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The Media’s Trying Really Hard Not to Say We’re in a Recession. Here’s How It’s Going.

Americans learned Thursday that the economy is in a recession, at least according to a definition that was widely accepted before last week. But mainstream media went to great lengths to avoid saying so.

SO WHAT

Imagine if this were former President Trump’s economy.

WHAT HAPPENED

Gross domestic product, adjusted for inflation, fell 0.2% last quarter, the equivalent of an 0.9% annual rate of decline, the Commerce Department said.

  • That followed a 0.4% contraction in the first three months of the year.
  • President Biden downplayed the numbers in a morning statement, calling them “no surprise” and insisting the U.S. “is not in a recession;” at a press conference later he took no questions.
  • White House officials, in anticipation of the bad news, had spent the past week disputing the conventional wisdom that two straight quarters of negative GDP growth defines a recession — and it appeared to pay off.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING

In line with White House talking points, reporters tiptoed around the “r” word in their coverage, emphasizing that a recession is officially declared after the fact by a panel in the National Bureau of Economic Research.

1. POLITICO: “[T]he economy contracted 0.9 percent in the second quarter of the year, offering Republicans a tantalizing opportunity to declare that the economy under President Joe Biden is now in a recession.”

2. THE NEW YORK TIMES: “Most economists still don’t think the economy meets the formal definition of a recession, which is based on a broader set of indicators including measures of income, spending and employment. … Still, the data released on Thursday left little doubt that the recovery is losing momentum amid high inflation and rising interest rates.”

3. THE WASHINGTON POST: “In the past, six months of contraction have usually indicated a recession. The official determination is made by a panel of experts, though recessions aren’t typical when unemployment is near record lows.”

4. CNN: “That decline marks a key symbolic threshold for the most commonly used — albeit unofficial — definition of a recession as two consecutive quarters of negative economic growth.”

5. ABC NEWS: “It’s important to look at what happened today with these numbers and understand that we are sort of in an informal, or quote unquote technical, recession … It really is left up to the panel at the Bureau of Economic Research to formally declare.”

6. MSNBC: The left-leaning cable news network’s website took an innovative approach by apparently not posting any articles at all about the economic … recession?

WHAT A DIFFERENCE A PRESIDENT MAKES

Some of the most prominent journalists promoting the White House’s recession denialism previously endorsed the two-consecutive-quarters-of-economic-contraction definition:

  • CNN White House correspondent John Harwood,
  • And Politico chief economic correspondent and MSNBC contributor Ben White.

Coincidentally, several Biden administration officials did a similar 180:

Needless to say, the media was much less generous in sizing up the economy during Trump’s presidency.

  • In Sept. 2018, the Washington Post fact checker gave Trump three out of four Pinocchios for his claims that the economy had never been “stronger.”
  • “The odd thing is that Trump does not need to claim that the economy is the greatest ever. He just needs to say it’s doing great,” wrote Glenn Kessler.
  • In August 2020, near the end of Trump’s term, NBC News ran the headline, “Data show Trump didn’t ‘build’ a great economy. He inherited it.”

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