The Limits Of Media Power

In my business, you receive a lot of unsolicited advice and abuse. Some years ago a reader proposed that I "drop dead." Another well-wisher later suggested that "the best thing you could say is nothing at all." One of these tirades arrived last week. Sandwiched between incoherent political musings and stories about the family cat were some wickedly funny insults ("You act like you're selling stock shares in Idiots-R-Us!") and, surprisingly, some important questions. Why are the media so negative? Or, in my case, why am I talking down the economy? This general complaint is, I suspect, fairly widespread among the public and deserves a serious answer.

The indictment is straightforward. If the mass media dwell on the worst, it's said, we will make the worst come true. We will poison public opinion and create a self-fulfilling pessimism. If people are constantly told the economy is going to the dogs, it will go to the dogs. The merchandising of anxiety and fear will spread anxiety and fear. Commentators like me (said the reader) "run around telling everyone, 'Woe is us, the sky is falling'." I plead not guilty.

What prompted this outburst was a recent column ("The Creaky Job Machine," Sept. 22) pointing out--I am hardly alone--that the economic "recovery" has yet to reach the labor market. By one government survey, jobs are still dropping; by another, the unemployment rate has barely receded. I could take refuge in the facts. The White House Council of Economic Advisers (which can't be accused of badmouthing the economy) has compared the present recovery with all those since 1960. At a similar stage in earlier recoveries, non-farm jobs were up about 1 percent; this time, they've declined almost 2 percent.

But the facts represent an expedient--and partly dishonest--defense. They may be true, but they skirt the harder question of why I emphasized poor job performance when I could have been more optimistic or chosen a more heartening subject altogether. For example: although the present unemployment rate (6.1 percent) has risen sharply since late 2000 (3.9 percent), it's still much lower than the peak rates of the recessions of 1990-91 (7.8 percent) or 1981-82 (10.8 percent). Why not make that point? Or why not examine recent economic improvements: stocks, exports and corporate computer spending are all up.

In the news business, the toughest decisions often involve determining what's "news" and what isn't. I focused on the poor job picture precisely because it contrasts with other economic improvements (readers, I thought, might wonder why) and because it fits my own outlook (to wit: the 1990s' boom and stock "bubble" left much collateral damage; the recovery will be slow and unsatisfying). But readers don't know my thought processes and could legitimately suspect other motives: sensationalism--highlighting the grimmest news I could find; or politics--trying to make George W. Bush look bad. Whatever the motive, stories like this can seem hellbent on sowing gloom and doom, which might kill the recovery.

The real defense is that we're not powerful enough to do that. Of course, we're not innocent of all the charges leveled against us; on some, we're repeat offenders. We're suckers for the latest political, intellectual or cultural fads, though these aren't always of the negative variety (social problems, health hazards, political feuds and economic setbacks). We can also be boosters for unrealistic crusades and utopian fantasies. Remember the media's Internet infatuation! We're regularly drawn to anything that seems new, different, controversial, engaging and entertaining. But we cannot singlehandedly shape public opinion, especially as it affects the economy.

The present situation offers stunning proof. If ever bad news should have mattered, it's been in the last three years. Editors and reporters didn't have to contrive adversity. It arrived spontaneously: the popping of the stock bubble, September 11, corporate scandals, steady layoffs, the war in Iraq. By all logic, confidence should have collapsed. It hasn't. In previous recessions, consumer spending often dropped; in this one, it actually increased. Americans didn't abandon the mall. They took advantage of lavish auto "incentives." They bought new homes and, with interest rates low, refinanced mortgages on old ones. Despite a weak labor market, most Americans think their jobs are safe. (A Gallup poll in August asked respondents whether they were worried about being fired; 81 percent said no, 19 percent yes. The results in 1997 were almost identical--80, 20.)

People just don't heed the media that much. What they absorb represents one factor in what they believe and how they behave. Their experiences, habits, views and prejudices count for more. They trust their judgments, not ours. Because the media are everywhere--and inspire much resentment--their influence is routinely exaggerated. The mistake is in confusing visibility with power, and the media are often complicit in the confusion. We embrace the mythology, because it flatters our self-importance. The truth is that we echo, amplify, influence and refine public opinion but rarely create or manipulate it. In a democracy, that's just fine.