The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The economy keeps defying media expectations. It’s part of a pattern.

Container cranes at a port in New Jersey behind the Statue of Liberty on Nov. 20. (Julia Nikhinson/AP)
4 min

Many in the mainstream media greeted news on Thursday of robust 2.9 percent economic growth in the fourth quarter of 2022 with surprise — shock even. And on Friday, there was more good economic news: Inflation rates dropped in December compared with November, the sixth straight month of declines.

These numbers were often characterized as defying expectations of a recession or despite economic head winds. The Wall Street Journal proclaimed that even though last quarter’s growth was solid, the U.S. economy “entered this year with less momentum as rising interest rates and still-high inflation weighed on demand.” Almost comically, the Associated Press wanted to know: “How will we know if the US economy is in a recession?”

The better question: When will the mainstream media recognize good economic news for what it is?

President Biden took a different view in a speech in Virginia on Thursday. “I’m not sure the news could have been any better — economic growth is up stronger than experts expected, 2.9 percent,” he crowed. “I don’t think it’s unfair to say that this is all evidence that [the] Biden economic plan is actually working.”

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At the end of last year, I spoke at length with Jared Bernstein, a member of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers. The “data streams,” he told me, simply didn’t support the gloom-and-doom outlook many were spouting. Any effort to explain a sunnier outlook was dismissed as spin. It seems, at least in the short run, that he had a better bead on the economy than the administration’s legions of critics.

That is not to say the chance of some type of a recession is zero. Inflation is still high compared with a year ago, so the Federal Reserve will keep raising rates. A downturn is still possible. A potential default prompted by MAGA House brinkmanship could throw the economy out of kilter. But the certainty with which the mainstream media asserted for months that the United States was on the precipice of a recession seems wrong — and oddly familiar.

Akin to the red-wave midterm election that never happened, the media never seems to waiver from its gloomy predictions for the Biden administration. And its widespread refusal to give credit to the Fed and the administration even as good news came in has been notable.

Aside from the media’s predilection to stress negative news (due to the assumption that good news doesn’t attract as many eyeballs), there are several factors that might explain reporters’ willingness to buy into sky-is-falling predictions for Democrats.

First, the media remains deathly afraid of accusations of liberal bias. The constant course correction in the name of illusory “balance” leads to parroting right-wing talking points.

Second, the media is often a prisoner of historic trends. The first midterm always goes to the party out of power; the president’s poor ratings always mean bad news for his party; and a recession always follows a hike in interest rates. The problem is that “always” is rarely — if ever — accurate. (For example, Republicans under George W. Bush performed well in their first midterm elections.)

Moreover, things are different now. The pandemic and resulting recession is unlike any other economic event before it. And the cloud that Donald Trump has hung over his party has had a unique drag on Republicans in three consecutive elections. Sometimes, the past is no guide to the future.

Third, as with its premature obituary for Biden’s first term, the Beltway media covers the midterms and the economy as the permanent opposition to the White House. Certain that they are hearing spin from the White House, media members consistently refuse to give credit to the incumbent president and see themselves as professional cynics. If the White House says it is sunny outside, that must mean it is pouring.

Finally, group think is a perennial problem in the mainstream media. Reporters and editors circulate from one outlet to another; no one wants to be too far out of the consensus; and too many political reporters see everything through the prism of partisan horse-race politics.

All of these factors contribute to confirmation bias. The media starts with an assumption, sifting out contrary data and doubling down on facts that seem “right.”

The solution? More diversity in newsrooms. More expertise in areas other than politics. Less cringing over the threat of attacks from the right and less unstinting negativity. These changes would serve the media and the country well.