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Tuesday, August 1, 1995

Out of Focus: Network Television and the American Economy

Network Television Reporting Contains a Fundamental Misunderstanding of Economics

On the evening I finished reading Out of Focus, ABC television coincidentally ran a program entitled “The Blame Game.” I watched in amazement as reporter John Stossel developed a story about the United States becoming a nation of victims. Stossel explored how various government programs, such as welfare, and regulations like the Americans with Disabilities Act, create dependency, generate frivolous lawsuits, and degrade individual responsibility by fostering the notion that we are all, in some way or another, victims.

Through various interviews, Stossel illustrated how a government check for not working creates disincentives for working. He also looked at the costs of more government regulation, including lost jobs,

Unfortunately, the source of my amazement was that this program actually aired on primetime, network television–not exactly known as a medium tough on government programs and intervention in the economy. Burton Yale Pines’ Out of Focus confirms what many of us have thought for some time–namely, that television reporting on the economy is riddled with myths and cliches. In a sense, this book helps to explain why I and, I am sure, many others were amazed at ABC’s “The Blame Game.”

Out of Focus offers the results of a year-long study, conducted in 1992 by the staff of the Free Enterprise and Media Institute, analyzing morning and evening newscasts and magazine shows on ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN, as well as twelve weeks of prime-time entertainment television. The researchers evaluated the kinds of economic information, signals, and lessons being communicated.

Unsurprisingly Pines offers worrisome findings. While television executives strongly support capitalism and free enterprise in polls, more often than not, a fundamental misunderstanding of how the economy works makes its way onto the television screen.

For example, Pines points out that “the notions that high profits created incentives for risktaking, for savings, and even for hard work were ignored or implicitly slighted by network TV.” In highlighting a randomly chosen week (January 25-31, 1992), Pines observes: “At least sixteen of the week’s stories dealt directly with the federal government’s role in the economy through taxation, regulation, or spending. Almost every one of these stories took as its premise that when the marketplace created problems only the government had the answer. Rarely were possible nongovernment solutions mentioned.

The author notes that this philosophy held sway throughout 1992. He states: “Regulation has a friend in television. Network reporters seem to believe that government officials and bureaucrats have the information, ability, and tools to regulate economic matters effectively.”

Particularly egregious was network reporting on health care. The idea that government was capable of providing cost-efficient, quality health care seemed to be accepted as an economic verity. This misguided notion served as the foundation upon which most health-care television news reports were built. Pines found that “viewers had less chance of seeing a balanced story on health than on taxes, regulations, the environment, or any other economic subject.”

However, a glimmer of hope could be found on the reporting front. Pines notes that “viewers watching reports on tax issues, in contrast to those about all other economic topics, had a better than even chance of learning something about how their free enterprise economy functioned and how the tax structure affected it.” On April 15, CBS “This Morning” even interviewed Paul Craig Roberts, allowing him to explain how lower marginal tax rates on capital would generate “more investment, higher productivity, while simultaneously shifting the average tax burden from labor to capital.”

Perhaps the two most informative chapters in Out of Focus identify the ten worst and best news stories on the economy in 1992. These stories were ranked by a panel of free-market economists—Bruce Bartlett, Christopher Frenze, Edward Hudgins, Marvin Kosters, and Stephen Moore. The comments from these individuals cited by Pines provide the reader with sound analysis of where economic reporting was buttressed or undercut by market principles.

Out of Focus also offers a glimpse of how entertainment television treats free enterprise. Pines finds that generally “entertainment TV in 1992 portrayed businessmen and women as unfeeling and cruel bosses and managers, as criminals or otherwise evil, and as taking advantage of the public.”

However, the author does report an unusual exception. A character on the NBC program “Sisters” failed in her attempt at selling cosmetics at Kaffee-Klatsch gatherings. However, she found a market at these events for the self-designed, hand-painted sweatshirt that she was wearing. Pines sees a supply-side message in this episode—supply creating demand.

If supply-side economics can find its way onto a network entertainment program, and John Stossel can address the downside of government intervention in the economy on an ABC magazine show, then all is not lost. By pointing out the current weaknesses, Out of Focus provides the first step on the path to improving television news and entertainment treatment of free enterprise and the economy.