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Trumpworld’s “the media is trying to cause a recession” conspiracy theory, explained

The press isn’t trying to bring about a recession. It’s trying to make up for past mistakes.

President Donald Trump speaks to the media before departing from the White House on September 16, 2019, in Washington, DC.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

President Donald Trump and his surrogates see a conspiracy in every headline, and they have a new target: economic news pointing to any signs of a slowing economy.

Trump and his allies are obviously wrong when they claim the media is conspiring against him by running negative economic coverage to conjure a recession and stop Trump from winning a second term. But like some of the most persistent conspiracy theories, the Trump narrative holds just enough truth to be plausible to his diehard supporters.

The media clearly failed systematically to identify the warning signs of the Great Recession in 2007 and 2008; and many journalists clearly feel a responsibility to do better this time. There is also a well-established pattern of journalists focusing on bad economic news, which in turn deflates public perception of the economy.

This is all unfortunate for Trump, because the public’s feelings about the economy have historically been a good predictor of who wins presidential elections (if you’re already in power, you don’t want the economy to be slowing down). Which is why the Trump company line is that their favorite villain, the fake news complex, is trying to bring him down.

A bad economy doesn’t start with the media: A misguided trade war and a tax bill that led to very little business investment are better explanations for why Trump has struggled to build on the good economy he inherited from Barack Obama. But national reporters do seem to be keeping a closer watch on whether we are heading for a downturn, after their failure to anticipate the 2008 crash. Their fixation could lead consumers to believe that the economy is struggling.

That’s not a vast media conspiracy, though. That’s just a feedback loop between reporters and consumers that has existed for decades, long before Donald Trump became president.

Trump and his underlinings say reporters are making up a poor economy so he’ll lose in 2020

For a month now, with open speculation about a looming recession, Team Trump has been accusing the national news media of fabricating any signs of a faltering economy. All is well, nothing to see here, says the White House.

According to the Daily Beast, the president seems to truly believe in a self-fulfilling prophecy: The media reports bad economic news, consumer sentiment sours, people spend less money, and the economy struggles.

According to three people who’ve spoken to Trump about recessions and the American economy since 2017, the president has repeatedly voiced concerns—or bitter annoyance—about what he views as media outlets’ ability, or even alleged desire, to help create economic recession through self-fulfilling prophecy.


“[Trump] thinks recessions or booms are often self-fulfilling prophecies,” another one of the sources said. “He’s said when the media starts beating the drum about a recession coming, that negativity gets into people’s heads and they change their behavior: less purchasing, fewer entrepreneurs starting small businesses, people moving money out of the market, [and so on]. That’s why he’s so concerned about the coverage of a potential recession… He believes he can will the economy in a positive direction by feeding optimism to the ‘American spirit.’”

Now, reporters aren’t manufacturing the worrisome signs of a sputtering economy. Wonky leading indicators like an inverted yield curve (which is when the yield on long-term US bonds starts to fall behind short-term ones, a common recession predictor) and fears about Trump’s escalating trade war are driving the media conversation about a possible recession. Polls show most Americans now expect the US economy to enter a recession in the next year.

Here we must concede to Trump: Research indicates news coverage does help determine how consumers feel about the economy, and the media tends to focus on the economy more when there is bad news to report. The growing fear among some in the public that a recession is near might be reinforced by the negative news they see and hear.

The relationship between the news and public perceptions of the economy is not what Trump thinks it is

There is actually a pretty rich record of research on how the media covers the economy and what effect that coverage can have on consumers (and therefore on the economy, the thing being covered — it’s a very metatextual debate).

The media does pay more attention to the economy when the news is negative. This chart from 2009, via the Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project, tells the story well: When the Dow was nosediving, there was more reporting on the economy. But as the Dow improved, coverage fell off.

Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project

However, the news narrative does not seem to drive consumers’ sentiments, but instead follow it. In other words, consumers tend to react to the actual economic situation they are experiencing on the ground, rather than the news coverage they consume. Several different studies have found this result, one way or another. Here was the conclusion of a 2002 study in the International Journal of Public Opinion Research:

During an economic slump, the general public are more attentive to the news and, therefore, more likely to be affected by recession coverage. Yet, the public seems to have a remarkably keen sense about the improving economy, so they could be oblivious to the continuous recession coverage in the recovery period. When public opinion is examined over the entire period, however, it is still the economic reality that works as the better predictor.

People do pay more attention to the news when the economy is struggling, which might explain why there is more news coverage in a bad economy — that’s what people want to know about. But their opinions will improve as the real economy does, even if the media is not yet reflecting that improvement in its coverage.

The fears of “media malady” — negative news coverage actually hurting the American economy — do not seem to be well founded. There may be some effect, but it is probably not determinative, i.e. the media can’t cause a recession. As another research paper, published in 1997 in Public Opinion Quarterly, concluded succinctly: “Our research has shown that, regardless of news exposure, the general public follows a path of economic opinion well marked by the signposts of the real economy.”

(One oft-cited paper studying the 1992 presidential campaign did find news consumers had a negative perception of the economy and George H.W. Bush that was disproportionate to the actual economic conditions, but the same research also noted 1992 was an outlier when compared to three other recent election cycles. The exception that proves the rule.)

In other words: No, Mr. President, the media probably isn’t going to create a recession out of thin air. News coverage of the economy might increase amid the warning signs of a crisis, but that is a symptom, not the cause, of an underlying problem.

The media feels guilty about the Great Recession and they want to make up for it

What Trump, unwittingly, might be picking up on is the national media’s guilt about failures to detect the warning signs of the 2008 crash and to prepare the public for what was coming. Reporters are already primed to focus on negative news, particularly economic news, but there is more vigilance after the soul searching that followed the last economic crisis.

It is a fact of the historical record that watchdogs in the media did not fully comprehend the degree of economic vulnerability during the mid-aughts, failing to appreciate how toxic the combination of the subprime mortgage crisis and the housing bubble would be. Dean Starkman, a former Los Angeles Times business reporter, wrote a whole book in 2014 about how the financial press failed to anticipate how vulnerable the economy was in the mid-2000s.

As former editor Howard Gold wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review last year:

And yet journalism did fail: It failed to alert its readers to the coming disaster, to appreciate the complicity of the Wall Street banks, and to understand the inability or unwillingness of regulators to grasp the problem. That business journalists are still defending their role in a meltdown that happened ten years ago speaks to how deep the criticism cut and how raw the debate still is. I was editor of before the crisis and didn’t see it coming, either.

The recent red flags (the inverted yield curve especially) have given the media a chance to right those wrongs. The result is the news coverage speculating about a recession that has been upsetting Trump. While it is true the media tends to pay more attention to the news when the economic forecast is grim, the available research indicates this is because they are picking up on real signals from consumers, rather than creating a panic out of thin air. The media can harden and deepen fears about an economic downturn, but it doesn’t seem to actually produce them.

In other words, Trump should worry not because of bad news coverage but because there are real reasons to fear a recession is coming. Blame the economy, not the messenger.