'Depression Fetishism' All the Rage

Not a day goes by without a journalist reminding us that "this is the worst economy in seventy-five years." A quick mental calculation takes us back to the early 1930s and -- bam! -- it's the Great Depression all over again. It's a convenient historical marker. In 1933, 4,000 banks went belly up. The unemployment rate reached 25 percent. While the economy grew late in the decade, poverty, suffering, and desperation lingered across the national landscape -- perhaps most memorably captured in the migrant imagery of photographer Dorothea Lange. It wasn't until after World War II that the psychology of economic prosperity returned to pre-1929 levels.

There is no doubt that today's economic crisis ranks among the most severe we've seen in decades, and no one discounts the painful dislocation millions of Americans are feeling amid housing losses and widespread job market instability. But it's less persuasive that today's recession equals the fundamental collapse of capitalism of the New Deal era. Indeed, recent public opinion polling suggests that Americans see business journalism as contributing to the economic downturn. As a January 1 Opinion Research Corporation survey reported:

Seventy-seven percent of Americans believe that the U.S. media is making the economic situation worse by projecting fear into people's minds. ... The majority of those surveyed feel that the financial press, by focusing on and embellishing negative news, is damaging consumer confidence and damping investment, making a difficult situation much worse.

Careful observers of news and public opinion know that the mass media is consumed by "Depression fetishism." It's an affliction of the political left where pundits, liberal economists and far left bloggers endlessly decry "predatory capitalism." Economic exaggeration and doomsday scenarios proliferate far and wide, with attacks on the Bush administration's "malign economic neglect" bolstering the case on the Democratic left for a "New, New Deal." Recall, for example, one of the great national newsweeklies sold magazines with a mock-up of President-elect Barack Obama riding in a vintage open-air sedan, while decked out with a crumpled fedora and an elongated cigarette filter. Can a new National Industrial Recovery Act be far behind?

Depression fetishism is just the latest indication of the steady decline of the professional media ethos of accuracy, fairness, and impartiality. Today's media is the new partisan press. In business journalism, economic fear-mongering has replaced the who, what, when, where, why, and how of objective, rigorous, in-depth reporting. Banner headlines pump up subliminal 1930's analogies like "Customers Line Up at IndyMac to Withdraw Money", while the story itself omits mention that in 1929, depositors lacked FDIC guarantees of a return on checking and savings deposits of up to $100,000. It's telling that the Washington Post just lured hardline leftist blogger Greg Sargent away from Talking Points Memo, in a development that Newsbusters' Tim Graham says is revealing of today's reporting environment and its "revolving door between the mainstream media and the leftist barricades."