The debate, the economy and the business media
by Chris Roush
John Harwood is chief Washington correspondent of CNBC and a political writer for the New York Times.
Harwood was born in Louisville, Ky., and grew up in the Maryland suburbs outside of the nation’s capital. He has been around journalism and politics all his life; his first trip on a presidential campaign press plane came when he was 11 years old and accompanied his father, then a political reporter for the Washington Post.
While still in high school, he began his journalism career as a copy boy at the Washington Star. He studied history and economics at Duke University and graduated magna cum laude in 1978. Harwood subsequently joined the St. Petersburg Times, reporting on police, investigative projects, local government and politics. Later he became state capital correspondent in Tallahassee, Washington correspondent and Political Editor. While covering national politics, he also traveled extensively to South Africa, where he covered deepening unrest against the apartheid regime.
In 1989, Harwood was named a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, where he spent the 1989-90 academic year. In 1991, he joined The Wall Street Journal as White House correspondent, covering the administration of the George H. W. Bush. Later Harwood reported on Congress. In 1997, he became the Journal’s political editor and chief political correspondent.
While at the Journal, Harwood wrote the newspaper’s political column, Washington Wire, and oversaw the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. In March 2006, he joined CNBC as chief Washington correspondent. His weekly column for the Times is “Political Memo.”
In addition to CNBC, Harwood offers political analysis on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and PBS’s “Washington Week in Review,” among other television and radio programs. Harwood has covered each of the last five presidential elections.
On the eve of the first presidential debate Wednesday evening, Harwood talked by email with Talking Biz News about economics coverage and its importance during the election. What follows is an edited transcript.
How important is the economy to the current election?
The economy is the top issue in the election — by far. In our latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 46 percent of voters called the economy the single most important issue in their vote — three times as many as identified the second-ranking concern, social issues.
How well do you think the media has focused on covering the economy during the election?
Generally well. But I think the media has at times focused too narrowly on the unemployment rate as if that were the only determinant of how voters view the economy and candidates. It isn’t.
What would you like to see improved in terms of the coverage?
I’d like to see more rigorous and realistic analysis of precisely how government policies affect economic activity — and how they don’t. The cause-and-effect links often made are often weak.
What is CNBC’s strategy in terms of covering the economy as an election issue?
It is our principal focus. We aim to examine what the candidates are proposing and how it would affect, business and labor, consumers and investors.
The intersection between business and politics seems to be a growing coverage topic in journalism. Why is that?
Partly because of the way the role of government in the economy has expanded, partly because of the increasing role of money in politics, partly because the global nature of the economy has made relations among government more important to prosperity, and partly because voter choices are in recent years increasingly tied to economic well-being.
How have you seen economics coverage change in your time in Washington?
For the reasons listed above, coverage of business and economics is now more expansive than ever in my lifetime.
How do the debates influence or change media coverage with one month to go before the election?
As the only concentrated opportunity for tens of millions of voters to evaluate candidates side by side, interacting with each other, debates are a powerful opportunity for campaigns to compete for the few remaining undecided voters. That makes them a major event in the campaign we are covering. But debates are less important than they once were because, in an era of thorough-going polarization, they reinforce existing attitudes more than they create new attitudes.
There seems to be a lot of focus on jobs growth under Obama. Is that the correct emphasis for economic coverage?
It is an important focus, but should not be the only one. Just as important is whether or not the policies he has advocated to create future growth in jobs, incomes, exports and profits are likely to work.