CNS Unemployment Reporting: The Pandemic Flip-Out, Part 1
CNSNews.com's reporting on employment numbers has been aggressively pro-Trump, but even it couldn't hide reality when the coronavirus pandemic caused rates to skyrocket. Plus: CNS' double standard on reporting the "real unemployment rate."
By Terry Krepel
CNSNews.com went into 2020 covering employment statistics the way it has throughout the Trump administration: putting a pro-Trump spin on the monthly unemployment numbers. This was a drastic change from its coverage in the Obama years, in which it talked down the numbers no matter how good they looked.
But as the year progressed -- and the coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc on the economy -- CNS was forced to inject some reality into its unemployment coverage, unable to maintain a consistent pro-Trump spin -- but not for lack of trying, though.
Let's do a month-by-month review of how it treated unemployment statistics in 2020 and into 2021.
There was plenty of not-so-good news in January's employment numbers -- which CNS would have led its coverage with if the president was a Democrat. But because the president is a Republican, Susan Jones downplayed them in her lead article:
President Donald Trump never misses an opportunity to plug the strong employment picture for which he takes credit, and today he earned more bragging rights:
The asterisk leads to a note that the end of the article that explains the labor force participation rate change seems to be driven by statistical changes.
Similarly, the headline on Craig Bannister's sidebar on Hispanic employment would have focused on the unemployment rate increasing if it was being written under a Democratic president. But because it's Trump, it reads "Hispanic Employment Sets Record, Labor Force Participation Rate Highest Since March 2010 in January."
Still, there was bad news even CNS couldn't paper over. A sidebar by editor in chief Terry Jeffrey actually began with the fact that manufacturing jobs declined by 12,000, but he was quick to spin that the U.S. "has gained a net of 26,000 manufacturing jobs" and that since Trump's election "manufacturing jobs have increased by 495,000."
Another sidebar by Jeffrey -- a loyal government-hating conservative -- conceded that "The number of people employed by government in the United States grew by 177,000 from January 2019 to January 2020." But he made sure not to mention the name "Trump" in this article.
Even as CNS had to admit all this bad news about the economy, it had to pretend it wasn't the case when it came to reporting Nancy Pelosi's comments about the employment numbers. Bannister went into spin mode again: "Despite creation of 225,000 jobs, a 3.6% unemployment rate, a 3.1% increase in earnings over the past year, and extension of the longest economic expansion in U.S. history, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) declared the January employment numbers “the rot at the heart of the Trump economy.”
Pro-Trump rah-rah was the order of the day for CNSNews.com's reporting on February's employment numbers, the last unaffected by the pandemic. Jones' lead article carried the headline "Near Record Employment: 159,759,000 Working in U.S.A.," and she was in full gushing mode:
Forty-five thousand more people were employed in February than in January, bringing the total number employed -- 158,759,000-- to the second highest level in the nation's history.
This was joined by the usual sidebars: Bannister cheering a record number of Hispanics employed and editor in chief Terry Jeffrey touting how manufacturing jobs "have now increased by 519,000 since President Donald Trump took office."
There was also a March 6 op-ed by Kay Hymowitz of the right-wing Manhattan Institute weirdly complaining that women are too well educated and make too much money to settle for a typical man, thus leading to "family decline":
Women have made enormous inroads in education and the labor market over the past few decades. They are now the majority of college graduates and are more likely than men to have earned a postgraduate degree.
Hymowitz seems to be implicitly blaming women for this situation; in her congressional testimony to which she links as support for this article, she called for "a re-affirmation of the importance of fathers and male contributions to the household" and complained that "Society has come to accept single motherhood; in fact, it is the norm in many disadvantaged communities," which she claimed "has had unintended effect of telling boys and men that their contributions to family life and the household economy are of no great consequence."
CNS had to figure out how to play the unemployment spike driven by the coronavirus pandemic in a Trump-friendly way. First, it tried to emphasize that he wasn't to blame. After the initial surge of 3.3 million new unemployment claims, Melanie Arter served up a shrug emoji of an article headlined "Trump on 3.3 Million Unemployment Claims: ‘It’s Nobody’s Fault’."
CNS then spent the following few days before the monthly employment numbers preparing readers for the worst (and, of course, shielding Trump from blame). An April 1 column by Allison Schrager of the right-wing Manhattan Institute claimed this was all going as planned, as summarized in the headline "High Unemployment Numbers Show the CARES Act Is Doing Its Job." That was followed by an article by Jones noting that as bad as the March numbers will be when they come out, they only reflect the pay period that includes the 12th of the month, which was "was one day before President Trump declared a national coronavirus emergency; and three days before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that Americans avoid gatherings of 50 or more people, thus accelerating the economic squeeze." There was also a gloomy article by Michael W. Chapman with poll finding on how many people have seen their hours cut.
When the numbers did come out, Jones reverted to her old Obama-era obsession with the labor force participation rate -- not surprising, perhaps, since it "increased by 1,763,000 to a record 96,845,000 in March." She still worked in some pro-Trump rah-rah, stating that "After breaking 25 records under President Donald Trump--most recently in December 2019--the number of employed Americans dropped sharply in March, to 155,772,000."
