The R-word, and oversimplifying the economy

Yesterday, Janet Yellen, the treasury secretary, convened a press conference to address the state of the economy in general and, in particular, new preliminary growth numbers that found the GDP fell slightly for the second successive quarter. At least informally, this is often held up as the definition of a recession, though Yellen insisted that that’s not what we’re seeing this time, citing the relative strength of other economic indicators, not least job creation. At the end of the press conference, Jeff Stein, an economics reporter at the Washington Post, asked Yellen why the Biden administration seems so intent on fighting a “drawn-out semantic battle” when the US could soon be in a recession under any definition and many Americans “feel like” they’re in one already, according to polling. “I agree with you: I think we should avoid a semantic battle,” Yellen said in response. “Let’s talk about what’s going on.”

If it’s unclear who fired the first shot—the administration, the media, or someone else—a semantic battle over the term “recession” has been raging of late, and the White House certainly played its part as it looked to shape the narrative both before and after the release of yesterday’s numbers. As Politico’s Ben White noted earlier this week, officials were “hitting the airwaves and arm-twisting reporters in private, imploring anyone who will listen” that the economy is broadly healthy; on Monday, Biden, then still in covid isolation, said himself that he didn’t think a recession was coming. Meanwhile, the words of one former White House official—Larry Summers, who served as treasury secretary in the Clinton administration—got a lot of media attention. Last year, Summers proved prescient on inflation, predicting that it would endure as Yellen and others played down the extent of the problem. Summers now thinks that a recession is on the horizon. But he played down suggestions that the US is in one already as coming from people who are either “ignorant” or “looking to make political points.”

ICYMI: Will Facebook changes leave news media out in the cold?

Yesterday morning, as the numbers dropped, major news organizations seemed to struggle with how best to characterize them, at least in their topline push notifications, headlines, and tweets. While some toplines avoided the R-word entirely, opting to state literally what the data showed, many grappled with it. A Wall Street Journal push alert declared that the US economy had met “a common definition of recession,” while a CNBC headline said that the numbers sent “a strong recession signal.” Reuters declared that the US is “teetering on the brink” of a recession; various top outlets prominently noted recession “fears.” “So are we in a recession, or not?” CNN asked in one headline, answering in another, “Yes. No. Maybe.” Politico described the numbers up top as a “fresh political nightmare” for the White House, in that they had handed Republicans “a tantalizing opportunity to declare that the economy under President Joe Biden is now in a recession.” Meanwhile, Republicans and their partisan media apparatus were gleefully taking that opportunity, screaming with one voice that the US had entered a “Biden recession” and that the rest of the media was busy trying to obscure that clear fact by moving the goalposts.

Some of yesterday’s topline coverage was, in my view, woolly and passive: describing the existence of recession “fears,” for example, is not inaccurate, but it is also not especially helpful or precise, especially given that hyping economic “fears” can in turn create more fear, which can in turn influence people’s economic behavior, which can in turn influence the economy. (Such language also didn’t seem to please anyone yesterday: right-wingers ridiculed it as liberal denialism while liberals decried it as a sop to right-wing narrative creation.) Still, yesterday’s numbers were much harder to pithily summarize than outraged right-wing media sources would have you believe. (Surprise!) Two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth is indeed a definition of a recession, but it is not the definition; in fact, there is no single authoritative source on this, and the closest thing we have to one—an eight-member council of economists under the aegis of the private National Bureau of Economic Research—hasn’t weighed in yet and likely won’t for quite some time. Even if you accept the two-quarters definition as gospel, the numbers for the last quarter are not yet final and could still change significantly. Mainstream media coverage (that I saw, at least) did not move the goalposts yesterday; rather, it communicated that the goalposts are, and always have been, all over the place.

