Economy & Business

CNN, MSNBC Anchors Cite Misleading GDP Numbers to Make Disastrous Economic Performance Seem Even Worse

The closing numbers on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in New York City, March 9, 2020. (Bryan R Smith/Reuters)

Following news that the United States had suffered its worst-ever GDP contraction amid the coronavirus pandemic, both MSNBC anchor Brian Williams and CNN anchor Chris Cuomo incorrectly characterized the numbers as they took the opportunity to criticize President Trump.

The Commerce Department said Thursday that national gross domestic product fell 9.5 percent from April through June, the largest drop ever recorded. The second-quarter decline resulted in annualized rate of 32.9 percent — an estimate of how much the economy would shrink if the 9.5 percent fall was compounded for the rest of the year.

The distinction was ignored by pundits like Williams and Cuomo, who seized on the 32.9 percent statistic without highlighting the context. During a segment on MSNBC, Williams claimed that the economy fell “a staggering 32.9 percent. Put another way, we’ve lost a third of the value of goods and services produced by our mighty country.”

The claim is false. Adjusted for inflation and reported by quarterly totals, the economy would have had to contract at three times the observed rate to make it accurate.

“A 32.9 percent drop would mean a loss of about $1.6 trillion from last quarter. In fact, the economy shrank $0.45 trillion in the second quarter, on the heels of a $0.06 trillion (1.3 percent) decrease in the first quarter of 2020,” the Washington Post explains.

Cuomo also compared the U.S. annualized number to other country’s statistics in an attempt to show “the proof” that Trump has mishandled the pandemic.

“Lots of countries are dealing with COVID, right? Why are we down almost a third of our GDP growth, and yet Germany was down 10 percent?” Cuomo asked.

The CNN anchor failed to make clear that he was comparing the American annualized rate to the German quarterly rate in a sleight of hand that tells viewers virtually nothing about the countries’ relative economic performance. Germany also reported its statistics on Thursday, revealing a 10.1 percent GDP decline for the second quarter, the worst since 1970. Thus, comparing quarterly rates shows that the German economy contracted at a worse rate — 10.1 to 9.5 — than the United States.

And calculated on an annual basis, the German GDP decline would be 34.7 percent, nearly two points higher than the U.S. rate cited by Cuomo.

Requests for comment to CNN and MSNBC on the misleading statements were not returned by press time.

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