In the summer of 1981, some six months after Ronald Reagan took office, the U.S. economy stopped growing and began to contract. Over the ensuing year-and-a-half the country experienced a recession of about average intensity and duration for the postwar period. Real gross national product contracted by 2.5 percent. The unemployment rate rose from 7.2 percent to 10.8 percent. In December 1982, when contraction gave way to recovery, 12 million Americans were out of work.
The recession, naturally, was covered intensively by the press, including the television networks’ nightly news programs. Night after night, month after month, they reported the latest economic statistics, which generally painted a picture of growing millions out of work, sagging morale, and a still substantial (though declining) inflation rate. Having rehearsed the essential statistics, the anchormen would then switch to filmed reports from correspondents in the field showing the scenes and replaying the sounds of plants being closed and people losing jobs or looking for work. In this period, the economic news was unrelievedly discouraging. But so were the economic conditions it reflected.
In December 1982, the economy started growing again, and during the twelve months that followed, the country experienced an economic recovery and expansion whose size once again made it about average for postwar expansions. Real gross national product rose by 6.2 percent, total employment grew by 3.9 million, unemployment fell to 8.2 percent, and one measure of inflation, the producer-price index, rose by 0.6 percent—the smallest increase since 1964. Automobile sales grew smartly, rising 18 percent above the previous year’s depressed level. Real per-capita after-tax income went up by 5.3 percent, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit record highs.
But as the economy itself began growing again, the networks’ economic coverage became curiously schizophrenic, according to a study conducted by the Institute of Applied Economics, a small New York research group that videotaped and analyzed every economic news story on the three network nightly news programs from July 1 through December 31, 1983. The Institute’s analysts identified two main types of economic news stories. One genre—there were from four to fifteen of these per month in the period under study—was the news item, often short, that in the typical case reported freshly released economic statistics. Of these, nearly all (about 95 percent) conveyed a positive impression: things in the economy were getting better, the data reflected the improving trend, and the stories reflected the data.
A second genre of news story identified in the study was the longer, in-depth, interpretative news analysis, typically narrated by a reporter in the field. These stories took as their point of departure some event of the day; often the “news peg” was the announcement of upward movement in an economic indicator. But having quickly noted the news peg, the stories would then turn to their real purpose—delving beneath the surface of the news to identify some larger, more meaningful economic reality or trend. According to the study, the networks ran 104 of these longer, more analytic, less event-oriented news pieces during the second half of 1983. Of these stories, 89, or about 85 percent, featured bad news, emphasizing not any reassuring resurgence of economic growth or welcome increase in employment, but the recession’s lingering ill effects, or the persistence of structural economic problems that demanded attention now that the recession had passed.
Their length and documentary character made this second group of stories the dominant body of network economic-news coverage—and the impression they conveyed was strongly negative. The economy, they suggested, though perhaps technically in recovery, was not really much better. Major problems of hunger, chronic unemployment, and regional and structural stagnation remained. The pains and scars of a long recession were far from forgotten. Presiding over the entire worrisome situation, these stories suggested, was an uncaring, politically manipulative administration that sought political advantage in the nation’s recovery from a recession which the administration’s policies had probably made worse.
Overall, then, as the study concludes: “The economic news was good in the second half of 1983. The coverage on network television was still in recession.”
A typical example of this pattern was broadcast on December 2, 1983, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced preliminary unemployment statistics for November. On ABC, senior economics correspondent Dan Cordtz summarized the news with his customary—and, alas, among the men and women of television news, unique—precision and generosity:
Unemployment fell significantly last month for almost every category of worker. . . . And employment went up in most of the 186 different industries on which the government collects statistics. In just two months, the total number of unemployed Americans has dropped by well over a million. That’s a remarkable decline, and a sign of how surprisingly strong the economic recovery is. At the rate things are going, unemployment may not even be a political issue by the time election day rolls around next year.
