Taking Us Behind the Scenes

The Washington Post’s David Finkel today has a fascinating behind-the-scenes-at-the-Bureau-of-Labor-Statistics article in which he describes the run-up to the release — at 8:30 this morning — of the March employment data.

The monthly data release, Finkel writes, sets off “a great Washington ritual” whereby “Republicans will say one thing; Democrats will say the opposite; President Bush will have something positive to say. The stock exchanges will open the day’s trading with their own interpretations, and analysts will go on television and argue with one another.”

But it is another ritual on which Finkel focuses: the one “leading up to the report’s release, carried out in such secrecy that for four days there has been no trash pickup at the office where the employment report is prepared.” Key to the operation is “the matter of the verb” — that is, finding a verb to appropriately characterize which way the numbers went in a given month. As Tom Nardone, head of the U.S. Division of Labor Force Statistics office, tells Finkel, the verb must “provid[e] direction” but also avoid “some judgment of the direction.” (“Slumped,” “bled,” “plunged,” “nose-dived” are out. “Dropped” and “shed” are ok).

So what verb was selected this time around? The judgment-free “increased.”

And what verb did the media use to report on the report? The New York Times’s Eduardo Porter opts for “surged,” noting “the vigorous increase in jobs was also good news for the [Bush] administration” and including a quote from a Democratic lawmaker reacting “more guardedly.”

The Associated Press’s Peter Yost calls the report “mixed news,” leading with the fact that the unemployment rate “bumped up,” but characterizing the new jobs number as “evidence that the sagging jobs market may be gaining steam.”

The Washington Post’s Nell Henderson also went with “surged” and called the report “welcome news to the White House at a time when the economy ranks as a top presidential campaign issue.” Henderson then quotes Rep. Fortney “Pete” Stark (D-Calif.), senior Democrat on the Joint Economic Committee, saying, “We can’t really talk about a jobs recovery until we see robust job creation for several months.”

Economist Anthony Chan, a guest on CNN’s “Live Today” this morning, expressed a similar caveat. “One month does not make a trend,” Chan said. “These numbers are very good, but again, we need to see a few more of these before we get really excited.” But earlier, when the numbers first came out, CNN’s Andy Serwer called the news “great stuff for the economy,” noted “the White House will like it,” and admitted that “our graphics people were struggling with this because it was off the charts. They had to remake this chart because your charts were going only up to 100,000. We didn’t anticipate 300,000.” At 9:30, CNN’s Bill Hemmer called the jobs number “sizzling hot,” and within two hours of the report’s release, CNN reporter Elaine Quijano repeated the White House’s take: the president “gave reporters a thumbs up” when asked about the report and Karen Hughes called the numbers “proof to her that the economy is back.”

Over at Fox, “Business Block” reporter Stuart Varney called it “a huge number” because “this is an election year, the Kerry camp has been pounding on Mr. Bush for job destruction and nonjob creation and now suddenly in one month, we create 308,000 new jobs.”

“Fox and Friends” host Steve Doocy had this gleeful take (complete with product placement): “Well, I would say, with the news this morning from about 20 minutes ago, that 308,000 new jobs were created last month, they’re drinking the Maalox right now out of the gallon bucket at the Kerry campaign.”

Liz Cox Barrett

Update, 3:45 p.m.: This article has been updated to reflect an updated version of a story from the Washington Post.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.