environment in which political and media figures could spread misinformation.

  • On August 2, President Obama signed the Budget Control Act, a controversial compromise bill that raised the nation's debt ceiling in order to avoid default while also cutting government spending by hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade.

    Many economists criticized the deal, saying that budget cuts would only weaken the economy and further drive up unemployment. But their voices were largely absent from CNN's, Fox News', and MSNBC's coverage of the debt-ceiling negotiations.

    Of the 1,258 guest appearances during segments that discussed the issue in the month leading up to the debt deal, only 52 -- or 4.1 percent -- were made by economists.

    View a larger chart here.

    The definition of “economist” used in this study is broad -- it includes any guest with an advanced degree in economics or who has served as an economics professor at the college or university level. It also includes guests who have worked as government economists (such as Ben Stein, who formerly “worked as an economist at The Department of Commerce”).

    These results are similar to a February 2009 Media Matters report showing that only 6 percent of guest appearances discussing the stimulus bill on cable news programs and network Sunday shows were made by economists. At the time, the lack of economic expertise on television helped lead to massive amounts of conservative misinformation, including the widely repeated falsehood that government spending wouldn't stimulate economic growth and employment.

    During the 2011 debt-ceiling debate, hundreds of non-economists appeared on cable news. Some suggested that fiscal austerity would somehow create jobs and spur economic growth. While criticizing Speaker of the House John Boehner on the July 12 edition of MSNBC Live, Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips said: “I'd like to see him do the job that the American people actually put him in that office to do -- cut spending, cut taxes, stimulate the economy. Get us out of the Obama depression.” On the July 14 episode of On the Record with Greta Van Susteren, Republican Representative Paul Ryan proposed to “cut more than a dollar's worth of spending” for “every dollar you want to raise the debt limit.” Ryan added, “The debt is hurting the economy today. It's hurting job creation today.”

    This misdirection apparently had consequences. An August Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 49 percent of respondents supported cutting government spending as a means to stimulate the economy -- far more than those who supported actual stimulative policies like extending unemployment benefits and extending the payroll tax cut.

    On the rare occasions when the media gave credible economists a voice in the debate, the public heard a very different analysis. Asked about the effects of spending cuts on the U.S. economy, PIMCO CEO Mohamed El-Erian (who holds a Ph. D. in economics) said on the July 31 broadcast of ABC's This Week, “We have a very weak economy, so withdrawing more spending at this stage will make it even weaker.” Two days later on CNN, El-Erian provided a grim assessment of the final debt deal: “We're worse off in terms of economic outlook. Growth will be lower. Unemployment will be higher. And ironically, we're worse off in terms of medium term fiscal solvency because we haven't done much to the debt but we're undermining our ability to grow out of the debt.”

    On July 31, The New York Times reported that economists were warning that the spending cuts in the debt deal might result in “the reversal of a faltering recovery.” The Times noted that “some conservative economists argue ... the immediate impact” of the debt deal “could be positive,” but the Times also added:

    Economists who have examined the historical record, however, say the evidence is clear that the immediate impact of spending cuts outweighs any short-term benefits to confidence.

    “When you look at the history of these things, the finding is that we shouldn't be kidding ourselves,” said Paolo Mauro, chief of the fiscal affairs department at the International Monetary Fund and the editor of a book of case studies, “Chipping Away at Public Debt.” “When you do fiscal adjustment in the near term, it does have an adverse impact on economic growth.”

    Economist Roberton Williams, senior fellow for the non-partisan Tax Policy Center, told the Los Angeles Times, “By itself, [the debt deal] doesn't do anything to solve the problems down the road.” The Times also quoted an economist warning that the spending cuts beginning in 2012 would hinder the economic recovery:

    The budget deal shaves just $25 billion in federal discretionary spending in 2012, leaving most of the cuts in later years. But even that relatively modest amount “would certainly create another headwind for the economy,” said Gary Schlossberg, senior economist at Wells Capital Management in San Francisco.

    Unfortunately, out of 1,258 total guest appearances by individuals who discussed the debt issue on the 16 shows we analyzed, only 4.1 percent (52) were economists.

    Individually, each network performed poorly in this measure: Economists accounted for 5.4 percent of guest appearances on CNN, 2.3 percent on Fox News, and 5.3 percent on MSNBC. Most of the economist appearances on Fox occurred on Your World with Neil Cavuto.

    A list of economists who appeared on cable shows can be found here.

    In contrast, cable news gave plenty of time to politicians, administration officials, political party officials, and political strategists. Overall, 47.3 percent (595) of the 1,258 total guest appearances by individuals discussing debt issues were made by political figures. By network, 47.7 percent of CNN's, 46.9 percent of Fox's, and 47.3 percent of MSNBC's guest appearances were made by political figures.

    View a larger chart here.


    Media Matters conducted a Nexis search of transcripts of evening (defined as 5 p.m. through 11 p.m.) programs on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC from July 2 (the beginning of talks on a “Grand Bargain” between President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner) through August 2 (when Obama signed the Budget Control Act of 2011). We identified and reviewed all segments that included any of the following keywords: debt, deficit, budget, spending, cuts, or recession. When transcripts were incomplete, we reviewed video.

    The following programs were included in the data: The Situation Room, John King USA, In the Arena, Piers Morgan, Anderson Cooper 360, The Five, Special Report with Bret Baier, The O'Reilly Factor, Hannity, On the Record with Greta Van Susteren, Hardball with Chris Matthews, the 6 p.m. broadcast of MSNBC Live, The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell, The Rachel Maddow Show, and The Ed Show with Ed Schultz. Under the assumption that Your World with Neil Cavuto -- which airs at 4 p.m. -- would likely feature more economists than other Fox News shows, we also included that program in the study. Media Matters did not include the 7 p.m. rerun of MSNBC's Hardball. We also did not include Fox News' Fox Report with Shepard Smith, which is not available in the Nexis database.

    Media Matters counted all guest appearances during segments that offered substantial discussion of the debt-ceiling debate. We did not include news packages, teasers, clips of news events, or straight reporting about the debt deal.

    We used bios, profiles, resumes, and news stories available online to determine as best we could each guest's educational background and professional experience.

    We defined an economist as someone who either holds an advanced degree in economics or has served as an economics professor at the college or university level. We counted Ben Stein (who formerly “worked as an economist at The Department of Commerce”) and Gene Sperling (who is the “National Economic Advisor and Director of the National Economic Council”) as economists. We did not count Fox Business host Stuart Varney, who appeared six times on Fox to discuss the debt ceiling, as an economist. Varney's bio states that he “graduated from the London School of Economics,” and he has sometimes been described as an “economist.” Because it was unclear whether Varney holds an advanced degree in economics, we emailed him. He did not respond prior to publication.

    Media Matters defined a political guest as any former or current elected government official or political appointee, any political strategist, or any former or current political party official (such as former Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele).

    For economists who also fell under the definition of a political guest (such as former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich), Media Matters coded those guests only as economists.

    A complete list of all data can be found here.

    Media Matters researcher Marcus Feldman and interns Jessica Torres and Rebecca Weinstein contributed to this report.