Picking up on Cordtz’s theme, anchorman Peter Jennings observed, “The White House called the drop in unemployment ‘remarkable,’ and President Reagan was obviously pleased.” Film showed a beaming Ronald Reagan exulting before a White House press conference earlier that day, “We’re a little ahead of schedule on the recovery.” Jennings, broadcasting from Chicago, concluded the segment by noting, “Here in the Midwest, a lot of people have still been left behind, and a little later we’ll have a report on them.”
Soon Jennings was back: “And now those unemployment figures again. . . . Here in Illinois, once again, there are many families for whom the statistics, as good as they are, have little meaning. This week we met a couple of them.” One was Jack Lauderbach, forty-eight, whom we watched jogging along the streets of his “fairly well-to-do Chicago suburb” on a cold winter day. “He’d worked hard all his life, he’d become a successful executive—the American dream, if you will, become reality. . . . Twenty months ago, the dream began to dissolve” when he was fired as a $39,000-a-year personnel director of the Brunswick Corporation during a reorganization. We also met Frank Foster, thirty-three, who was raking leaves in the front yard of his rented house in an attractive neighborhood in Rockford, Illinois. Over a decade he had worked his way up in the local Borg-Warner automobile-parts factory to an $11-an-hour job as a stock clerk. “A year and a half ago, he lost his job. His dream dissolved as well.” Both men, Jennings informed us, were “among the nation’s chronically unemployed. That’s a word usually applied to illness. It means prolonged, and lingering. Frank and Jack never expected to be out of work.”
Foster, a cheerful, modest, well-spoken father of two who left school early to work his way up in the company, had lost his house; the bank foreclosed when he and his wife, also unemployed, were unable to meet the mortgage payments. “Losing their own home, more than anything else, was an attack on the status they’d worked for,” said Jennings. “Their faith in the American dream has been badly shaken.” Mrs. Foster, now also out of work, explained: “The way America was, you could start at the bottom and go up. . . . Now there’s not too much to do to start at the bottom.” Jennings added that “now could be a particularly bad time for the Fosters.” A Johns Hopkins University psychologist was then brought on to say of chronically unemployed people like the Fosters, “It is exactly when things seem to be getting better for other people that they find themselves isolated.”
Lauderbach, we then discovered, had sent out 2,500 resumes (we saw him typing on his sleek Olivetti electric); “so far, no success.” With his severance pay and unemployment insurance exhausted, his wife had taken two jobs, and his mother, who lives with him, was contributing her Social Security check. “In this family, it isn’t that there’s no food, it’s the price Jack pays in dignity,” Jennings said. He showed film of Jack explaining that “if you give up, you’re dead,” and admitting that though “it’s dumb, and I’ll never do it,” he has thought of suicide (“taking the pipe,” he called it).
Jennings noted pointedly that the recent drop in unemployment “hasn’t solved Jack Lauderbach’s or Frank Foster’s problem.” He said that Louis Ferman, a labor-market expert at the University of Michigan, “expects new faces in the ranks of the chronically unemployed.” Ferman: “It’s no longer that mechanization is only being thrust into the blue-collar world. It’s being thrust all over, top to bottom. Every job is in a sense vulnerable.” Having delivered that gloomy assessment, Jennings gave his two chronically unemployed subjects some parting words. The former stock clerk was optimistic: “Just hope for the best,” he said with his shy smile. The former personnel director was hopeful, too, but there was desperation in his words: “Sooner or later, I’m gonna get something. I mean, I gotta feel that way. If I don’t, you know, I’m gonna take the pipe.”
The Institute for Applied Economics sums up: “A story that began with an 0.4 percent drop in unemployment ended in complete despair and talk of suicide.”
Jennings’s theme was bitter irony—the illusoriness of the economy’s seeming improvement, the persistence of deep and disturbing problems—and it was repeated again and again during this period. The networks ran dozens of long, interpretative stories about hunger, the burden of which was, as CBS’s Lem Tucker put it in December at the end of a long report that closed with videotape of a homeless man sleeping on a subway grate in Washington, D.C.: “The nation is now in its fourteenth month of economic recovery. Unemployment is the lowest it’s been in two years. They [the hungry] are still there.” And it was not just the hungry whose numbers were undiminished amid declining unemployment. In November, an NBC story on unemployment stated, “One of the painful side-effects of high unemployment in many areas was a significant increase in cases of wife beating. However, the problem of battered women doesn’t go away when the economy improves. . . . It is always there.”
