The Media Today

Inflating our importance

November 20, 2023
Photo by (Flickr Creative Commons)

One Sunday morning back in 1980, I read a newspaper column that has stuck with me to this day. Why is that? asks one of you in the back row. I have a few theories, which are closely tied to recent coverage of the economy, and to President Biden’s faltering approval ratings.

The op-ed appeared on page C2 of the Washington Post just two days before Ronald Reagan would wallop Jimmy Carter in that year’s presidential election. Post columnist Richard Cohen noted the unease that his elderly parents, lifelong Democrats, felt about Carter, and then acknowledged that he shared their discomfort. Lots of things were off kilter in the world in 1980, and high on the list was the inflation rate, which hovered around 13 percent. 

Here is the part of Cohen’s column that I still think about:

I cannot remember when I brought that first bottle of Worcestershire sauce home. It was not all that long ago and I bought it because we had run out, and I was annoyed at that. I bought one bottle, and then every time I went shopping, I bought another bottle. Recently, my wife opened the cabinet to show me something like eight bottles of sauce. That day, as a joke, I bought another.

My first bottle of Worcestershire sauce cost 99 cents. I have bottles that cost $1.09 and $1.19 and $1.29 and, the latest, $1.39. Those bottles are beginning to bother me

At the time, I was a graduate student in Washington, DC, several months from starting a job at the Baltimore News-American, an ailing afternoon newspaper where I’d be paid $313 a week. I was worried about my career choice, worried about my savings, worried about my future. So Cohen’s column hit a chord then. And it still does now, forty-three years later—especially when I go grocery shopping.

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That’s the thing about inflation: Once it smacks you, you never forget it, even when the rate slows down, even when your wages catch up. It leaves a scar. 

Fast-forward to today. Many macroeconomic indicators are going gangbusters. The annual inflation rate is about a third of what it was last year, when we were emerging from COVID supply-chain shocks. Meanwhile, unemployment has remained under 4 percent since early 2022—a remarkable run by any historical standard—while the nation’s GDP grew at an astounding 4.9 percent rate last quarter. We might be getting that “soft landing”—lower inflation without a recession—after all.

And yet Americans are deeply dissatisfied. A Gallup poll taken last April, when inflation was running just below 5 percent, showed more people said it was causing them hardship than it did fifteen months earlier, when it was rising at a much higher rate. A few weeks ago, just 2 percent of voters told pollsters from the New York Times and Siena College that the economy was “excellent.”

Why is everyone so mad when we are clearly on a better track? And is that the media’s fault? When the Washington Post ran a story headlined “Inflation is falling. Why aren’t people noticing?,” Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor at the City University of New York, commented, “I dunno, maybe because news media aren’t doing their job to fully inform them?” After seeing a Bloomberg News piece that showcased readers’ quotes about high prices, Dan Froomkin, who serves media criticism at his Press Watch site, commented, “This is Bloomberg asking people: Tell us your inflation horror stories. That is not ethical journalism.”

Last month, President Biden took up that cause. A reporter asked him why so many Americans believe that the economy stinks. He turned the question back on the press. “You all are not the happiest people in the world,” Biden said. “You get more legs when you’re reporting something that’s negative. I don’t mean you’re picking me. It’s just the nature of things.… You turn on the television, and there’s not a whole lot about ‘Boy saves dog because he swims in the lake.’ You know, it’s, ‘Somebody pushed the dog in the lake.’”

Now, I enjoy bashing the media as much as anyone. But the president and some of my fellow critics could keep in mind that inflation traumatizes large masses of people in ways that few other economic trends do. One reason is simply structural: A two-point drop in the unemployment rate will directly affect a few million people (though a tighter labor market can eventually boost wages for other workers). Meanwhile, 9 percent inflation hits everyone, whether you’re a single parent trying to feed your kids on food stamps or a financier booking a vacation to the South Pacific. 

A lot of journalists think we’re so powerful that we can not just affect, but dictate, public sentiment. Still, at a time of increasing atomization in media and declining trust in news organizations’ credibility, it beggars belief that more positive headlines alone would drive up Biden’s ratings. How do you convince people things are getting better when nearly two-thirds of Americans don’t even believe the government’s own statistics showing the inflation rate has plummeted?

And a lower inflation rate doesn’t necessarily mean that prices return to where they were; it just means that they aren’t rising as quickly as they did before. A pound of chicken breast runs around $4.22 these days. That’s about fifty cents less than a year ago—but it’s still more than a dollar higher than before the pandemic. A gallon of milk costs 7 percent less than at its peak, but the price is about 23 percent higher than in early 2020. Meanwhile, rents and housing prices remain stubbornly high, as do mortgage rates. Even Jared Bernstein, the chair of Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers, has acknowledged that, while slowing inflation is “extremely welcome…people want to hear about falling prices, because they remember what prices were, and they want their old prices back.” 

There are several ways to counter the impact of inflation. Workers’ productivity can increase, enabling employers to pay more while keeping prices steady. Or companies can raise wages (which also can feed rising prices). And then there’s actual price deflation, which can have such unwanted side effects as layoffs and slow growth.

Which brings us back to that lineup of Worcestershire sauce bottles. In a way, Biden is lucky that most grocery stores don’t stick price labels on food anymore, so consumers don’t get the visual reminders that Richard Cohen did when he opened his pantry door. But people still feel it when they fill up at a gas pump, find fewer potato chips in a two-dollar bag, or empty items out of their grocery carts because the cashier’s total just hit their weekly limit.

In the years since I read that 1980 column, I’ve come to realize that Cohen didn’t change my belief about the economy; he ratified it. He provided me an example that affirmed what I’d seen in my own lived experience. I would have dismissed anything less honest. I suspect a lot of our readers these days would feel the same.

Bill Grueskin is on the faculty at Columbia Journalism School. He has previously worked as founding editor of a newspaper on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation, city editor of the Miami Herald, deputy managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, and an executive editor at Bloomberg News. He is a graduate of Stanford University (Classics) and Johns Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies (US Foreign Policy and International Economics).