In Washington these days, all eyes are directed to the White House as literally the center of the political universe. President Bush's job approval rating is the benchmark by which the left measures his clout -- and by contrast, its own. When he is brought low, it means they are having a good year.
This is especially true for the national news media, which can barely refrain from a collective self-satisfied smirk these days. But here's the funny thing. Nobody looks at their approval rating. A Harris poll in February found that only 25 percent said they have a "great deal of confidence" in the White House -- but only 19 percent had great confidence in TV news, and only 14 percent for "the press" in general.
Why is this so? Perhaps the smirk is more noticeable than they thought. The public can't help but see the media bend and shape the "news" like Play-Doh into whatever bizarre shapes please them most.
Take the economy, which is performing superbly. The objective truth about economic performance must be obscured. It might help Bush's approval rating. For the last several months, the economy has been measured not by gross national product, unemployment, productivity or inflation in general -- all of them traditional litmus tests. It's been driven by the price of a single well-advertised commodity: gasoline. Between April 12 and May 2, we counted a stunning 183 news stories on gas prices aired on ABC, CBS and NBC.
Some media outlets have made a spectacle of themselves (even in liberal media circles) for greeting good economic news with petulant denial, like kindergarteners singing playground songs at full volume with their index fingers in their ears. Exhibit A is CBS, and not just because they have specialized in stories about how "skyrocketing" gas prices are going to cost senior citizens their Meals on Wheels. There's more.
As June arrived, the government announced that the unemployment rate had fallen a tenth of a point to 4.6 percent, the lowest level since July 2001. Substitute anchor Russ Mitchell was sent forth to declare the awful news: "There are new signs this evening that the economy is slowing down." Reporter Anthony Mason added that "rising interest rates and rising gas prices are beginning to put the brakes on the U.S. economy."
Mason wasn't reporting facts. He was rubbing a crystal ball. He didn't find time to report that this was the 33rd consecutive month in which the economy has added jobs, with 730,000 net new jobs created since the start of the year. His conclusion was even gloomier: "One major builder reported a nearly 30 percent drop in new orders for the past two months. Now that ripples right through the economy. Buying slows, then building slows, then hiring slows. And that, Russ, is why the economy is slowing." Notice he didn't say economic growth was slowing. He said the economy was slowing, which suggests a recession to the audience.
But wait. Didn't the government just readjust its estimate of economic growth in the first quarter to a raging 5.3 percent, the fastest growth rate in a two and a half years? That announcement came on May 25. CBS's evening newscast didn't find any time for that number. CBS began with the Enron guilty verdicts; veterans' identity theft; the allegations of Marine malfeasance at Haditha; the congressional fuss over the search of corrupt Congressman Bill Jefferson's (D-La.) office; Pope Benedict in Poland; and finally, people who travel the highways in an RV.
Six days after that glaring omission, CBS White House reporter Jim Axelrod finally mentioned the 5.3 percent growth rate, but he treated the number as just more ineffective White House happy talk. In a report on new Treasury Secretary designate Henry Paulson, Axelrod said the Bush team needed a salesman for the economy: "No matter how much they trumpet 5.3 percent economic growth in the first quarter, 5.2 million more jobs since August 2003, or unemployment down to 4.7 percent, there's another number to contend with. In the most recent CBS News poll, just 34 percent approved of the president's handling of the economy."
Axelrod didn't have the talent for introspection to wonder if CBS's pattern of hyping the bad news and excluding the good news may play a role in that approval rating. He could only wonder, in celebration of the networks' bad-news thumbscrews, why anyone would want the treasury secretary's job in this struggling administration. (He also didn't wonder out loud why anyone would want to be a White House reporter covering a lame-duck president for a third-place evening newscast.)
CBS's reporting on the economy shows why Americans are correct when they don't place a "great deal of confidence" in the "news" manufacturers. When it comes to the economy, more trust could be placed in Ken Lay and Enron.