Retail sales rose in October for a third month in a row. October saw strong jobs growth, and Goldman Sachs is predicting a significant drop in the unemployment rate over the next year. Most families with children are getting expanded child tax credit checks every month. Average food stamp benefits increased by more than 25% thanks to the Biden administration. Yet the economic headlines are overwhelmingly focused on inflation.
To be clear, inflation is real: 6.2% in October. But despite that, “It’s safe to say the bottom 40 percent of Americans are definitely better off in the past year from a combination of rising wages and government aid, even with inflation,” University of Massachusetts economist Arindrajit Dube told The Washington Post.
Julia Coronado, president and founder of MacroPolicy Perspectives, told the Post that disposable income has been about 9.5 percent higher in 2021 than it was before the coronavirus pandemic—even if you factor in inflation.
But the statistics don’t matter if what people are feeling is higher prices at the gas station or grocery store. The problem there is that the media has a little something to say about what facts in their lives people feel are most relevant, and the media has taken wildly different approaches to good economic news and bad economic news.
“When the U.S. jobs report was released for the month of October, showing a surging economy adding 531,000 jobs, as well as revised estimates for September and August confirming that an additional 235,000 positions were created, “NBC Nightly News” did not cover the economic announcement. ‘ABC World News Tonight’ buried the story, devoting just two sentences to it, and running the story seventh in the lineup that night. Neither network considered 766,000 new jobs to be among the most important developments of that day,” Eric Boehlert wrote at his invaluable Press Run newsletter this week. “Contrast that to last Wednesday, when news broke that inflation had jumped 6.2 percent last month, fueling concerns about spiraling consumer costs. That evening, both ‘NBC Nightly News’ and ‘ABC World News Tonight’ slotted the inflation story as the second most important development of the news cycle.”
You know what else hasn’t gotten that kind of prominent coverage? The federal minimum wage being stuck at $7.25 an hour for more than a decade. If you want something that will erode people’s buying power, that right there is a factor for millions.
It’s not unreasonable for people to freak out about higher prices, especially combined with the stress of more than 18 months of a life-altering global pandemic, plus headlines about supply chain problems that could create scarcities and further raise prices. But when the media puts its thumb on the scale, breathlessly reporting about one set of problems while barely covering either other problems (the ones, like the minimum wage, that point directly to progressive policy solutions) or the good economic news that is also available and true right now, the media is responsible for creating or at least heightening people’s fears. We see that in the relative weight given to headlines on economic data, and we see it in human interest stories like the report on the effects of rising grocery prices on one family in which CNN completely failed to mention that the very same family was getting child tax credit checks that outstripped their increased grocery bills.
We see it when media coverage of rising fossil fuel prices isn’t accompanied by reporting on the possible benefits of investment in green energy, or when media coverage of food prices doesn’t take into account how climate change is fueling droughts and/or floods that hit farming areas and make food more expensive.
Inflation is both a reality and a story the media chooses to tell over other stories. It’s an easy story for them to tell. But “531,000 new jobs in October” is also an easy story. “Child poverty drops by 29% in one month thanks to expanded child tax credit” is an easy story. The media makes choices. It has to be accountable for them.