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Front Page Economics
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Front Page Economics

by Gerald D. Suttles

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In an age when pundits constantly decry overt political bias in the media, we have naturally become skeptical of the news. But the bluntness of such critiques masks the highly sophisticated ways in which the media frame important stories. In Front Page Economics, Gerald Suttles delves deep into the archives to examine coverage of two major economic


In an age when pundits constantly decry overt political bias in the media, we have naturally become skeptical of the news. But the bluntness of such critiques masks the highly sophisticated ways in which the media frame important stories. In Front Page Economics, Gerald Suttles delves deep into the archives to examine coverage of two major economic crashes—in 1929 and 1987—in order to systematically break down the way newspapers normalize crises.

Poring over the articles generated by the crashes—as well as the people in them, the writers who wrote them, and the cartoons that ran alongside them—Suttles uncovers dramatic changes between the ways the first and second crashes were reported. In the intervening half-century, an entire new economic language had arisen and the practice of business journalism had been completely altered. Both of these transformations, Suttles demonstrates, allowed journalists to describe the 1987 crash in a vocabulary that was normal and familiar to readers, rendering it routine.

A subtle and probing look at how ideologies are packaged and transmitted to the casual newspaper reader, Front Page Economics brims with important insights that shed light on our own economically tumultuous times.

Editorial Reviews

David Paul Nord
“News stories are called ‘stories’ for a reason: they have plots and characters, scenes and metaphors—just like works of fiction. Front Page Economics is a splendid evocation of the stories that journalists have told during economic crises. In a painstaking comparative analysis of economic news in the crashes of 1929 and 1987, Gerald Suttles brilliantly reveals how popular economic storytelling was transformed in twentieth-century America.”

James S. Ettema
“While the economy is well covered by the news media, that coverage has not been subjected to the level of scholarly scrutiny warranted by its importance as an aspect of public affairs. Carefully researched and clearly written, Front Page Economics offers an insightful analysis of the business beat and the explanatory strategies its journalists employ.”

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University of Chicago Press
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Front Page Economics



Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-78198-3

Chapter One

The Daily Press and Our Collective Conscience

The genre of journalism is almost by definition incoherent. It is a daily sampling of a rushing flow of occurrences and observations, which has no beginning and no end. Readers must find (create, actually) coherence through connection, interpolation, and inference (Nord 2001, 74).

The elementary definition of metaphor (and metonym) from which we should work is the predication of a sign-image upon an inchoate subject. The first mission of metaphor is to provide identity for such subjects (Fernandez 1986, 31). We are, indeed, "time binders" concerned to find the kind of identity and activity that will concretize the inchoate, fill the frame in which we find ourselves, and bind the past and the future together (ibid., 45).

How do readers and journalists create coherence from this rushing flow of occurrences? How is it that they rescue the specious present from the appearance of accident and remake it into necessity? How do they weigh these occurrences and measure the emotional impact aimed at their readers? Do readers and journalists simply go their separate way, one reading and the other writing? Or, are they assisted by a kind of shared word magic that remakes the news into a recognizable, plausible and, perhaps, a reassuring story?

This book explores these questions by reviewing in some detail the rhetoric used in the Chicago Tribune's news on the American economy in 1929 and 1987. Many readers will recognize 1929 as the year of the great stock market crash. Many will have forgotten the 1987 crash. The 1929 crash was the big one in our collective memory while the 1987 one is quite forgettable. Yet, there are strong similarities between them. Why do they remain so different in our collective memory? What kind of news accompanied each and how did it contribute to this difference in our collective memory? What can it tell us about how editors, journalists, and their informants regulated reader response in two extended periods of crisis?

The choice of the Tribune is largely a personal one. I once knew some of its journalists and have been reading the Tribune for the last forty years. But it could be justified on other grounds. In 1929, the Tribune had the largest circulation of any paper in the country, and it was still among the top newspapers in circulation in 1987. For balance (a word from the journalist's lexicon), I have made extensive comparisons with the New York Times. Both papers were proprietary in 1929 and by 1987 they still took a clearer stand on the economy and polity than the noncommittal language of, say, the Associated Press. If "mainstream" journalists had any kind of word magic, a wide sample should be found in the 1929 and 1987 Times and Tribune. (See the Methodological Appendix for further details.)

Nineteen twenty-nine and 1987 are also apt choices because there was a lot of economic news in both years and journalists got a workout with whatever word magic they had. In both years widespread alarm was feared and journalists were openly called upon to help manage public reaction. Thus, each year provides a rich sample of the journalists' rhetorical skills and their responsibilities in good times, really great times, and very, very bad times.

Another thing that makes the periods interesting is that the discipline of economics underwent a revolution after 1929 and the newspapers followed with a revolution in reporting that change. In 1929 the economy had belonged to the businessman, and he (all of them were "he's") was the journalist's informant and fellow linguist. By the 1940s, however, the discipline of economics provided a new informant, primarily the bank or brokerage economist who pushed aside the businessman's rhetoric. The rhetoric that followed, however, was neither that of academic economics nor one devised only by journalists.

