WASHINGTON - President Bush, in a characteristic moment of frustration last week, took a turn blasting the media for contributing to the national malaise over the economy.
"I'll tell you who also ought to get some of the blame," the President said in an interview with USA Today editors. "Who is it that convinces the American people with 92% of the news coverage that everything is bad in terms of an economy that has been growing? The American people think we're in a recession, and we're not. We've had four quarters of positive growth."
The editors asked Mr. Bush what he was talking about when he said 92% of the news coverage is negative, and he referred to a study that he said had been done by Accuracy in Media, a Washington-based watchdog group.
First, a little fact checking. The U.S. economy has enjoyed five, not four, straight quarters of economic growth beginning in the spring of 1991. But anyone can miss three months of growth, even a President, so let's give Mr. Bush the benefit of the doubt on that one.
A call to Accuracy in Media revealed that the organization did not do the study to which Mr. Bus was referring. The study instead came from the Center for Media and Public Affairs, another media surveillance group.
All right, anyone can miss a citation, so we'll let the President keep the ball here, too.
The study to which Mr. Bush was referring found that 94% (not 92%, but close) of 642 stories aired by the TV network on the overall health of the economy or one of its major sectors were negative. The findings came from a survey of 777 economic stories, almost 23 hours of airtime, shown on the evening news by ABC, CBS, and NBC.
The survey covered the period from December 1991 through March 1992, when the economy was technically out of recession and growing - albeit at a painfully slow pace.
Mr. Bush has a point, in a way. If the economy was growing, why did the media continue to harp on how tough times were? And why did nearly all of the economists and analysts quoted by the broadcasters say they expected the recovery to be weak? Typical was a quote from economist Allen Sinai, who was quoted on CBS last December as saying. "The economy is going nowhere fast."
It is no secret that reporters thrive on the negative. Young financial and business reports, like the political reporters who went before them a generation ago to Vietnam, found their equivalent of a war when the recession took hold in 1990. For most, it was a first-time experience laced with the little thrills of discovery that come with journalism.
But the press has not been saying the economy is still in recession. The story has been what is by historical standards a sad little puppy of a recovery, one characterized by low consumer confidence, high debt burdens, white-collar layoffs, declining home values, and other unpleasant facts. There is abroad in the land, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan has told Congress, "an extraordinary pessimism" unlike anything he has seen in a lifetime.
President Bush is fighting not just a recession, but the slowest period of economic growth on record since the days of Herbert Hoover. The Commerce Department recently issued figures showing that in the first three years of the Bush administration, economic growth adjusted for inflation averaged 0.4%. That's not far from zero, folks, and it's not much to run on.
The President and his spokesmen have been busy lately tossing blame around for the nation's weak performance. Congress should have passed the President's budget, they say, and the Fed has been too tight with money.
These may be legitimate debating points, but like the President's comments blaming the media, they smack of desperate finger-pointing.
People can see these remarks for what they are, and they know a shaky defense when they see one.