Lights, Camera, Recession
© Jack Cashill
As a way of proving the fragility of the American mind, pundits like to point out that millions among us believe the 1969 moon landing was actually filmed in a Houston television studio.
Truth be told, I have never met a one of these millions. In fact, I suspect that they exist only in the imagination of our intellectual betters.
On the other hand, if I heard that the stories we see on TV about economic issues were all confabulated in a Houston television studio, I might count myself among the believers.
I got my first up-close look at this theater of the fiscally absurd in September 2003. The occasion was a live performance of the Rev. Emanuel Cleaver II’s radio show on KCUR, “Under the Clock.”
The subject of the show on this particular day was the self-styled “Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride.” Several busses filled with illegal immigrants--or actors playing illegal immigrants--had just rolled into Kansas City.
In the course of the debate, the good Reverend introduced a worthy conundrum. Said he astutely, and I paraphrase, “For years we have labored under the assumption that there were two few jobs for American workers. Now we are being told that there are so many jobs we need to import workers. Which is it?”
One can easily understand Cleaver’s consternation. Out of seeming nowhere, a pressure group had surfaced with the moral clout to change the whole mother-loving media paradigm without any real change in the facts on the ground.
For many years prior, the too-few-jobs people held full control of the switches and toggles in our nation’s TV studios. It was they who served up the typically sorrowful show-and-tell that helped shape the Reverend’s political formation.
In the 1980’s, for instance, the too-few people put their media magic to work in an heroic effort to convince the American people that the Reagan boom was, in fact, a bust.
With all the real numbers working against them—GDP, inflation, job growth—the studio magicians mustered the nation’s drifters, derelicts and occasional down-on-their-luckers into a “homeless” army of some three million strong--roughly ten times their real number--and paraded them almost nightly through our living rooms.
This wasn’t economics. The number of housing units increased 14 percent during the Reagan years. The number of people receiving housing subsidies jumped 31 percent. Real income surged across the board. This was political theater.
The homelessness issue faded in 1990 when, after a record 92 consecutive months of growth, the media found something else to celebrate—namely, a genuine economic downturn. However shallow, this little recession would last no more than eight months except, of course, on television, where it conveniently lasted two harrowing years through November 1992.
One feature on The Today Show nicely captured the grim daffiness of that era. As the camera rolled, and the hosts clucked approvingly, a string of disturbed citizens in a Connecticut city hall approached a cardboard cutout of George H. W. Bush and cursed him/it out for a mild recession that had ended the year before. No wonder CBS hired Katie Couric for the nightly news.
After presumably ending the recession, the outgoing Clinton White House went on to take—along with the furniture-- credit for 116 months of consecutive growth, no small feat in an administration that was 96 months long. During this period, too, all the homeless apparently found homes.
Unlike the recession of 1990, the recession of 2001 crept in on little cat’s feet. Indeed, on the campaign trail in the months before the recession, NASDAQ crashed as noiselessly as the proverbial tree in the forest.
Not until after the recession blossomed was it permissible even to whisper about one budding. The incoming Bush people learned this the hard way. When they began to murmur that the “strong economy” of which Al Gore boasted wasn’t all that strong, they were quickly taken to the media woodshed.
“Democratic leaders in the U.S. Congress today said President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney helped drive down consumer confidence by talking about an economic recession,” read a typical media lead from that transitional period.
In fact, the recession officially began less than six weeks into the new administration on March 1, 2001. The attack on September 11 did not help the economy much either. Although you would not have guessed this from watching TV, the Bush tax cuts proved critical in keeping the 2001 recession short and shallow.
Three prosperous years later, in November 2004, I found myself positioned as a poll watcher at, of all places, St. James United Methodist Church. This was the spiritual home of the Rev. Emanuel Cleaver II, then running for an open congressional seat, a church-state tango that left the theocrat-hunters in the local media oddly untroubled.
Impressively, Cleaver and his party had managed to make allies out of both the too-many-jobs people and the too-few-jobs people, a gifted bit of political juggling that has not gotten the credit it deserves.
Although the too-many-jobs people had all the momentum nationwide, the too-few-jobs people were holding forth outside St. James. One handed me a flyer describing how Missouri had been uniquely afflicted by job loss during the last four years.
“Don’t you think,” I said to this fellow, “that these numbers reflect worse on our Democrat governor than on our Republican president.” He didn’t, but the voters obviously did.
For the next several years, the too-many-jobs people got the lion’s share of media attention, but that attention was not exactly winning the hearts and minds of the American people. So with a new election looming, the media now await a new recession as eagerly and loudly as the Millerites awaited the Second Coming.
The politics of it all are fairly transparent and don’t require much elaboration. The clear-eyed among us, however, can take small consolation knowing that such media manipulation has a long—and not always successful--lineage.
I came to understand this during the year I served as a Fulbright professor in France. One of my duties that year was to travel the country and show a State Department film about the New Deal, created, not surprisingly, by a filmmaker of the Katie Couric school.
What the French viewers saw was a country in disarray-- men brooding in bread lines, families hovering in Hoovervilles, Okies trekking across the country in their Model T’s--until Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933.
Overnight, it would seem, FDR’s New Deal brought “hope” to America. Unspoken was what the New Deal did not bring, namely prosperity. In fact, FDR’s imperial improvisations so unnerved the nation’s entrepreneurs that our unemployment rates remained in double figures for eight long years until the onset of World War II.
At the end of the New Deal film, I took questions. In Strasbourg, an Alsatian town that had been marched through more often than your average high school football field, an elderly gentleman ingenuously deflated the media bubble we all live in.
“During the depression?” he asked in halting English.
“Yes,” I encouraged him.
“Your poor people?”
“They had cars?”
As we say in America, monsieur, touché,
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