Other stories suggested that as the employment situation got better, it only got worse. On July 8, when the Labor Department announced a drop in unemployment, CBS reporter Ray Brady emphasized that there were 1,250,000 new people in the labor market seeking only 350,000 available jobs, and focused on worsening unemployment in certain industrial states. In November, after unemployment fell from 9.2 percent to 8.8 percent in a month, ABC stated that the drop in unemployment was the result of many jobless Americans ending their search for work. Thus, the “news is not as good as it sounds. . . .” Throughout the period, the networks reported numerous cases of reopened plants attracting far more applicants than there were new jobs. The impression created was that such events disappointed more people than they helped. As Peter Jennings put it in August: “There was another of those huge job lines today. . . . In Galesburg, Illinois, 40 jobs opened up at the Admiral Appliance factory; 10,500 people lined up to fill out applications.”
The ultimate irony of all was the one broached by ABC’s Dan Cordtz in August at the close of a long and generally excellent exploration of recession and recovery in two very different states—West Virginia, with the nation’s highest unemployment rate (19.5 percent), and Massachusetts, with one of the nation’s lowest (6 percent). After explaining that the two states were so different because they had such different industries, Cordtz ended by saying: “In a number of states like Massachusetts, the outlook is pretty bright, and that’s clearly good news. But it also means that the gap between the beneficiaries of the recovery and the victims of a lingering recession will grow even wider in the months ahead.” In other words, just as the recession had widened the gap between rich and poor, now the recovery was about to do its part to make the rich richer and the poor poorer.
The effort to see irony and contradiction in the events of the recovery led television news in some instances to make errors of fact. In December, Ford Motor Company, in the wake of an unsuccessful effort to sell its aging Rouge steel subsidiary to the Japanese, announced it would spend $168 million to modernize the facility, the nation’s eighth largest. On CBS, anchorman Dan Rather briefly sketched the Ford announcement, then dismissed it: “That kind of business investment so far hasn’t played a major role in the drama of recovery.” In the lengthy interpretative story that followed, reporter Ray Brady added: “It is the shadow which darkens the eleven-month-old economic recovery. While many companies once again are making huge profits, so far they’ve been reluctant to invest those profits in new plants and new machinery.” In fact, according to Commerce Department data, “nonresidential fixed” investment of precisely the type Ford was undertaking at the Rouge plant was running about 50 percent ahead of the norm for recoveries in the postwar era. In its enthusiasm to deny the reality of the economic expansion, network news not only misrepresented an important trend, but virtually passed over an event of significance in its own right.
The fascination of the networks with the recovery’s weaknesses and the economy’s underlying problems was closely associated with their even more intense interest in the person and policies of Ronald Reagan. To play through the Institute’s videotapes of network economic news stories is to enter a world that revolves around the White House. In this Reaganocentric view of the universe, everything is explained by a few simple equations. In one equation, Reaganomics equals the interests of the rich equals indifference to the poor. In another, the claims of the poor are associated with the press, which is arrayed against Ronald Reagan and his policies.
This way of looking at life is not limited to this particular body of news coverage. In a study of, among other things, network coverage of the first 100 days of 1983, political scientist Michael Robinson and his colleagues identified the same set of identities and oppositions. Of 46 “soft-news” stories about policy issues mentioning Ronald Reagan, 27 were directly negative toward Reagan and just two were positive. As the authors pointed out, the stories were notably critical of Reagan’s economic policies:
In a feature report on Reagan’s first two years, Sam Donaldson and ABC superimposed the President’s picture over a brightly colored visual that traced the phenomenal growth in unemployment during Reagan’s first term. In those same frames, ABC also used audiotape in which Reagan predicted that the recession was over. The report made it perfectly clear that Reaganomics had failed. . . . “There is,” concluded Donaldson, “plenty of room for disagreement over whether Ronald Reagan should receive a passing or failing grade for these past two years. But there is a consensus in Washington that unless he changes his game plan, economically the grade for the next two years will almost certainly be an F.”1
For the networks, therefore, covering economic news consisted in large part of trying to demonstrate that under the influence of Ronald Reagan’s policies, the economy was unfair and/or was performing badly. Alternatively, on occasion it consisted of an effort to show that while the economy was doing all right, Ronald Reagan and his associates were not.