Most important, the GDP numbers were hard for journalists to sum up because the economy as a whole is hard to sum up right now: it’s in a weird post-pandemic phase where different indicators are flashing different signs for a messy hodgepodge of reasons. These have all been the subject of a much broader narrative battle that has long predated this week’s GDP report, with the White House accusing the press of hyping bad economic trends (inflation, typically) while downplaying much better ones (not least strong employment). Media critics have often, broadly, agreed with this assessment, calling out everything from media complicity in many Americans’ ignorance of the true state of the job market to ham-fisted (or should that be milk-fisted?) anecdotal segments on rising prices. These critics have been right, I think, to point out the media’s power, when talking about economic perception, to itself shape economic perception. (Earlier this month, a buzzy New York Times poll found a striking disconnect between many respondents’ negative view of the overall economy and positive view of their own situation.) Often, topline coverage—cable-news chatter, in particular—has been quicker to characterize economic perception as a nasty political fact for Biden, rather than commit to the tougher work of picking through how perception is formed.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Still, the US economic picture, obviously, is far from universally rosy: inflation, in particular, is very real and many people are struggling with it, not least those who were already struggling to make ends meet. These people do not deserve glib dismissal-by-pundit. And the performance of different parts of the economy can invite very different conclusions—something that journalists should know all too well from their own sector. While media job losses have broadly tracked recessions in the past, parts of the media industry have seen devastating layoffs even in broadly good economic times. Media executives recently told CNBC’s Alex Sherman that they’re optimistic about their ability to weather a wider recession should one come along. But part of the reason for that is that some of them already made big cuts in recent years. And there’s good reason to doubt that more cuts aren’t coming. This week, Vox Media laid off nearly forty staffers, citing a desire to “get ahead” of economic uncertainty. This constituted a small fraction of employees at a single firm. But layoffs are always acutely painful for those who have been laid off. And these ones have since been held up as a possible harbinger of things to come in the media world. Vox “may have injected a dose of reality,” Sherman noted.

There may come a time—and it may come quite soon—when it’s appropriate for the press to use the word “recession” in a broad, economy-wide sense, or something close to it. Some collective media judgment will be involved in deciding when that time has come, since it won’t be pinpointed for us from on high. But we’re not there yet. And, even when we get there, the press should avoid painting any recession as a rigid, all-encompassing change to the status quo past a defined tipping point. People do not live the economy in semantics or shorthand, but through how it works for them. For many people, the economy doesn’t work, recession or no recession. We shouldn’t lose sight of that.

In recent months, I’ve seen lots of stories that have tried, with varying degrees of success, to illustrate how people are living the current economy, and yesterday, as the GDP numbers came down, I saw a fair amount of coverage that prominently articulated that the R-word matters much less than people’s experiences. In the broadest sense, covering this economy is hard, requiring delicate tradeoffs between due fluidity and overall clarity and between data and feelings, especially when the latter two things are linked (in the realm of economic sentiment) and one doesn’t necessarily always invalidate the other.

Still, much of yesterday’s topline coverage got sucked into the semantic battle that Yellen and Stein agreed we should avoid—a result that was probably inevitable as soon as Bidenworld started spinning, but also as soon as major news outlets started, ahead of time, to hype the prospect of yesterday’s numbers and their possible fallout for Biden. Just before the numbers came out, Neil Irwin, chief economic correspondent at Axios, said he couldn’t remember “there ever being this much buildup to a (backward-looking, likely-to-be-heavily-revised) GDP number” and that he hoped “there never is again.” Later, Irwin shared a meme that Stein made (in the father-and-son-from–American Chopper–arguing format) parodying the circularity of both a Fox interview with a White House official and the broader economic discourse online this past week. The meme, Irwin wrote, “sums it up.”

Below, more on the economy and the R-word:

  • Irwin’s take: Writing for Axios last night, Irwin concluded that, “recession semantics aside,” the GDP numbers released yesterday did not paint a pretty picture. “Consumers aren’t ramping up their spending like they were, businesses are taking a pause on investment, and housing is slumping. That is a recipe for a serious downturn in the second half of the year, whatever terminology we use,” Irwin wrote. “Call it a recession, a ‘vibecession,’ a soft patch—whatever you like. But the underlying momentum in the economy clearly faded through the spring months and may get worse.”
  • The wrong question: The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson also criticized the “robust news cycle of people shouting the word recession back and forth at each other” yesterday, arguing that whether or not we’re in a recession is the wrong question to ask about the new numbers. Obsessing over the R-word “represents an anxiety over terminology rather than over reality,” Thompson wrote. “Somewhere down the line, eight people you’ll probably never meet will determine whether that meets their definition of a recession. But in the meantime, it’s the numbers that matter, not the nomenclature.”
  • Betteridge’s Law: Back in the Paleozoic era of 2019, when fears of a recession were also ascendant in financial media, CJR’s Zainab Sultan asked whether anyone knew what they were talking about and found that they probably didn’t. “I think the biggest risk here is that we talk ourselves into a downturn and we talk about it so much that we end up with a self-fulfilling prophecy,” CNN’s Julia Chatterley told Sultan. “I do think there is a tendency, perhaps, for certain aspects of the financial media to be very alarmist.”
  • A timely reminder: Earlier this week, Alissa Quart, the executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a journalism nonprofit devoted to covering inequality, wrote for CJR about the problem of journalism that only discusses working-class and financially stressed people in ways that other, minimize, or even imperil them. “As a new recession looms,” Quart wrote, “our industry would do well to at least start to correct its legacy biases around coverage of poverty and class. Otherwise, our practices might continue to afflict the afflicted.”


