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The Trump Flip on Unemployment Reporting goes from cherry-picking negative numbers about jobless figures under Obama to focusing on the positive ones now that Trump is president.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 7/31/2017

Susan Jones

ConWebWatch has repeatedly documented how skewed its reporting of monthly unemployment numbers during the Obama administration to cherry-pick negative numbers and bury positive news, lest Obama receive any credit for an improving economy.

Given CNS' penchant for pro-Trump stenography, that obviously couldn't continue when President Trump took office. What CNS did was a flip-flop in coverage and overall tone not unlike that its parent, the Media Research Center, did in renouncing its previous criticism of Trump during the 2016 presidential primaries and becoming full-throated Trump defenders.

Let's compare CNS' unemployment coverage before and after Trump took office and see the drastic difference.

September 2016

It was business as usual in CNS' reporting on the August job numbers, with the lead article by Susan Jones once again putting undue emphasis on the labor force participation rate and using it to declare there was "little or no improvement from the prior month" -- while burying the fact that 151,000 jobs were created, waiting until the fifth paragraph of her article to mention that fact.

Jones' article was joined by a sidebar from CNS editor in chief Terry Jeffrey, who lamented that "Government employees in the United States outnumber manufacturing employees by 9,932,000." He did concede, however, that this is not a new phenomenon -- government employees started exceeding manufacturing employment in 1989 -- but he doesn't concede that this has occurred under Republican administrations as well as Democratic ones.

A couple days before the government numbers came out, however, CNS managing editor Michael W. Chapman wrote an article with a headline declaring, "Real Unemployment 9.7%." The "real employment" number Chapman is promoting is from Gallup, which claimed that "Widely reported unemployment metrics in the U.S. do not accurately represent the reality of joblessness in America."

But as pollster John Zogby pointed out, Gallup CEO Jim Clifton is using the "real employment" number to push the idea that the government's numbers are nothing but a "big lie." That thinking is in line with the right-wing media, which has similarly tried to undermine unemployment statistics under the Obama administration.

Indeed, then-candidate Donald Trump followed in CNS' footsteps by falsely potraying the labor force participation rate as the unemployment rate.

October 2016

Jones' article on September's job numbers fixated as usual on the labor force participation rate, which is meaningless as an indicator of employment since most of the people who aren't employed are retired or students.

That's something Jones once again failed to explicitly acknowledge in her reporting. This time, though, she served up a bland dictionary definition: "The labor force participation rate is the percentage of people in the civilian noninstitutionalized population, age 16 or older, who are either working or actively seeking work. People who are no longer looking for work, for whatever reason -- retirement, school, family, or they've just given up -- are not participating in the labor force."

Farther down in her article, Jones offered up further elaboration:

[Federal Reserve Chair Janet] Yellen told Congress last month that the participation rate is feeling "significant downward pressure" from the aging of the population, as more and more Baby Boomers retire and leave the labor force.

"Aging of the population maybe one factor," Rep. Andy Barr (R-Ky.) told Yellen at the hearing of the House Financial Services Committee. "The other factor is that unemployment is coming down, not for a good reason, but for the wrong reason -- namely, that there's a frustrated workforce out there that's completely given up looking for work."

But this explanation didn't appear until the 13th paragraph of her article, while her second paragraph asserted that "94,184,000 Americans were not in the labor force in September, 207,000 fewer than in August" without elaboration.

Is it too much to ask for Jones and CNS to explain the truth about the labor force participation rate in a straightforward manner early in the article, when it counts? Apparently so.

November 2016

Jones' main story once again played up the labor force participation rate, and Michael W. Chapman contributed a sidebar touting the high black unemployment rate without mentioning the fact that black unemployment has historically been double that of whites.

Chapman repeated his twist first introduced in September: an article claiming a "real unemployment rate." Unlike in September, when Chapman asserted that a misleading number provided by Gallup was the "real" one, Chapman this time declared the U-6 rate to be the "real" rate.

In fact, it's not an unemployment rate at all because it counts people who are employed -- as Chapman himself noted, the U-6 rate includes "marginally attached workers plus total employed part time for economic reasons." While the U-6 rate may offer a more nuanced picture of the employment situation, it's not an "unemployment rate" as Chapman insists.

December 2016

November's job numbers were reasonably good -- 178,000 new jobs were created and the unemployment rate dropped to 4.6 percent. CNS, as is its partisan mission, had to distract from that good news.

As usual, Jones' main story emphasized the labor force participation rate, which is not a reliable measure of unemployment. She didn't report the number of jobs created until the 10th paragraph, and she waited until near the end of the article to allude to why focusing on the labor force participation rate is meaningless: much of it is made up of students and the retired, who are not looking for jobs.