The usual sidebars similarly stuck a little pro-Trump rah-rah in as well. Bannister's article on Hispanic employment copy-and-pasted Jones' reference to the "25 records under President Donald Trump," while Chapman's item on black unemployment (the first time in months that statistic has been referenced) spun hard by claiming that "the 6.7% unemployment rate for African Americans is still historically low ... In other words, the Black unemployment rate in America was higher than 6.8% for 46 years." Only Jeffrey's item on health care employment didn't mention or allude to Trump.
As it did the previous month, CNS did pre-reporting on unemployment to soften the blow when the actual numbers came out. An April 30 article by Chapman featured a Fox Business report (of course) noting that there have been more than 30 million jobless claims filed since the pandemic shutdowns began and "unemployment is expected to hit between 18% and 20%, which is a 'Depression-like' number." Chapman then served up those Depression-era numbers: "During the Great Depression, the national unemployment rate peaked at 24.75% (of the labor force) in 1933. The U.S. population then was 92,950,000. The unemployment rate stayed in the high teens from 1935 to 1940."
When the actual numbers came out on May 8, Jones reverted once again to looking at the labor force participation rate, while also trying to remind readers that Trump was doing great before the pandemic:
The nation's labor force participation rate reached a 47-year low of 60.2 percent in April, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as the number of people not in the labor force jumped by 6,570,000 to a record 103,415,000.
The unemployment rate of 14.7 percent didn't get mentioned by Jones until the eighth paragraph of her article.
In his designated sidebar, Bannister had the grim duty of reporting that "The 18.9% national, seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate for Hispanics and Latinos in April more than tripled from March’s 6.0% level, as the number employed plummeted by more than five million (5,093,000) and the number unemployed jumped by more than three million (3,492,000) from March’s levels." Editor Terry Jeffrey's designated sidebar complained that "As overall employment in the United States was dropping dramatically in April, the federal government added 1,000 jobs."
Chapman followed up on May 12 with a little pre-reporting for the next month's report, noting that "Kevin Hassett, the senior economic adviser to President Trump and former chairman of the president's Council of Economic Advisers, said that in the next report on jobless claims he expects the national unemployment rate to be 'close to 20%,'" and that it likely won't get back below 10 percent until late next year.
Not a lot of distortion this time -- it seems even CNS couldn't spin numbers this bad.
Again, CNS did what it could to prepare readers for even worse unemployment numbers. A May 18 article by Chapman highlighted a prediction that the unemployment rate could reach 25 percent, near Great Depression rates. So when the actual May numbers were released, even Jones was surprised that the rate actually dropped from the previous month:
The jobs/employment report issued today by the Labor Department reflects what was happening in mid-May, and while it remains a grim picture, there are signs of improvement in every category as Americans straggle back to work.
Even with those numbers, Jones still felt the need to distort things. Note the weasel words here: "The jobless rates for teenagers (29.9 percent), Blacks (16.8 percent), and Asians (15.0 percent) showed little change over the month." In fact, the rates for blacks and Asians rose.
CNS also served up the usual sidebars on Hispanic unemployment (declined) and government jobs (the lowest level in 19 years). CNS also hasn't told its readers about a statistical aberration that should have made the rate even higher. Due to a misclassification error, the May rate should actually be about three points higher. But that would make things look even worse for President Trump, and CNS is not in the business of making things look worse for Trump.
SIDEBAR: 'Real unemployment rate' double standard
One of the statistics CNS embraced under President Obama was the U-6 unemployment rate, a different measure than the U-3 unemployment rate -- the most widely reported number -- because it includes people who are technically not unemployed but are "marginally attached workers" as well as part-time employees who are looking for full-time work. CNS proclaimed this to be the "real unemployment rate," and since it's almost always higher than the official U-3 rate, it touted the number to attack Obama and talk down the post-recession recovery.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U-6 unemployment rate -- which has generally hovered around 7% over the past year even as the U-3 rate was around 3.5% -- spiked to 22.8 percent in April. Despite CNS spending years proclaiming that this was the "real unemployment rate," this alarmingly high number got no coverage even though much lower numbers under Obama got their own articles.
Instead, CNS serves up attempts to forward Trump's agenda even in the face of those atrocious numbers. A May 15 article by Susan Jones complained that "Foreign-born people in the United States had a lower unemployment rate in 2019 (3.1 percent, down from 3.5 percent in 2018) than native-born Americans (3.8 percent, down from 4.0 percent in 2018)," an apparent attempt to perpetuate the Trump-embraced idea that foreigners are stealing jobs from Americans.
In May, that U-6 rate (21.2 percent) is much higher than it ever was under the Obama administration, a time when CNS regularly reported it.
CNS never explained to readers why the "real unemployment rate" stopped being a metric it reported on after Obama left office, and why it won't report on the number now that's even higher than it ever was under Obama.