Other notable stories:

  • Last Monday, I wrote in this newsletter about coverage of Senator Joe Manchin’s move to finally, actually torpedo Biden’s climate and tax plans. Later the same day, Manchin and Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, secretly started talks to revive those plans, culminating in a deal this week that astonished journalists and everyone else. (“I can’t recall a major deal ever being announced without the Capitol Hill press corps knowing that negotiations were taking place,” The Intercept’s Ryan Grim noted.) Grim and others rightly touted the historic nature of the deal’s climate provisions, though it also contains some concessions on fossil fuels, and it hasn’t passed yet: after months of media focus on Manchin, we’re about to hear a lot more about Kyrsten Sinema again.
  • The Post’s Elahe Izadi spoke with journalists at the Indianapolis Star and the Columbus Dispatch, two local papers owned by Gannett, to learn more about how they proved a story about a ten-year-old rape victim who had to travel from Ohio to Indiana to get an abortion, all as prominent right-wingers screamed that the story was a hoax. Bethany Bruner, a public-safety reporter at the Dispatch, worked her law enforcement contacts as she tried to find out which agency was investigating the rape, then spotted an upcoming arraignment that seemed to fit the case. She was surprised when she was the only reporter to show up. “I guess it’s going to be me” who breaks the story, she thought.
  • John Koblin, of the New York Times, examined a burgeoning controversy involving the LA Times, where Paul Pringle, an investigative reporter, recently published a book accusing his former editors of slow-walking a major story, leading Matthew Doig, one of those editors, to hit back, calling Pringle “a fabulist.” Controversies in LA media “often do not capture the attention of a town where the entertainment industry rules,” Koblin notes, “but this dust-up is different.” Janice Min, of The Ankler, noted that it has “a cinematic quality,” echoing “great newsroom dramas that have been made by Hollywood before.”
  • In nonprofit-news news, AdWeek’s Mark Stenberg reports on the launch of Verite, a New Orleans newsroom, founded by three exiles from the Times-Picayune (including Dean Baquet’s brother), that will aim to serve marginalized communities in the city. Elsewhere, Corey Hutchins writes that the Crestone Eagle, a small monthly paper in rural Colorado, will transition to a nonprofit model starting in September. And two Chicago papers, the South Side Weekly and the Hyde Park Herald, have merged under one nonprofit.
  • Amid a flurry of stories about modern Republican politicians’ refusal to engage with the mainstream press (beyond bashing it, of course), Politico’s Jack Shafer pushed back on the idea that the avoidance tactic is a smart one, or likely to endure. “When the general election looms, Republican candidates appreciate how useful the mainstream media can be to reach swing voters,” Shafer writes. “Then they’ll talk to almost anybody.”
  • In his newsletter, The Racket, Jonathan M. Katz wrote about the problem of podcast plagiarism, after presenting evidence that a show lifted material from his work without crediting him. (A host of the show denied Katz’s characterizations.) “At some point, authors will stop writing,” and “creative people will stop producing knowledge,” Katz wrote, of the perverse incentives at play. “All we’ll have left are a clutch of mediocre dudes sitting around a microphone, with no new stories to tell.”
  • For The Nation, Frank Guan assessed a new study, by Phillipa K. Chong, on the state of newspaper fiction reviews—a “mode of recommendation,” Guan writes, that “has less to recommend it than ever before.” Critics increasingly “pull their punches” to “cut down the risk of vendetta,” he adds, “veiling deep disapproval as mild qualification and reserving harsh sentences for established literary celebrities who can afford to take a hit.”
  • Reporters from Politico, Insider, and the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag (all of which are owned by Axel Springer) teamed up to infiltrate a global network of far-right teenage terrorists. Using fake identities, the reporters gained access to two dozen chat groups, uncovering “death threats against politicians and journalists, and instructions on how to make bombs and use 3D printers to produce weapons parts.”
  • And WAGatha Christie is innocent. Today, a court in the UK ruled that Coleen Rooney, the wife of a soccer star, did not defame Rebekah Vardy, the wife of a different soccer star, when she said, based on an elaborate Instagram-based sting operation, that Vardy’s account leaked stories about her to the press. A judge concluded that Vardy and her agent, who claimed to have dropped her phone in the sea, likely destroyed evidence.

ICYMI: Is TikTok ready for the midterms?

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen speaks about the economy during a news conference at the Treasury Department, Thursday, July 28, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)