The anti-Reagan animus was vividly demonstrated by two episodes in the second half of 1983. The first occurred on July 20, when CBS ran the only substantial news account I saw on videotape that was unqualifiedly positive about the recovery. The story was introduced by Dan Rather, sitting in front of a graphic display showing a map of the U.S., bedecked with stars-and-stripes bunting, on which were superimposed the words, “Gross National Product”:
“Stunning—the figure leaves us a little breathless.” That was one analyst’s reaction to today’s Commerce Department reports that the gross national product grew at a surprising 8.7 percent annual rate in the year’s second quarter. That’s the fastest pace for economic growth in more than two years.
Then Rather handed the narrative over to reporter Bruce Hall, who proceeded to give a report on the strength of the economy in Atlanta, where resurgent consumer spending was helping the city lead the nation out of the recession.
The entire lengthy story consisted of an exploration of the sources and consequences of Atlanta’s economic buoyancy. A viewer learned that sales at a major shopping mall were up 13 percent, that salesmen could see the increased consumer optimism that was leading people in the area to spend a higher proportion of their disposable income. We were told that consumer spending in the second quarter of the year rose at an annual rate of 10 percent, and that clothing and automobiles were selling particularly well. Hall took his audience on a visit to a dress shop, then showed a couple buying a new Cadillac (for cash). The story was unusual, and interesting, in its willingness to give specifics about the recovery in one city. It was also unusual in not hastening to seek out a dark irony, hidden contradiction, or worrisome underside of Atlanta’s economic comeback. It concluded simply, “With the customers returning, much of Atlanta is beginning to enjoy life just a little bit more.”
Dan Rather immediately reappeared on the screen to introduce the next story:
President Reagan hailed the Commerce Department report today. He said, quote, “Vigorous growth is the surest route to more jobs, declining deficits, and a future filled with opportunity.” It’s hard to quarrel with those words. The problem, Ray Brady explains, lay with some of the President’s statistics.
Only in America would the story that followed be broadcast on national television. For over the next few minutes Brady, using videotape of a Ronald Reagan press conference earlier that day, showed the President making four significant factual errors in a series of extemporaneous, upbeat statements about the economy. And using official government statistics, Brady coolly refuted each error, one by one. The effect was electrifying: it isn’t often that one witnesses a direct, one-on-one confrontation between a journalist and the President of the United States. In the “kicker” that concluded his story, Brady did not try to calm the charged atmosphere, but pressed the attack:
The White House press office said this afternoon the figures could have different interpretations. And an administration source told CBS News the President was obviously doing some fast figuring in his head.
It does not seem accidental that the one lengthy TV story in the period under study that did not deny or qualify the recovery appeared back-to-back with this extraordinary personal challenge to and rebuke of President Reagan by a network newsman. Together, the stories sustained the underlying equations that shaped the content of TV economic news. It seems equally un-coincidental that on the one occasion during the period in question in which a senior member of the Reagan administration stepped out of the in-different-to-the-poor persona to which the press had become accustomed among the President’s men, the networks went to extraordinary lengths to ridicule the effort and deny its reality.
The event in question occurred in August 1983, when the press and the Democrats were harping on the hunger issue and the President was about to appoint a task force to look into it. Apparently as part of the administration’s response to the problem, Secretary of Agriculture John Block and his family conducted an experiment in which they lived for a week on food stamps. The effort was kicked off with a shopping visit and photo-opportunity session in a Bethesda supermarket, where the Blocks bought $54 worth of groceries (food-stamp recipients get $58 worth of stamps), and it ended a week later at a press conference in which the Blocks described their experiences. It was a symbolic gesture, but a meaningful one, since Block is responsible for administering the food-stamp program, and since it is always desirable for someone in such a position to know from experience what his “clients” go through. That it was also a good way to grab a bit of publicity for himself and his boss does not negate its intrinsic value.
