Veteran economics reporters and columnists are strongly criticizing conservative claims that the unemployment data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics Friday was manipulated to benefit President Obama politically, calling such allegations “implausible” and “unfounded.”
Shortly after the BLS announced that the unemployment rate had fallen to 7.8%, former GE CEO Jack Welch tweeted, “Unbelievable jobs numbers..these Chicago guys will do anything..can't debate so change numbers.” Welch's tweet was quickly highlighted by the Drudge Report. Since then, conservative media figures, including multiple Fox News personalities, have tried to cast doubt on the new jobs numbers.
But experienced financial journalists at outlets like The New York Times and The Economist say the contention that the new unemployment rate is fraudulent is not based on any valid proof.
“It is completely implausible to me that they would actively rig the thing to help Obama,” said Joe Nocera, New York Times business columnist. “The guys are green eye-shaded career bureaucrats who have no particular vested interest one way or another in who wins the presidential election.”
Nocera was referring to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which compiles the unemployment rates and has no political ties to the White House.
“They come out of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, if you are going to cook them, how exactly would you go about it, it is pretty implausible that the career bureaucrats at the Bureau would cook the books for Obama,” Nocera added. “Everybody likes a conspiracy theory, but it is hard to understand how they would do it.”
Jesse Eisinger, senior reporter for finance at ProPublica and a former seven-year Wall Street Journal reporter, agreed.
“This is complete fantasy,” he said about the claims of political influence. “It is yet another one of these right-wing denialist ideas. They're perennial ideas that government statistics are manipulated. These are flawed measures, certainly, but the flaws are not due to any partisanship ... These are done by reputable civil servants. There is almost no way that these numbers could be manipulated for political gain. It doesn't hold up in any way you think about it.”
Martin Wolk, executive business editor for NBC News Digital, also called such claims baseless.
“I've been covering economics for a long time and I have been watching these reports come out every month and I talk to these economists and I think that those claims are unfounded,” Wolk said in an interview Friday. “They do the best to present those claims honestly. I have never seen a pattern where the numbers consistently favor one party or another. I would defy anyone to find a pattern in those numbers that is politically motivated.”
Added David Cay Johnston, a former New York Times economics reporter and author of many books on taxes and business:
“This claim gets made often. It has never been shown to have any basis in fact afterward during previous administrations.”
Kevin Hall, McClatchy's national economic correspondent and president of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, called Welch's claim “mindboggling.”
“This is a guy who is a business guru, he's a lion of the industry. For him to say something as outrageous as this without any substantiation, is kind of, well, my first thought was maybe his [Twitter] account was hacked,” Hall said. “He is brash and outspoken, but what came out today is pretty outrageous.”
Hall also said such claims against the Bureau of Labor Statistics impugn the reputation of a very trusted agency.
“It is really unfortunate because people already have distrust of government and politicians, and to take something that has been done for 70 years and is pretty set in stone and allege without any substantiation that it is somehow corrupt is pretty bad,” Hall said. “If you understand how these statistics are compiled there is nothing new that is being done here. These are government economists.”
Noting the political influence on the claims, Hall said: “This is the silly season, but there used to be some limit to what you'd say, some line you didn't cross and that is why this is so unfortunate. If you look at countries that do manipulate their numbers like China, we've had long-established practices of many, many years and no one has ever contested this as somehow fraud-ridden.”
William Schomberg, economics and markets editor for the Americas at Reuters, also defended the statistics:
“The U.S. Government statistics office takes its job seriously and I have never seen any evidence that it is sensitive to any political influence.”
For Greg Ip, U.S economics editor for The Economist, manipulation of the statistics is not a valid claim.
“I have been covering these reports for well over a decade,” Ip wrote in an email. “I cannot recall a single instance of the data being manipulated by anyone outside the BLS or even a credible accusation of it. The process, in my experience, is carried out with excruciating professionalism. BLS makes mistakes but they are of the nature of what happens when trying to measure a gigantic economy with precision. I would add that it's funny to raise accusations of manipulation now. Where were they when the numbers the morning after Obama's convention speech were horrible?”
Steve Pearlstein, a Pulitzer Prize-winning business and economics columnist for The Washington Post, compared such claims to Nixonian paranoia.
“Richard Nixon was the last person who would claim that the Bureau of Labor Statistics was a political organization, and he was president at the time,” Pearlstein said. “There is no evidence of it, these are just professional people who go to work every day, do their job and go home and are proud of the fact that they do their job and don't take any political direction from people.”
He called allegations of manipulation “a slur and a libel on hardworking, dedicated and competent public servants.”