But CNS also churned out four more articles to downplay the good news:

  • Chapman wrote about the high black unemployment rate, yet again failing to put the number into context -- black unemployment has always been double that of white unemployment.
  • Chapman also touted what he called was "real unemployment rate ," a factual misnomer since that particular number counts people are employed part-time but seeking full-time work.
  • Jones wrote an article about how "The economy lost 4,000 manufacturing jobs between October and November," but she failed to note CNS' own research showing that manufacturing jobs have been on a steady overall decline for about 30 years.
  • Chapman tossed out one last bit of cherry-picking with an article claiming that "the number of American workers unemployed for 15 weeks or more was 2,933,000." But Chapman omits the fact that this is the first time since June 2008 that this number has been below 3 million and that the number is one-third of that in April 2010, at the height of the recession. But that would have been good news, and Chapman clearly didn't want to report any of that while Obama is president.

Meanwhile, the Media Research Center at large was apparently getting into the distraction business as well. A Dec. 2 post by Sam Dorman highlighted how Fox Business' Stuart Varney called the numbers "weak" and how his Fox Business colleague Ashley Webster criticized the weakness of the Obama recovery, arguing that the country was seven years into a recovery and the labor force participation rate continued its decline." Dorman then cited the CNS article touting the high labor force participation rate -- but didn't mention that baby-boomer retirees are helping to drive up that number.

January 2017

The jobs report for December was the last one to come out under the Obama administration, so CNS had to get in their last cherry-picking distortion of the numbers while they could.

The main story by Susan Jones focused, as usual, on the labor force participation rate, telling us that "the number of Americans not in the labor force has increased by 14,573,000 (18.09 percent) since January 2009, when Obama took office." Jones then surprisingly conceded the dishonesty of that claim, admitting that the number is "continuing a long-term trend that began well before Obama was sworn in." It's not until the seventh paragraph that Jones got around to reporting that a record number of Americans are employed, and she buried in the 17th paragraph the fact that 156,000 jobs were created in December.

The first sidebar, by Jeffrey, bemoaned that manufacturing jobs continued to decline, glossing over the fact that -- as the chart accompanying his article illustrated -- manufacturing jobs have been on a general downward slope for a good 30 years. Jeffrey further bemoaned that there are more government jobs than manufacturing jobs.

The second sidebar, by Chapman, once again played up relatively high black unemployment, implicitly blaming Obama while leaving out the important contextual fact that black unemployment has always been roughly double that of white unemployment.

The final sidebar, also by Chapman, repeated his imaginary claim that the U-6 number is the "real unemployment" figure, grousing that "it is not often reported by the mainstream media."

Next month would bring the first report of job numbers under Donald Trump. Will CNS be as diligent at cherry-picking numbers under Trump as it has been under Obama?

February 2017

The answer to that question: of course not.

In her main story on January's unemployment numbers, Jones touted job outlook improvements -- something she did only grudgingly under Obama -- and seemed sad that she couldn't credit Trump for it all since he was president for only 11 days in January:

The Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics on Friday released its first look at employment since Donald Trump became president, and although that report does not reflect actual Trump policy changes, it does include the period just before Trump became president and was tweeting about jobs saved.

According to BLS, the labor force participation rate improved in January, increasing two-tenths of a point to 62.9 percent, its best showing in four months.

By contrast to Jones' enthusiasm for Trump "tweeting about jobs saved" -- she insisted that January's report "undoubtedly reflects anticipation of Trump’s policies" -- CNS made every effort to downplay and discredit talk of jobs that were saved under Obama's stimulus plan.

Jones also did something she rarely did during the Obama administration: explicitly state that one major reason for the high labor force participation rate she regularly blamed Obama for is the "retirement of baby boomers" and that "Members of the baby-boom generation will continue to retire from the labor force in large numbers."

The only sidebar this time around -- Chapman declined to fret about black unemployment or tell us the "real" unemployment number this month as he usually has, and he probably never will again during the Trump presidency -- is from editor in chief Terry Jeffrey, who proclaimed that "The United States gained 5,000 jobs in manufacturing in January while losing 10,000 in government."

March 2017

The shift in reporting on monthly unemployment figures at CNS continued to show a marked change now that a Republican is president.

Susan Jones' main article on February's jobless numbers carries the optimistic headline "152,528,000: Record Number of Employed in February; Participation Rate Rises." Contrast that to Jones' headlines in the Obama era would tout how many people were not in the workforce, even though many people choose not to work due to being retired or students. Jones actually noted that prominently in her article -- something she usually failed to do under Obama.

There was also the usual sidebar from Jeffrey fretting about increasing government jobs and the comparatively lower number of manufacturing jobs -- but true to right-wing form, Jeffrey gives no credit to Obama for the fact that, according to the chart accompanying his article, manufacturing jobs have been on the increase since 2010.

Missing again from CNS' coverage were articles from Chapman on the "real" unemployment rate and the high rate of black unemployment. Those got replaced by an article by Melanie Arter uncritically quoting White House press secretary Sean Spicer asserting that the unemployment numbers "may have been phony in the past but it’s very real now," though he provided no evidence that the methodology for computing the numbers has changed at all.

April 2017

Jones' lead story on the March unemployment numbers touted the record number of people in the workforce -- again a contrast to Jones' unemployment reports under a Democratic president. Jones once again made sure to explain why the workforce participation rate is so low.

