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Alternate Reality for the New York Times

11:33 AM, Oct 29, 2012 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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There are two U.S. economies. Well, not really. But there is the economy reported in the New York Times as part of its pre-election coverage, and far different one reported in the authoritative financial press.

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On Friday the Commerce Department reported third quarter GDP growth at 2.0 percent. Here is how the New York Times reported what everyone agrees is a figure that tells us that the recovery is too anemic to provide jobs for many of the 23 million Americans who are out of work, involuntarily working short hours, or too discouraged to keep pounding the pavements in search of work.

Under this headline, “Consumers Push Economic Output To A Gain of 2%. Better Than Expected. Housing Recovery and Defense Orders Also Fuel 3rd Quarter,” the Times followed with four paragraphs about “optimistic consumers … the economy forward”; households are “growing more confident that the housing market has stabilized … have been buoyed by lower energy prices, until recently a rising stock market and a slight improvement in employment.” This paean of praise to a 2 percent growth rate is topped off by a quotation from an economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch that “Consumers are feeling wealthier…”

The Obama campaign couldn’t have invented a better spin before getting to the bad news in the final page-one paragraph and over onto the continuation page in the business section.

All quite true. But not quite the way the reliable Financial Times, which doesn’t have an emotional commitment to any candidate, reports these same data. “US labours to stay on growth course” is the headline (the more sober FT doesn’t capitalize every word in its headlines). The first paragraph notes that the economy “struggles to move forward.” The report proceeds, “Growth was mediocre again in the third quarter…. Housing gave the economy a boost; business investment set it back. The growth data point to an economy with little momentum and leave considerable doubt about its resilience…. Little sign the growth is poised to accelerate.” Then, still in the first four paragraphs, comes the inevitable quote from an expert, this one an analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit, “What stands out is the fact that non-residential investment has kept on decelerating -- which is really disappointing.” That is what stood out to me, a sign that fear of tax increases, further increases in the health care costs, and the fiscal cliff have businesses sitting on the cash piles.

The FT goes on, still above its page 3 fold, to point out that had it not been for a surge in defense spending, which experts say happens from time to time, growth would have been 0.7 percentage points lower, or exactly the 1.3 percent recorded in the second quarter, something the New York Times gets around to noting in the twentieth paragraph of its story, on page 6 of the second section.

Understand: both papers report accurately. The difference is that the New York Times used its first page to spin a dreary report into something that is more favorable to the Obama “narrative” than to Romney’s attack on the President’s performance. Perhaps we should look to the Wall Street Journal for the tie-breaker. Its page one, above-the-fold story reports the 2 percent growth rate, the surge in consumer and government defense spending, and notes in the first paragraph of its story that “the economy appears more likely to slow than to accelerate in coming months.” The pace of growth “has been lackluster … The growth in federal spending was a temporary rebound … these outlays should decline…. A drop in exports… weaker business spending…. Disappointing earnings and profit warnings… consumers could dial back spending after … November 6…”

Again, all points mentioned by the New York Times. We are talking about what in these data warrants emphasis, reporting right up front. The important news is that the economy is struggling, that the anemic growth rate is, as the Economist points out in its report (which also includes the cheerier parts of the data) “still far too little given the gap between actual output and what the economy should be capable of producing - nearly $900 billion, a 6% shortfall.”

There are, of course, two possibilities. One is that the New York Times reporter didn’t understand what economists clearly saw, that the important story is the decline in business investment. The other possibility is that he did.

Ask yourself this: Is it even imaginable that the New York Times would have led its news story with anything like the headline and initial paragraphs that appeared in the FT during this election season? If you think it is, turn to the op-ed page that same day, for stories on how Romney allowed a Utah manufacturer of questionable health products to become an Olympic sponsor and now accepts his financial support, and that “the company Romney keeps” includes the appalling John Sununu—no mention of the company Obama kept in the church and business communities of Chicago. At least these items are clearly labeled as opinions. 

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