Of course, this change in rhetoric did not occupy the entire period between 1929 and 1987; it was completely over by 1940. But the story of how this change occurred step by step and became standardized would be incomplete without a comparison of the rhetorics and their broader implications by 1987. The business world of 1929 was conceived as a work of nature, regulated by its own invisible parts. By the 1940s it was a man-made engine that raised the unsettling questions of who owns it, who runs it, who repairs it, and who sacrifices for it in return. During each crisis, however, rhetorical resources were called upon to legitimate prior and subsequent economic arrangements while normalizing novel responses to the crisis. To foreshadow some of the rhetorical problems presented by these crises the chapter following this one focuses on the rhetorical problems that were posed by the fundamental change following the 1929 crisis and what I call the "grounding of the economy" as a man-made reality by the late 1930s.

While this book focuses primarily on journalistic rhetoric it follows a sequence of steps that progressively trace this rhetoric through each market crash, the advice of the experts and presidents, and the readers' responses to each crisis of confidence. I then turn to the scandals and legislation that followed each crash, our collective memory of each crash, and, finally, how the rhetoric of popular economics is embedded in our collective memory.

This order of inquiry may seem to wander at times but it really tries to stitch together a series of findings that are treated separately in synchronic media studies. It is, then, a natural history of two big news stories and the journalists', experts', politicians', and readers' changing rhetorical resources in managing each crisis.

Ideology and Rhetoric

In 1929 and 1987, journalists, experts, presidents, and readers were drawn into the newspapers in strikingly different ways. But in both years they were very similar in adopting a persuasive rhetoric rather than merely a technical or descriptive vocabulary. I should pause here, however, to say that I do not consider rhetoric, ideology, or political persuasion as mere deception. Some kind of worldview, Weltanschauung, or Cosmopolis that goes beyond established knowledge seems to be essential in times of uncertainty and ambiguity. Even at their best the social sciences can provide only a rough weighting of future alternatives. Nor can any of them do more than learn from the past. They can make projections but not predictions. When we step into the future, then, persuasion and conviction depend upon a rhetoric that brings together morality and reasoned argument into a language that can reach a general audience.

Thus, as economic reasoning is brought into the media it must be adapted to this rhetoric and made a part of a larger worldview. It is not surprising, then, that a capitalist press includes a favorable place for capitalism in this wider worldview. That is not at issue here. Our principal concern is to show how this is done and what some of its consequences were in our popular but durable collective memory.

At the present time there is a tendency of some economists and their fans to make economic reasoning the sole basis for social policy, or what George Soros calls "market fundamentalism," the idea that all decisions are best settled in the marketplace. But even those who advocate this point of view lace their language in a wider rhetoric that recommends itself to the general reader. Otherwise their work is safely stored in technical journals. It is their wider, more sharable rhetoric that is being sought out here.

Slumps, Market Breaks, Crashes, and Market Failures

The stock market crash of 1929 is written of as a full-scale crisis of capitalism followed by a new industrial contract—the New Deal—between labor and capital. In what is often described as the worst crisis since the Civil War, it was followed by equally significant changes in discourse and political policy (Burk 1988). The crash in 1987, however, is told primarily as a brief market break overcome by that "Maestro," Alan Greenspan (Woodward 2000). (This was also the official diagnosis by the SEC.) Afterward, we had only to respond to Ronald Reagan's continuing invitation to "come home America."

Reagan's restoration was probably the high point of the rhetorical consensus that had been worked out during and following the 1940s. Despite his popularity among neoconservatives, Reagan's hero was FDR and the New Deal era in post–World War II (the 1950s) was the home he (and perhaps those who voted for him) beckoned us to. Certainly that is indicated by this study of the Chicago Tribune. But Reagan's restoration has not lasted and the rhetorical consensus reached in the 1940s and 1950s may be entering a period of contest as we come face to face with globalization. Globalization got its benign newsworthy start in the Reagan years but has been followed by much criticism (Fiss and Hirsch 2005). Globalization stands in direct conflict with the social contract and rhetoric worked out during the Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower years. With globalization the industrial contract ("workplace socialism" it was called at its best) ends. Labor and capital have no fixed location and the nation becomes a legal rather than a moral community. Patriotism becomes empty rhetoric. That is quite a moral and conceptual leap to be spliced onto a rhetoric of understandings and reassurance in which the nation, community, and the economy were almost coterminous. Yet, even the critics of current globalization are in favor of it in principle if not in practice (James 2001; Soros 1998; and Stiglitz 2002). Still, in our latest skimming of the Tribune's coverage of the economy, the newspaper continues the vocabulary of previous decades although obvious news releases toy with an alternative rhetoric more nearly attuned to globalization (see Fiss and Hirsch 2005, 43) and neoconservatism. This book documents the continuity or this rhetoric and the challenge of changing realities that question its continuity.

