Opinion | On crime and the economy, Republicans dictate the media narrative

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Democrats tend to think of Republicans as messaging wizards, able to conjure controversies out of thin air and manipulate voters’ minds. While the GOP’s powers of mesmerism are drastically overstated, there are moments when they seem to easily persuade big news organizations to repeat their preferred narratives, after which public opinion follows along.

This is playing out on two important issues: crime and the economy.

Start with crime. Whenever something bad happens, such as an increase in homicides, the media tell us that it’s happening and also how to understand it: why it happened, what it means, who might be blamed.

As you probably know, homicides significantly increased when the pandemic began. Here are a few representative figures: In Jacksonville, Fla., there were 131 murders in 2019, which rose to 144 in 2020, then fell to 109 in 2021. In Fort Worth, there were 71 murders in 2019, which surged to 115 in 2020 and 118 in 2021, the highest the city had experienced in decades.

I chose those two cities because they have about the same population as San Francisco — though Jacksonville and Fort Worth both have Republican mayors and Republican chief prosecutors. Yet they have many more murders than San Francisco, which recorded 41 in 2019, 48 in 2020 and 56 in 2021.

If you don’t recall the national media headlines reading “Tough-on-crime Republican prosecutors on defensive over crime increase,” that’s because there hasn’t been any such coverage. However, there have been many stories like this one from the Wall Street Journal: “Progressive Prosecutor Movement Tested by Rising Crime and Angry Voters.”

The main subject of that and many others is San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who faces a well-funded recall election on Tuesday. He was elected in 2019, and, like his Republican counterparts, hasn’t brought down homicides.

Watch Chesa Boudin surf — and respond to his critics

San Francisco politics, like that of every large city, is extremely complex. Boudin has been feuding with the city’s police since before he took office; there are allegations that the police have actively tried to sabotage him. And the problems that have the city’s residents angry — particularly property crimes and homelessness — go back decades.

But in the national media, this story has been framed as one of a progressive prosecutor whose liberal policy ideas failed and produced a backlash. The fact that there are just a few such prosecutors, and that the increase in crime happened pretty much everywhere in the country, is buried in the 17th paragraph, if it’s mentioned at all.

What that means is that the story Republican politicians and conservative media want people to believe — crime is out of control, and it’s all the fault of Democrats — is reinforced by the media narrative. That narrative isn’t necessarily false in the particular facts it includes, but it adds up to a grossly misleading picture. And should Boudin lose the recall, there will be a wave of stories about how even voters in liberal cities are rejecting a liberal approach to crime prevention.

Joshua Davis: What Chesa Boudin’s recall vote could mean for criminal justice reform

Now let’s turn to the economy. In a recent Economist-YouGov poll, 55 percent of Americans said we’re in a recession, which is both bonkers and completely explicable. Among people who voted for Donald Trump in 2020, the number was 74 percent; even 40 percent of Biden voters said we’re in a recession.

We are most certainly not in a recession. The economy has created more than 8 million jobs since Joe Biden took office in January of last year, an absolutely stunning pace of job creation; unemployment is now at just 3.6 percent.

Of course, most people don’t know the technical meaning of the word “recession” (generally defined as a significant contraction of the economy, or one lasting two consecutive quarters or more). For the average citizen, “recession” just means “the economy is really bad right now.”

The true state of the economy is complicated. On one hand, there has almost never been a better time in the last half-century or so to find a job and get a raise. On the other hand, inflation is high, particularly gas prices.

You might note that inflation is something people experience in their own lives, and they see gas prices on giant signs all over the place, which is true. But media narratives tell us how to contextualize and extrapolate the things we see in our lives, how to fit them into a broader picture about the country and the world.

Regular news consumers see approximately a zillion stories every day about gas prices, complete with endless shots of gas station signs and interviews with Joe and Jane American at the pump, shaking their heads about how much this is eating into their budgets. That kind of attention communicates that higher gas prices aren’t just something unfortunate that we hope will ease soon, but that they’re causing cataclysmic suffering — a notion that then gets reinforced by constant Republican attacks on the president for not solving the problem, when in reality there’s very little he can do to control prices.

The lesson of these two cases isn’t that Republicans can just dictate any story line to reporters. For every time they succeed in doing so, there are a few times they try and fail. But on two of the biggest stories of the moment, the media are giving them getting exactly what they want.

Read More: Opinion | On crime and the economy, Republicans dictate the media narrative

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