Stories

The media overcorrects for its past flubs

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Most business reporters didn't see the Great Recession of 2008 coming, and political media knew Hillary Clinton would win.

Why it matters: As recession signals flash once again and the 2020 election looms, they're both over-correcting — afraid of missing the world's biggest story — again.

There are legitimate reasons to expect a recession, including economic slowdowns elsewhere, that pesky yield curve and the law of gravity. But there are just as many reasons to let the good times roll a while longer:

  • These include American consumers' continued spending, as reflected in recent earnings reports from Lowe's and Target.
  • That balance got lost in favor of "RECESSION" headlines, with reporters preferring to (maybe) overstate risk than to possibly let readers (maybe) saunter off a cliff.
  • There already have been unintended consequences, possibly upsetting the economic balance. Axios' Alayna Treene reports that President Trump became obsessed with media reaction to the August stock drop, leading to him compulsively float tax cuts before changing course less than 24 hours later.
  • It also could affect consumers, with one congressional aide arguing: "Panic begets panic — and the more you talk about something, the more likely it is to happen." Indeed, consumer confidence just experienced its largest monthly drop in nearly seven years.
  • Between the lines: Reporters aren't talking about a looming recession in order to cost Trump his job, as he claimed via tweet. They're talking about it to protect their own.

There are legitimate reasons to believe Trump will be re-elected, including his base's unshakable devotion. But, in the pre-Trump era, any incumbent with his current math would be treated like a dead man walking: 

  • Imagine if any president besides Trump had a 41% approval rating, was losing to their top five opponents, and was more unpopular than popular in states they have to win again? Imagine this president trailed all of their top potential rivals in virtually all of the swing states. 
  • But the N.Y. Times' Nate Cohn reminds us: "Trump’s Electoral College Edge Could Grow in 2020." And the Cook Political Report's David Wasserman writes for NBC News: "How Trump could lose by 5 million votes and still win."
  • Trump, of course, gave all of us good reason in '16 to stop assuming we know what voters want or will do.

The bottom line: Reporters, like generals, tend to fight the last war.

Go deeper: Trump resistance media rising