Danger! Distress! Crisis! Collapse!

And other scare-making takeaways from Bush's address

Last night, President Bush did what he probably should have done two weeks ago: address the American people about the economic crisis facing the country. The speech he delivered was sober in tone, and both explanatory and rhetorical in scope: It both clarified the genesis of the current crisis and framed the administration’s bailout proposals as an urgent and necessary short-term solution to that crisis. “Our entire economy is in danger,” the president noted, before outlining his proposals for getting us back to economic safety.

Such an admission—in danger, yikes—is highly unusual coming from a sitting U.S. president; when the economy is floundering, we generally expect game-facing and sanguine-making from our public figures despite (and because of) that very floundering. See Jimmy Carter, who, when he delivered his (in)famous “Malaise” speech in 1979, acknowledged the nation’s economic woes by implication rather than declaration:

The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.

See also FDR, in whose first inaugural—which, though it promised “a candor and a decision which the present situation of our nation impels,” similarly eschewed declaration for suggestion when it came to the period’s own economic crisis—his acknowledgment of the specifics of the Depression came down to his famous pronouncement that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Presidents, indeed, have always resisted full disclosure when it comes to financial crises, preferring instead to traffic in hopeful allusion and convenient metaphors when economic matters turn grim. So the fact that our current president last night used the words “danger” and “crisis” is notable. Perhaps that’s why, following Bush’s address, the nation’s papers of record splashed their Web sites’ homepages with the most ominous of his words.

Here’s The New York Times:

…and The Washington Post:

…and the Los Angeles Times:

…and Newsday:

…and USA Today:

…and the San Francisco Chronicle:

…and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

…and the Detroit Free Press:

…and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

Et cetera. An economy in danger! A long and painful recession! Oh, my!

On the one hand, these scare-making headlines are fair enough. Bush’s admission of danger and the like when it comes to the economy is, in some sense, historical. The “danger” and “recession” lines were, you could argue, the emotional cruxes of his speech. Besides which, of course, the economy is in crisis.

Still, though. Context matters. And when taken out of context, as most headlines are, those same declarations of danger become not descriptive of Bush’s rhetoric—the economy’s in danger, but here’s how to keep it safe—but, rather, evocative of fear. (Be afraid, Americans. Be very afraid.) It’s not just a matter of the pesky panic thing we’d all prefer to avoid during times of economic trial; it’s also more basic than that: The melodramatic “danger! danger!” headlines simply aren’t faithful to the overall argument of Bush’s speech. The ultimate message of last night’s address was this: “Our economy is facing a moment of great challenge, but we’ve overcome tough challenges before, and we will overcome this one.” It was not “we are facing a moment of great challenge,” the end. It was not “Danger! Danger! Full stop!”

News outlets are, of course, at their discretion to decide whether Bush’s optimism in this case skews more toward the genuine or the promotional. Just as they’re at their discretion to decide whether his speech’s text or its subtext is more worthy of readers’ knowledge. Perhaps their “Danger! Recession!” proclamations were the result of their determination that there’s really no place for optimism in the current crisis. Even so, melodrama rarely has a place in headlines. If news organizations have decided that their readers should be scared right now, fair enough. But that’s a decision that deserves to be explained, at the very least, in full sentences.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.