The New York Times and CNN are spreading misinformation designed to scare people about the economy

The New York Times and CNN are spreading misinformation designed to scare people about the economy
Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

Prices are up. That's absolutely true. Inflation has increased since the beginning of 2021 at a rate unmatched since 2009. But that's what happens every time a Democratic president drags the economy back out of the ditch where a Republican administration left it. It's not, as the media seems to be insisting, a sign of the apocalypse.

Two weeks ago, CNN ran a segment that was supposedly about how families are "constrained by inflation" and that this is putting "a burden" on their lives. In the segment, CNN's Brianna Keilar throws over to reporter Evan McMorris-Santoro with an expression of deep concern about how inflation is affecting how families "feed their kids." McMorris-Santoro, handily standing in front of a gas station sign, moves directly into how gas is "up by more than a dollar since last year" without noting that the prices in 2020 were heavily depressed by the pandemic. He then goes on to interview his typical American family in Texas—who have nine kids and buy 12 gallons of milk each week.

Most of the criticism about the story has focused on that astounding number. Any family that buys 48 gallons of milk each month is pretty far from typical in our 1.23 children per family on average society. But that's not the problem. And it's not just CNN.

The problem with that original report on CNN isn't the family, and it's not their fondness for milk. The problem is how McMorris-Santoro enthusiastically passes along misinformation without correction.

"I think that probably in June, a dollar was worth a dollar," says the mother in the interview. "And now that dollar is worth about seventy cents."

The inflation rate over the last few months may have been higher than Americans are used to over the last decade, but a dollar in June is actually worth about $0.97. The actual rate of inflation is 10 times smaller than the number that was passed along with comment. McMorris-Santoro doesn't make that correction.

Then comes that citation for a gallon of milk, with a claim that it was $1.99 at some unstated time in the past, but is now $2.79. Both of those prices are not only well below the average cost of a gallon of milk in America, the lower value hasn't been seen since around 1994.

The truth is that milk prices are almost completely divorced from inflation. That's because they are set by Federal Milk Marketing Orders that were last revised in 2000. That system generates a complex, regional pricing system that results in milk being extremely cheap in the Upper Midwest, with prices increasing as you move away from that area—to sites such as Texas. Stores can, and do, advertise and sell milk at lower prices. They do this as a loss leader to bring people into the store. But the actual cost of milk now is lower than it has been for most of the last two decades.

None of this gets explained. Instead, McMorris-Santoro goes to lengths to point out the large consumption of this exceptionally large family. If the numbers provided are accurate, all that milk works out to about $10 a week in extra expense. Or $40 a month.

However, McMorris-Santoro completely fails to mention that, even if the one child the family is fostering isn't included, they would still be receiving at least $2,000 a month in new child tax credits that President Joe Biden began issuing in July. That's right. June, the month that is set up in the interview as the Last Good Month before things went to hell, was actually the last month before they began getting monthly benefits as large as their family.

Inflation over that period wasn't 30%. It was 3%. Milk prices over that period didn't go up $0.80 nationally, they went up by just $0.11. And all of that was a blip compared to the $2,000 check that began rolling out to the family in the interview every single month. But that's not how it got presented.

"Grocery shopping means tough choices right now," voices McMorris-Santoro.

That's followed by a statement from the father in the interview who says, "We're not buying the most healthy stuff, because [the] prices have gone way up. I feel kind of guilty that we can't afford the good things to be healthy also."

The remainder of the piece focuses on how the family has to clip coupons, look for bargains, and bypass things they'd like to have. That's before the final statement in which we're told that their total bill—$310—would have been "$150 or $200" back in March. In other words, the CNN story is now pushing the idea that there has been 107% inflation since March. No one corrects this. In fact, McMorris-Santoro doubles down, saying that the family is "feeling the inflation squeeze to a tune of an extra hundred dollars a week."

They're not. But even if they were, they would be coming out $400 a week ahead thanks to those child tax credits. So why aren't they able to buy their kids healthier food than they were buying in June?

The reason this interview became infamous may be for the 12 gallons of milk, but it should be disdained for using the Big Two distortions when it comes to selling Americans on a disaster that didn't happen.

  • It treats the exceptional as if it's average.
  • It passes along gross exaggerations without correction.

And all that would be true even if the child tax credit is ignored. Which it shouldn't be.

So … here's a story from The New York Times that ran on Saturday, written by Emma Goldberg, Coral Murphy Marcos, and Kellen Browning. See how it lines up on those points.

That story starts out just like the CNN piece, by telling us that, "The national average for a gallon of gas is $3.41, which is $1.29 more than it was a year ago, according to AAA." But it fails to point out that those low prices in 2020 were actually the cheapest gas has been in any November since 2008. The article, like many others, starts off by comparing current prices to prices that were depressed by the worst impacts of the pandemic, generating the maximum apparent increase. That's step one.

But that's just a baby step compared to what comes next.

While consumers are seeing a steady rise in the prices of many goods and services, the cost of gas is especially visible. It is displayed along highways across the country, including in areas where a gallon has climbed as high as $7.59.

Where is gas $7.59 a gallon? Not in any state listed by AAA. The most expensive grade in the most expensive state is $5 a gallon. Where does the $7.59 number come from? Who knows. Goldberg, Marcos, and Browning certainly don't bother to provide that information.

But hang on, we're not done.

Aldo McCoy, who owns an auto repair shop in Toms River, watched the numbers on a gas pump flash higher Wednesday as he filled up the tank of his 1963 Chevrolet Impala. He recalled recently filling his 2003 Cadillac Escalade and seeing the price go above $100, where it used to be $45.

This paragraph manages to check both of the Big Two in as many sentences. It not only treats an absolutely exceptional circumstance—a guy who owns a 58-year-old muscle car and a massive 18-year-old SUV as if this makes him a great example, it passes along something this driver "recalls" that simply can't be true.

Even assuming that Mr. McCoy's Escalade topped off at exactly $100, that would make his $45 fill up 222% more expensive than whenever "used to be" might be. How far back do we need to go to get that number? Try 2002. Which would be a year before that Escalade rolled into the showroom.

You might think that a claim that gas prices have increased by 222% might merit at least some incredulity on the part of the Times. Or that such a claim might at least require some definition of how far back "used to be" might be. It does not. Instead, they get right into the burden that this incredible, amazing, increase in price has placed on McCoy and his cohorts.

Mr. McCoy said he and his staff were working more than 15 hours of overtime each week to compensate for the extra money they spent on gas. He has also cut back on his household spending.

Even if you assume McCoy filled his Escalade's 31-gallon tank every week, that would set his hourly salary at $3.67 an hour. And that's overtime. Who knows what he makes in a regular hour. Since McCoy is the owner of the shop, he should really talk to himself about that salary.

Just like the family in the CNN story, here's an ordinary American, in a typical situation, facing a huge and unreasonable burden because of massive inflation. Except it's absolutely none of those things.

Instead, it's Goldberg, Marcos, and Browning passing along unverified numbers, all of which are clearly exaggerated, in the way that generates maximum drama, without bothering to ever check for reasonableness.

Those Big Two points again

  • It treats the exceptional as if it's average.
  • It passes along gross exaggerations without correction.

In both cases, CNN and the TImes avoid directly making false claims themselves. They just let the people they're interviewing make those claims, and let them go uncorrected.

Which makes you wonder how many interviews they went through until they came up with someone who gave them the kind of scare quotes they wanted.

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