Public Opinion: You are v-e-r-y tired. . . . You will believe everything I say. . . . Just keep your eye on President Bush's sinking polls. . . . Pay no attention to that low jobless rate . . . or the shrinking budget deficit . . . or the record Dow.
That, it seems, is the spell that's again been cast over a strangely receptive public as the Nov. 7 election nears. Despite an economic boom that's nothing short of amazing, especially given the obstacles it's had to overcome, many Americans still think we're on the verge of recession. Or at least that's what some polls say.
Why the disconnect? We keep scratching our heads. Beyond the grumbling over gas prices and some concern about what lies ahead in the war on terror, the only thing we can come up with is the unremittingly negative coverage the economy gets in the mainstream media.
You'd think that after a while people would put two and two together — that if things are pretty good for them and most people they know, the economy itself must be pretty good, despite what they read in the papers or hear on TV.
How do we know there's a disconnect? Because we see it in our own polling. When we ask Americans about their own financial situations, they're upbeat. When we ask what they think of the economy in general, the response is much less bullish.
In our October survey, the personal finance index stood at 60.6 — well above the 50 level that separates optimism from pessimism. Our overall economic optimism index registered only 52.4.
Some might say: How about the lower-income people who supposedly are falling further and further behind, or the middle class that's forever being "squeezed"? Well, as the accompanying charts show, they too are positive about their own situations but have their doubts about the rest of us.
This "cognitive dissonance" tends to be more pronounced at election time, perhaps because that's when coverage tends to get more biased. Examples from past election cycles abound.
In 2004, when the Bush-Kerry race was heating up, we couldn't help notice all the stories about trouble in the Midwest, and especially in key manufacturing states like Ohio, where the recovery that began two years earlier was said to be a no-show.
That's funny, we thought at the time. Data showed the factory sector expanding for the 12th month in a row and employment at a 31-year high. But with Bush in office and John Kerry polling well, the media weren't about to let facts get in the way of a good woe-is-us tale.
It was just the opposite in 2000, when Bush and Dick Cheney were campaigning to replace Bill Clinton and Al Gore, and had the nerve to point out the economy seemed to be slowing. Never mind the data indicated as much, or that stocks had been signaling a downturn since they topped that spring.
Eight years earlier, when George Bush Sr. was in the White House, and Clinton, Gore and 90% of the national media wanted him out, it was all about "the economy, stupid." Though we were in the 18th month of expansion, and activity in the latest quarter was the strongest in three years, 92% of stories written about the economy in that stretch were negative.
The negative coverage dried up as soon as Clinton and Gore were elected. Only 14% of stories in November 1992 were negative vs. 90% the month before.
In 2006? Once again, there's no shortage of anecdotal evidence. Typical was the one we cited last week, when both CBS and CNN took the best piece of economic news in a long time — the plunge in gas prices — and turned it into an election-year conspiracy of George Bush and Big Oil.
For fresh empirical evidence, the Business & Media Institute, admittedly a right-leaning group that audits coverage of the free enterprise system, just released a study of how the TV networks covered what was a strong economy in the 12 months ended in July. Among its findings:
• More than twice as many stories and briefs focused on negative aspects of the economy (62%) vs. positive (31%). "News broadcasts dwelled on one prospective cataclysm after another, yet each time the economy continued unfazed," BMI said.
• Bad news was stressed on all three networks (CBS, NBC and ABC) and appeared in full-length stories twice as often as in shorter items.
• Ordinary people and businessmen whom reporters used to underscore negative stories outnumbered those telling positive stories by a 3-to-1 ratio.
• CBS' coverage was easily the most slanted. More than 80% of its full-length stories on its "Evening News" delivered a negative view of the economy.
• Generally speaking, "the U.S. economy has been depicted as one major event away from collapse on all three evening news shows."