This is all to cover up the fact that only 98,000 jobs were created in March, which she didn't get around to mentioning until the fourth paragraph of her article and which even she had to concede was a disappointing number.

Jones also grumbled that "The Democrat Party [sic] is giving Donald Trump no credit for the good news in Friday’s jobs report," sneering that "The DNC is offended that Trump, a successful job-creator himself, has taken credit for tens of thousands of jobs saved or created on his watch." Jones doesn't mention that Trump played no role in creating most, if any, of those jobs.

The only sidebar, again, is CNS editor in chief Terry Jeffrey touting the creation of more manufacturing jobs while bemoaning that more government jobs were created as well. Unlike his articles in the Obama era, though, the number of government jobs didn't make the headline.

AWOL again is CNS managing editor Michael W. Chapman, whose job during the Obama era was to tell us the "real" unemployment rate and highlight the number of unemployed blacks.

May 2017

Jones emphasized once more the positive news about unemployment statistics. Her May 5 article on April's numbers touted how "The number of employed Americans set a third straight monthly record in April, increasing by 156,000 to 153,156,000; and the nation's unemployment rate dropped a tenth of a point to 4.4 percent."

While Jones did concede in the second paragraph that more people also left the workforce last month, she then huffed: "The numbers are important: People who are employed have Social Security and other payroll taxes deducted from their paychecks, and those taxes help to support many other people who do not work for various reasons and who may receive taxpayer-funded entitlements or benefits."

By contrast, Jones' article on September unemployment numbers (under Obama) led with the number of people not in the workforce -- which, it so happens, was lower than it was in April.

As before, Jeffrey added an article about how a few thousand manufacturing jobs were added while also whining that jobs in government were also added.

AWOL again, as has been the case under the Trump administration, are CNS' Obama-era staples on high black unemployment and the "real" unemployment rate.

June 2017 has finally found some bad economic numbers that it couldn't bury. The one cherry-picked statistic CNS obsessed about during the Obama years -- the labor force participation rate -- was bad enough that even Jones couldn't spin it in her relentlessly positive pro-Trump manner.

Not that she didn't try, of course. Still, the tone of her June 2 article is a bit resigned:

A disappointing report from the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics on Friday: The economy added 138,000 jobs in May, fewer than analysts were expecting; and after setting three straight monthly records, the number of unemployed Americans dropped by 233,000 to 152,923,000.

The unemployment rate ticked down a tenth of a point to 4.3 percent, near historic lows.

But the number of Americans not in the labor force – meaning they are neither working nor looking for work – increased by 608,000 to 94,983,000 in May, close to the record high of 95,102,000 in December 2016. The not-in-the-labor-force number includes retirees, students, homemakers, the disabled, and others who have stopped looking for work for whatever reason.

The nation’s labor force participation rate – the percentage of the 16-and-older civilian non-institutionalized population that is either employed or actively seeking work – dropped two-tenths of a point to 62.7 percent in May.

That explanation of who isn't working was never placed so high in a Jones jobless rate story under Obama -- if it appeared at all.

Jones' article was joined by the usual sidebar from Terry Jeffrey complaining there are more jobs in government than in manufacturing. Missing again are Obama-era sidebars about the "real unemployment rate" and how black unemployment is higher than white unemployment. It's almost as if CNS did those sidebars for the sole purpose of making Obama look bad and doesn't want to highlight that those numbers look pretty much the same under Trump.

CNS tried to do some after-the-fact spinning of all this by publishing a June 5 op-ed by the Heritage Foundation's Timothy Doescher, who declared that to fix these numbers, "We need fundamental tax reform, the repeal of Obamacare—which continues to make hiring difficult for small businesses—and a serious reform of our welfare system, which rewards able-bodied people for not working and swelled to historic levels under the Obama administration."

July 2017

After the previous month's somber tone, Jones was back to pro-Trump cheerleadering over the June jobless figures:

The U.S. economy added 220,000 jobs in June, the best showing since February and well above analysts' expectations of 174,000.

The Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics also said the number of employed Americans -- which set records in February, March and April -- set another record in June, at 153,168,000 employed.

And the number of Americans not in the labor force -- after four straight monthly gains – dropped a bit to 94,813,000.

Remember, during the Obama years Jones would be leading with the low labor force participation rate and burying any positive numbers (as well as the fact that students and retired baby boomers make up a significant percentage of people not in the labor force).

As usual, Jones' article was accompanied by a Jeffrey article fretting over government jobs being created at a faster rate than manufacturing jobs. Also as usual, the Obama-era staples about racial disparities in unemployment and the "real unemployment rate" are missing, as they have been since Trump took office. There was also another column by the Heritage Foundation's Doescher cheering the numbers and declaring that "it’s time for policies that encourage the millions of people that could be working to get back in the workforce."

* * *

If one needs a perfect example of CNS' right-wing, pro-Trump bias, we can't think of a clearer one than its unemployment coverage.

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