Business reporters who like business? Who ever heard of such a thing!

August 29th, 2008
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Naïve outsiders – most normal humans – could be forgiven for imagining that, just as political journalists typically are fascinated with politics, travel writers enjoy going places and those who pen tales of skiing are thrilled at being in the mountains during winter, business writers actually are interested in – and maybe even like – business. But they’d be wrong, or at least have strong reason for doubt.
As someone who’s written on and off about business, finance, investment and the economy for 22 years, I’ve grown dismayed at the increasing proportion of what should be ordinary, detached business reporting that appears to be biased or tendentious. As others have cynically boiled it down, when a Democrat’s in the White House (or a Liberal in power in Ottawa), the economy is perennially growing to new records, but when it’s a Republican (or Conservative), it only ever stands teetering at the precipice of doom.
These days, I think it’s fair to suspect not only that many or even most business journalists instinctively distrust business leaders – seeing the next big corporate fraudster in virtually everyone they interview – but that many of them don’t even really like the market economy, or at least see it as being subordinate to political objectives.
Take this recent AP wire story. It concerned the news that, in fact, the U.S. was not in a recession, but had generated stronger than expected growth in the second quarter.
Big news – huge news. And surely something we can all agree is good, right? Unless you’re a fanatically partisan Bush-hater who wants the economy to crater for electoral reasons, I don’t see a business journalist finding much downside in hearing of economic growth – especially when it’s better (there I go; a truly objective journalist would just say “higher”) than expected.
But here was the AP headline: Spring’s economic rebound is unlikely to last
And the sub-hed or “dek” in industry parlance: Stimulus spent, housing still in dumps, GDP jump probably was aberration
Several layers of meaning there. First, what happened to the practice of headlining news with a headline that was about the news – you know, the actual recent event. Like, “Economy defies predictions, grows strongly”, with a dek of “Exports, tax rebates appear to have done the trick.”
The stories about various important parties’ reaction to the news would follow. In a normal universe, these would even be balanced, with experts on either side of whether the rebound will “last”.
Instead, we get the reaction before, in fact instead of any actual news story. This is now so ingrained that readers could be forgiven for thinking my sample headlines read like something out of the 1950s.
So we have the reaction supplanting the news itself, and we have a published headline and dek that are stunningly editorial and judgmental – more opinionated than headlines for many opinion columns I’ve read. In fact it obliquely suggests that Americans should regard economic good news during a Republican administration as freakish.
Now some of the content. Here’s the second sentence:
Economic slowdowns overseas could make exports tail off just as Americans are hunkering down after the bracing impact of rebate checks wanes, plunging the country into another rut later this year.
The second sentence of a story about a major news event, then, is pure opinion and speculation, more political than economic. And the words used are shocking: “Hunkering…bracing…plunging…rut.” What’s with today’s business reporters? Are they all frustrated or washed-up war correspondents? Or do they volunteer for a political party in their off-hours?
Then: “The rebound followed two dismal quarters.”
“Dismal”? In the first quarter the U.S. economy grew at an annual pace of 0.9 percent. Weak, certainly – but far better than many had predicted, and dismal in neither absolute nor relative terms. (0.9 percent of U.S. GDP is about $150 billion – enough to recapitalize the nation’s entire print media.) Dodging the bullet of recession should have been cause for celebration.
But it was the same pack of business journalists, egged on by market bears and strangely bleak or defeatist public officials, who had been predicting not only a deep recession (two consecutive quarters of economic shrinkage) but warning there could even be a depression. (There’s an entire Internet genre of Depression-mongering ravings, which I won’t link to.)
It’s almost as if a lot of business journalists out there want there to be a recession, and are angry that the U.S. economy isn’t cooperating. What they’re wishing for, one hopes only semi-consciously, is more homes lost, more workers laid off, more life-savings evaporated, more companies failing and a longer wait until personal incomes resume climbing. They probably don’t want that explicitly, of course, but they’re letting their schadenfreude at the economy’s woes, which they probably link to the Bush White House, cloud their recognition of what bad economic news really means.
Phil Gramm, one of the toughest economic minds ever to occupy the U.S. Senate, had it right when he recently talked of a “mental recession”. Perhaps if Gramm had taken better aim in his rhetoric, describing the business press “as a pack of whiners” instead of Americans as a “nation of whiners”, he’d be a hero to many Americans and still have his job as a campaign adviser to John McCain.
By the way, the AP story ended – ended – by offhandedly noting that the Dow Jones Industrial Average shot up by 180 points upon news of the second quarter’s growth.
Today’s business reporter: not only hates business, but oblivious to which facts matter.
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