CBS’s Dan Rather wasted no time derogating this gesture. This was the first sentence of his introduction to the story: “Agriculture Secretary John Block is a millionaire farmer who owns a $300,000 house in the Washington suburbs.” (Its hostility aside, this statement is breathtaking in its hypocrisy, considering the identity of the man making it. Does Rather mean to invite people commenting on his doings and undoings to preface their remarks with the comparable observation: “Dan Rather is a multimillionaire TV star and national celebrity who lives in a half-a-million-dollar coop on Manhattan’s posh Park Avenue and who often presents himself as caring about the poor”?) Reporter Eric Engberg began his filmed report this way:
The hustle and bustle at this supermarket was the work of Agriculture Secretary John Block’s staff, whose cash crop today was publicity. The Secretary and his wife Sue made a carefully staged trip through the aisles to show that the government’s recommended food-stamp allotment for the poor . . . can provide a nutritious diet.
A week later, when the Blocks reported on their adventures, the people at CBS News were still on the warpath. Rather opened:
A week ago, Agriculture Secretary John Block and his family began a short experiment of living on a food-stamp budget. They did so among much well-orchestrated publicity. Critics insisted that it was all designed mainly to feed the Reagan administration public-relations mill.
This time reporter Engberg was much straighter in covering the Blocks’ experiences, which were instructive. Clearly they had not found the experiment easy, particularly at the beginning, and the Secretary ordered free distribution of a government booklet they had used in planning their food buying, which, they found, was tricky on the tight budget. But Engberg nevertheless invoked the theme of the public-relations gesture again in his kicker, in which he showed videotape of Block, an avid runner, suited up and taking off from the starting line in a one-mile race: “Moving on to run a mile in a promotion of fitness, Block said he felt better qualified to oversee the $12-billion food-stamp program than he did a week ago.”
In all this the networks were acting in part out of liberal political animus. It is impossible to watch these stories without concluding that the journalists writing and performing them had a low opinion of Ronald Reagan, his conservative philosophy, and his economic policies. It is hard not to conclude that their opinion of the man and his program was so low that they were determined to do everything within their legitimate discretion, and perhaps then some, to prevent their reportage from suggesting that the policies worked, or that a recovery was in full swing, or that the President might be in line for some credit for the expansion of the economy.
In part too the networks were acting out of an institutional animus. To watch these stories is to be in the presence of the acts and utterances of people who evidently believe passionately that their mission is to criticize and oppose the President—any President—as if they were members of an opposition party in a parliament. This “adversary” role, as it has been called, is relatively new for American journalism, which historically has thought of itself as politically neutral, save in those rare or anyway limited cases where it serves as a watchdog defending basic concepts of law and personal morality. What this development signifies is the institutionalization of the ideas and attitudes that infected the media in the 1960’s.
Yet the strongest impression these stories leave is not of liberalism or of institutional imperialism, but of opportunism and incoherence. In December, in the wake of the flap created by presidential counselor Edwin Meese when he questioned whether all those being fed in soup kitchens were really in need, ABC ran a long and evidently lengthily prepared story by national correspondent James Wooten intended to get to the bottom of the issue and sort out what is and is not known about hunger in America.
Early on, Wooten put the issue squarely:
By any standard and in any season, America is a generous community. Nearly $20 billion tax dollars this year alone for federal food programs, and another $50 billion at least donated to private charities. . . . So if we’re spending all that much money, why do we still have hungry neighbors?
A good question to which, as it happened, Wooten had no coherent answer. At first he said, quoting food lobbyist Nancy Amadei, that “if there are more people without money, there are more people at risk of hunger.” But in a dramatic conclusion, he shifted course:
Hunger and need and poverty persist in this country, not from a lack of money, but a lack of commitment, not as a consequence of policy, but a product of politics.
