The recent economic downturn has drawn a lot of comparison to the 1929 depression. Media coverage of this event ranges from bleak experts predicting the financial apocalypse to optimistic politicians telling the public to keep spending and not to worry. This begs the question in the modern mind: If the economic crisis is really as bad as it was in 1929, is the media sugar-coating it? How is media coverage of the 2009 “recession” different from the 1929 “depression?”
In this blog I will analyze two papers on the day of Black Tuesday—the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times—and their economic coverage in relation to the industry at the time. I will then compare this coverage to the general coverage of the recent economic crisis.
October 29, 1929 is the day that many economists will tell you started the public impact of the Great Depression, triggered the week before on "Black Thursday". But, considering its historic significance and incredible influence on the average American, the start of the Great Depression was not a huge, page-wide, story. Why didn’t editors see the inevitable impact of the event? Did they not think that it was newsworthy enough to devote an entire page? In a word, yes. The journalism industry of the 1920’s was a sensational one. The Yellow Press was still at work and editors printed what would sell. There was a bigger push for news with an entertainment value than with an educational one. Looking back on Black Tuesday, a modern American would naturally think that it would be in the headlines to “Get in the Breadlines,” but then, perhaps as now, the media would rather print what would sell rather than what will inform.
The New York Times gave the economy a third of its front page on Black Tuesday. The story shared the page with news on Senate decisions, a Hungarian countess and an obituary—none of which are relevant today. The Times did not bother to explain the crisis to the men that would soon be loosing their jobs. (But, to be fair, they did not write for the everyman.) The story gives a chart of statistics with huge numbers and a jargon-filled caption, reminiscent of the modern news stories. A man with no interest in the stock market would skim right over the numbers to story that he better understood—a story that he thought actually effected him—not knowing that because of those numbers, he would soon be homeless.
The Los Angeles Times gives even less space to the stock market. A political cartoon about the Chief of Police dominates the front page and the eye travels faster to a story about a musician’s union than to the economic depression. (When I first opened the file, I thought I had made a mistake.) And the lead is almost humorous. “An incredible stock market tumbled toward chaos today despite heroic measures adopted by the nations greatest bankers.” (In the modern recession, to think of bankers as heroic is like confusing the Grinch with Superman.) The story goes on to use exciting words and phrases like “Wall Street throbbed with excitement” and “back-to-the-wall battle.” Unlike the New York Times, The Los Angeles Times is making Black Tuesday sound more like a football game than the beginning of the biggest economic crisis the US had ever seen.
How does the Yellow Press-era media coverage of Black Tuesday compare to modern coverage of the recession? The similarities are unavoidable. Will modern Americans soon be waiting the breadline? Can the media do something about it? When the stock market first started to tank last year, it was a news story but not THE news story. No papers devoted a full page to it and no TV news channels devoted full coverage to it. After all, we had a historic presidential election, two wars and gay marriage to write about. Seeing both sides of the issue, I will ask this question to the commenters:
Did the media cover the current recession enough in the early stages?