Pre-election media on jobs reports, then and now

Yesterday’s jobs report from the BLS had an interesting analogue in history.  The month before the 2004 election — also a contest for an incumbent President’s re-election — the jobs report for September turned out to be rather weak.  The BLS reported a net increase of only 96,000 jobs, weaker than the previous several months, and as it turned out only a short-term blip in a fairly strong recovery of jobs from a lingering recession.  That’s slightly weaker than yesterday’s +114,000, and in September 2004 the jobless rate remained unchanged at 5.4%, but it’s close enough to compare the media coverage of then and now.

Let’s start with the New York Times.  How did they lead their coverage in October 2004 of the September jobs report?

Employment growth in the United States slowed last month, falling far short of expectations, the U.S. government reported Friday.

The new jobs report cast doubts on the strength of the U.S. economic expansion and appeared to bolster Senator John Kerry’s case against President George W. Bush’s handling of the economy just hours before the second presidential debate.

The Labor Department reported that the U.S. economy added just 96,000 jobs in September, substantially less than the roughly 150,000 needed to keep pace with the expansion in the labor force and start absorbing the slack in the job market.

How did they report yesterday’s jobs report? Let’s just say they gave it a … different emphasis:

The jobless rate abruptly dropped in September to its lowest level since the month President Obama took office, indicating a steadier recovery than previously thought and delivering another jolt to the presidential campaign.

The improvement lent ballast to Mr. Obama’s case that the economy is on the mend and threatened the central argument of Mitt Romney’s candidacy, that Mr. Obama’s failed stewardship is reason enough to replace him.

Employers added a modest 114,000 jobs last month, the Labor Department reported on Friday, but estimates for what had been disappointing gains in July and August were revised upward to more respectable levels.

In 2004,  a jobless rate of 5.4% “cast doubt” on the economy, and suddenly 7.8% is a sign of “a steadier recovery.”  In 2012, the NYT never even mentions the need to grow jobs by 150,000 each month to keep up with expansion in the labor force.  Not even once.

All right, that’s the New York Times.  No one expects them to be unbiased.  How about PBS?  (Stop laughing, you guys.)  Believe it or not, they did marginally better, only because they didn’t get so in the tank in 2004:

Still, the September job-creation total fell far short of Wall Street economists’ forecasts for 148,000 new jobs.September’s net increase of 96,000 payroll jobs was less than August’s rise, which the Labor Department revised downward from 144,000 to 128,000 it reported a month ago.The latest figures show four straight months of weak job growth after three strong months in the spring. It was the final jobs report before the Nov. 2 presidential election with polls indicating that jobs are a central concern of voters.

How about yesterday?  It was “a rare banner day.”  No, really:

A rare banner day on the jobs front, at least at first glance. The official unemployment rate — U-3 — dropped below 8 percent to 7.8 and even our all-inclusive U-7 is down 0.08 percent — to 16.87 percent. The most impressive numbers are in job creation as reported by the monthly survey of “establishments.” While the 114,000 new jobs added in September is a modest figure, the upward revisions for July and August are substantial: 86,000 more jobs, or a bump of better than 30 percent. It’s a good reminder not to take any given month’s numbers too seriously. But it’s a reminder in the right direction.

Yeah, well … call that the revenge of Big Bird.  How about the Washington Post?  From Nexis, here’s their report from October 9, 2004:

U.S. job growth slowed last month as manufacturers, airlines and retailers shed workers, the government reported yesterday in its last official snapshot of the labor market before the presidential election.

Employers added 96,000 non-farm obs last month, down from 128,000 in August, as losses in some industries were more than offset by hires in others, such as real estate, construction and temporary help services.

September was the fourth-straight month of gains below the roughly 150,000 a month that many economists estimate are necessary to keep pace with population growth. The unemployment rate held steady at 5.4 percent as hundreds of thousands of people stopped looking for work and therefore were not counted among the jobless, the Labor Department said.

Aaaaand from yesterday:

The nation’s jobless rate dropped to its lowest point in nearly four years in September. And unlike some recent declines, this one happened for the right reason: not because people gave up looking for a job, but because far more people reported having one.

It is a surprising improvement in a job market that had appeared listless in recent months. Although employers added a modest 114,000 jobs in September, the unemployment rate dropped sharply, from 8.1 to 7.8 percent, the government reported Friday.

Unemployment is at its lowest level since President Obama took office in January 2009, offering him a political boost just days after his performance was widely judged as lackluster during a debate against GOP rival Mitt Romney.

Just as the New York Times did in 2004, the context of the necessary +150K each month to keep up with population growth appeared within the first three paragraphs. In 2012, the Post never mentions that context at all.

Up for another round?  Here’s the Chicago Tribune in 2004, and this time, we’ll start with the headline, again from Nexis:

JOBS REPORT: September employment growth a disappointment

The nation’s payrolls grew by a less-than-expected 96,000 jobs in September, as joblessness remained at 5.4 percent, the Labor Department said in its last employment report before Election Day. …

Economists said the latest report was disappointing, and that job growth remains anemic for this stage of an economic recovery.

The country should be creating 250,000 jobs or more per month by now, one analyst said.

Disappointment at 96,000 and 5.4%! How about in 2012?

The U.S. unemployment rate dropped to a near four-year low of 7.8 percent in September, a potential boost to President Barack Obama’s re-election bid.

The Labor Department said on Friday the unemployment rate, a key focus in the race for the White House, dropped by 0.3 percentage point to its lowest point since January 2009.

A survey of households from which the jobless rate is derived showed 873,000 job gains last month, the most since June 1983. The drop in unemployment came even as Americans come back into the labor force to resume the hunt for work. The workforce had shrank in the prior two months.

The household survey is volatile. A survey of business establishments showed employers added 114,000 jobs to their payrolls last month, a touch above economists’ expectations for 113,000 jobs. Employment for July and August was revised to show 86,000 more jobs created than previous reported.

And just in case you don’t get the message from the coverage, the Tribune’s editors tell you today that the American economy “has finally broken loose,” and that the overall result is “modestly positive” at +114K and 7.8% while +96K and 5.4% in 2004 was “a disappointment”:

After 43 straight months in the cold grip of an 8-plus percent unemployment rate, America finally broke loose — by a little.

On Friday, the Labor Department reported that the jobless tally dipped in September to 7.8 percent, its lowest level since January 2009. That was down from 8.1 percent in the month-earlier report. …

The volatility in the household numbers contrasts with the more stable, larger survey of employers, which is the basis for the job creation figure of 114,000. The more encouraging part of the report was an upward revision in the number of jobs created in July and August, which suggested that the jobs slump this past summer wasn’t as deep as previous reports suggested. America’s jobs engine is bumping along a little more steadily than economists might have thought. It’s hardly robust, though.

This was a modestly positive report — period.

Ah, the huge difference between +96K/5.4% and +114K/7.8% … or really, between Republican incumbents and Democratic incumbents.

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