It’s safe to assume that no president wants the economy to fall into a recession, particularly headed into a midterm election in which his party could lose control of Congress. Unfortunately for the American people — and President Biden — our Gross Domestic Product has contracted for the last two quarters, which is a long-standing and widely accepted definition of a recession.
So, what has the White House done about it? Why, changed the definition of a recession, of course. And many in the media have dutifully obliged.
In an unsigned blog post on the White House website, the administration attempted to get ahead of the bad news by claiming, “While some maintain that two consecutive quarters of falling real GDP constitute a recession, that is neither the official definition nor the way economists evaluate the state of the business cycle.”
But Mr. Biden needn’t fear, because the corporate media were there to help, even if they’d expressed different opinions in the past.
While discussing Japan’s economy in 2000, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote, “The Japanese economy has almost certainly been shrinking for the last two quarters, which means that by the usual definition it has slipped back into recession.”
Today, Mr. Krugman, who is alleged to be a Nobel Prize-winning economist, disregards what he previously called the “usual definition,” telling CNN that our current situation is “not a recession in any technical sense.”
Mr. Krugman also bluntly tweeted, “Ignore the two-quarter rule. We might have a recession, but we aren’t in one now.”
CNN’s White House correspondent John Harwood, who may be more in the tank for Democrats than any other mainstream journalist, tweeted in 2019 (while former President Donald Trump was in office) that “recession = economy shrinks for two quarters.”
These days, Harwood has been at work retweeting posts that make the exact opposite argument, including one that declared, “No, 2 quarters of negative economic growth does not mean we’re in a recession.”
In 2020, once again while Mr. Trump was president, CNN knew what the word meant when they reported, “Normally, economists define a recession as consecutive quarters of negative growth.”
But now, CNN’s chief business correspondent Christine Romans is performing backflips to get away from that, allowing only that two consecutive quarters of negative growth is just “the beginning of the definition of recession.”
Ms. Romans preferred to call it a “slowdown,” complained about people engaging in “semantics,” and worried that such rhetoric would cause people to “talk” us into a recession.
Ben White, chief economic correspondent for Politico, wrote in June that we are in “a slide in gross domestic product that lasts at least two quarters, the technical definition of a recession.”
Just a month later, he tweeted that he “should have known better at the time but it had been a while since I’d studied recession criteria and that’s not it.”
Perhaps it was the White House blog post that schooled him?
Politico’s main account tweeted that the two-quarters rule is “one — though far from the only — criteria for a recession” and accused Republicans of being the ones to “cast aside all technicalities.”
Another Politico tweet warned people against believing the economic news, previewing the “possibly inaccurate and certain to be revised reading of U.S. economic performance in the second quarter of this deeply weird economic year.”
That one belongs in a museum for journalistic bias.
Headlines in both The New York Times and Washington Post would only go as far as saying that there are now “fears” of a recession while The Associated Press would admit merely that we “may be approaching a recession.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Biden’s online allies have leapt into action to backstop the White House. Instagram and Facebook have labeled posts that accuse the administration of reinventing the definition of a recession as “false information reviewed by fact-checkers.”
One of those fact-checkers, Politifact, gave a false rating to the claim that “the White House is now trying to protect Joe Biden by changing the definition of the word recession,” though that’s exactly what happened on the White House blog.
Capping all of this was a tweet from CNN that read, “If you’re confused about whether the U.S. economy is in a recession, you’re not alone.”
Maybe that’s because CNN and others have gone into overdrive to muddy the issue and ignore the two-quarters rule they’ve all used in the past.
What cannot be disputed is that the media have new opinions on what defines a recession, and if they were being truthful, they’d say it depends on who’s president at the time.
• Tim Murtaugh is a Washington Times columnist and the founder and principal of Line Drive Public Affairs, a communications consulting firm where he advises political candidates and corporate clients.