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Conservatives Hurt the Economy When They Downplay a Good Jobs Report—But It's a Rational and Effective Strategy

Last week, the Department of Labor released one of its strongest official jobs reports in years—capping off the best five-month stretch of job growth in nearly a decade—and if you're a consumer of conservative news, you probably had no idea.

Indeed, if you get your news from Fox or conservative talk radio, you were much likelier to learn a couple weeks ago about outlying first quarter GDP figures (which were terrible) than about any of the many signs that the economic recovery is accelerating—weird GDP numbers notwithstanding. In that way, the conservative media's coverage of the economy parallels its coverage of Obamacare and many other issues. Bad news makes huge headlines, good news gets buried, and revisions, caveats, and updates are either omitted or mumbled as afterthoughts when convenient.

Measuring from a low bar, this is an improvement over the good old days when conservatives treated conspiracy theories about the Obama administration cooking the economic books as conjecture worthy of serious discussion. Measuring from the somewhat higher bar of "informing your audience" it's still a complete failure—huffing and puffing into the right-wing information bubble rather than delivering news with a point of view. And the horrible thing about it is that the right's editorial judgments each make perfect sense, and are thus unlikely to change systemically on their own.

If our collective experience of the economy had much greater influence over public opinion than did the media's coverage of economic news—if actual economic currents drowned out the chatter—It would be futile for Fox et al to ignore reality in an effort to skew public perception. But there are good reasons to believe media coverage helps shape our perception of the economy to a significant degree, particularly against the backdrop of slow, steady recovery.

Studies have shown that both the volume and tone of economic reporting can move consumer sentiment. Intense coverage of economic news, good or bad, can amplify the swing in consumer sentiment directly attributable to the economic trend; and incorrect or skewed coverage of economic data can temporarily pull consumer sentiment against its tendency to flow with the actual economy.

That means news outlets dutifully reporting economic news, but engaging in hyperbolic or excessive coverage (say, during an election season, when ratings swell and the public is engaged) can undeservedly harm or goose an incumbent party.

It also means that if a news outlet's primary purpose is political engineering, it will have an incentive to play economic news strategically. And from that vantage point, conservative media's dismissive treatment of good economic news, along with good news about Obamacare and so on, is completely logical, as is its asymmetrical obsession with bad economic news, Obamacare glitches, and on down the line. If elections turn in large part on public perception of the economy, then weighing down that perception as much as possible isn't heavy-handed. It's judicious. At the level of individual story selection, it's all totally rational.

But taken together it sums to a tremendous amount of misinformation. And that in turn creates all kinds of detrimental strategic and political consequences. I don't mean just things like Karl Rove embarrassing himself on election night because he only put stock in polls (skewed or otherwise) that showed Romney winning. It also manifests as mutual incomprehension and gridlock, as a large swath of the population convinced that deficits are high and climbing, that the IRS only targeted conservative non-profits, that Obamacare created more losers than winners—just as doomsayers predicted—and should be repealed. It's all great fun if the only consequence is that partisans end up blindsided by election results everyone else saw coming. Less so when the political machine that created the alternative belief system suddenly has no room to negotiate or operate on real-world terms, because its adherents won't tolerate it.

Which is not to say that the conservative information bubble is entirely an artifact of discrete, rational actions that together comprise a perverse, irrational environment. There are actors on the right (much more than on the left) who are possessed of great confidence in their ability to create desired realities with the right combination of action, messaging, and commitment to purpose. Rove himself famously chest-puffed at Ron Suskind a dozen years ago that "when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

I think a judicious study of the realities Karl Rove has been able to create wouldn't flatter him. And that we'd all be better off if he and his confederates started taking things as they are, not as they'd like things to be.