The meaning of this statement was never explained. Then once again Wooten shifted course:
And as the debate drones on and on into the presidential campaign, the problem simply grows.
It is hard to avoid the impression, finally, that this confusion, this refusal to lay troubling questions to rest where possible—which had their counterparts in virtually every story in the period under study—reflect the very essence of television journalism in its current form. This is an institution whose behavior seems to do only one thing consistently: create conflict and agitate issues, and present itself as the arbiter of the resulting maelstrom.
In other words, television denied the reality of the recovery in large part out of the institutionalized egomania that TV journalism has become. The filmed TV news story is an intensely personal and interpretative narrative form, dominated by the voice, language, image, thought, and feeling of the omniscient narrator, the reporter, who is completely in control of every element of the story. These excerpts from the networks’ coverage of the recovery suggest that the people of TV news have finally internalized this stance of omniscience, that they have begun to take this formal fiction literally. They proceed in these stories as if they were superior to events, superior to the audience, superior to elected politicians, superior to everyone and everything. No one and nothing is good enough for them; all they can see about them is bad news. A recession is bad news; a recovery is also bad news. So insistent are these newsmen on interpreting reality and laying bare subsurface meanings and broader trends—as they choose to define reality, meanings, and trends—that they cannot report mere actual events, no matter how important. Neither can they sustain the discipline to form a coherent image of the trends and circumstances surrounding them. As a result, they misrepresent and falsify what is going on in the world.
In my opinion, the networks’ coverage of the recent economic recovery and expansion limns one of the more unattractive and depressing episodes in the history of American journalism. At the end of a long period of growing economic disarray and decay, and in the wake of a deep and painful economic contraction—a contraction sharply criticized by TV journalists—the network news programs effectively denied the reality of the long-awaited recovery. Things were at long last getting better. A set of policies was working; even if one disagreed with their premises, they deserved to be taken seriously, rather than mindlessly derogated. These realities were blacked out on the network news.
This cannot be explained away as the perhaps unfortunate but nevertheless inevitable result of the supposed iron laws of television journalism that apologists conventionally adduce to exculpate network news and explain away poor performance. We are often told, for example, that with their meager 22 minutes a night in which to present the news of the world, the networks must omit or radically condense much that is important. But that was not the problem in this case, since the networks could have achieved a reasonably truthful sketch of events simply by reversing the emphasis of their coverage—spending most of the time on the recovery, and noting in introductory or parenthetical passages or in an occasional feature story the persistence of pockets of unemployment, or permanent poverty and hunger, or structural maladjustment in West Virginia and other such areas. Similarly, the old saw about television being a visual medium and needing colorful action film does not explain why people going back to work and factories reopening are not news, while people without work and shut-down factories are news. No, what the Institute of Applied Economics study reflects is misrepresentation by journalists corrupted by hubris.
In recent decades the most widespread and insistent theme of press criticism has been the denigration of the “objective” tradition in modern journalism as mindless and irrelevant and misleading. What really matters, the critics have declared, is the meaning of news events and the broader trends of our time; accordingly, the main mission of journalism should be to divine trends and meanings, not to assemble data describing the noise and random flux of the day’s events.
This view, alas, is mostly wrong-headed; in fact, the truth is just the reverse. What is enduringly valuable in journalism—not to mention hard to get—is accurate information about what actually happened today or yesterday; assembling and presenting such information is the highest ambition journalism can realistically pursue. Trends and meanings are fictions that merely aggrandize the journalist and manipulate the audience, not inform it; they, not the data of actual experience, are the true noise of history. The cure for what has come to ail network news is therefore straightforward: it is to abandon the false sophistication of the thematic, interpretative television news story, and to return to the oldest tradition of American journalism—the description of daily events and the pursuit of hard fact.
1 Michael Robinson, Maura Clancy, and Lisa Grand, “With Friends Like These. . . ,” Public Opinion, June/July 1983.