Frame Analysis

My principal task here is to lay down a method that can reveal the rhetoric that accompanied the great crashes and contributed to the response to and remembrance of each. What we need, then, is a metalanguage—a language about language—that summarizes and makes plain which parts of these ideologies surfaced in 1929 and 1987 and hints at what might be surfacing now.

In recent years such a metalanguage has begun to surface. It is called "frame analysis," and an extended version of it is the primary methodology of this study. Frame analysis is an approach that has brought sociologists, communication researchers, and linguists together in the study of the mass media and social movements. As you might expect it has taken a somewhat different direction in each discipline.

If you trace back the footnotes to frame analysis, however, they usually converge on Erving Goffman's Frame Analysis. Goffman traces the concept back to William James, Gregory Bateson, and Ludwig Wittgenstein (Goffman 1974, 6–7). Goffman was primarily concerned with the "multiple realities" problem, or the question, "Why am I in this social reality and why should I bother to stay in it?" For Goffman, social worlds were scripted and had only a tenuous hold on willful individuals. The general idea was that there is no "Ur" vocabulary that refers definitely to a "real social reality" but only multiple linguistic opportunities of reaching a consensus on a referential frame within which we can "play like" we have found reality. Such social realities might be like play but they have real consequences.

Increasingly, sociologists have searched among vocabularies to understand why some of them capture people and move them to action while others leave them cold. In conversation analysis, for example, the focus is upon the local face-to-face interaction order. Douglas Maynard's study of diabetic and AIDS victims is an interesting example, for while he focuses on patient-doctor interaction he shows how some of their "trial runs" become elaborated and standardized into more widely shared "frames" (although he never mentions the term) in subsequent practice. He closes the study with an epilogue ("How to Tell the [good/bad] News") that seeks to script doctor-patient experimentation and take it out of the local interaction order and into social practice (Maynard 2003, 247–53). The "trial runs" become a shared social reality, departures from which might come to be seen as wrong or deviant.

A variation on this approach is Karl Weick's sensemaking studies of executive decision making under heavy organizational constraints. Executives are not free agents but must reach a final agreement. A good example is Mitchell Abolafia's study of decision making at the Federal Reserve, where the members must reach decisions that are weighty and widely publicized (1988 and 2005). Abolafia concludes that the "policy makers prefer to weave complex narratives that are used retrospectively and prospectively ... to create a richer, more pertinent narrative" [from scattered data]. "As such this constant re-framing is a rational response to the situation, presumably more rational than applying models [alone] that aren't trusted" (Nee and Swedberg 1993, 224). Under very different but equally uncertain circumstances Ann Swidler describes a somewhat similar but more eclectic "cultural tool box" of frames that we draw on to meet the everyday uncertainties of love (Swidler 1986).

A contrast to these temporary or episodic cultural frames is the dramatic reframing that goes on in social movements where a widespread denial of previous frames opens the way to a new "imaginary society" (Snow et al. 1986). Here the old frame provides only a kind of negative counterexample to promote an original vision.

All of these examples capture frames only in the midst of their transition. What I am interested in, however, are mass media frames that last for decades without much change and that remain in popular history even after new frames have replaced the old ones. When such frames change, do they become equally durable or only transient? Michael Schudson suggests an answer in his study of social memory. He writes that "a cultural object [like a social frame] is more powerful [persistent or memorable] the more it is within reach, the more it is rhetorically effective, the more it resonates with existing opinions and structures ... the more thoroughly it is retained in institutions, and the highly resolved it is toward action" (1989, 179, italics in original).

What I aim to do here is to provide a methodology that will take the steps spelled out by Schudson in charting the long duration of journalist frames and also reveal some of the changes that lead to a dramatic change in those frames. All the while, I want to show how reporters made coherent and memorable news of the American economy in two times of crisis.

Media Studies and Frame Analysis

Communication scholars have already employed frame analysis in a number of studies of media rhetoric. (For example, see Bennett and Entman 2001; Entmen 2004; Ettema and Whitney 1994). Entman (2004, 4–6) sees these studies as falling into two camps. The "hegemonic" camp argues that given journalists' vows of objectivity, balance, and nonpartisanship they can only pass on what competing politicians say. Entman, however, sees himself as belonging to an "indexing" camp that, "contrary to the hegemony view ... believe that when elites disagree about foreign policy, media reflect the discord in ways that may affect ... policy." Entman goes further to develop a "cascade model" in which successive disagreements between political news releases open up the reporters' opportunities to reframe the news less in terms of prior claims than as political strategies that are more or less empty of genuine efforts to fulfill political promises. The study is a convincing deconstruction of political frames and how reporters may reveal and shift the balance between contending politicians and, thus, effect public policy.

Media studies often focus on this cat-and-mouse game between politicians and reporters who mold rhetorical frames aimed to arouse or sooth readers. The studies are fascinating but their methodology is a rather opportunist singling out of concepts and phrases that might have emotional impact or resonate with other concepts that may have persuasive value. I find the selection of terms persuasive but difficult to replicate or defend against alternatives.


Excerpted from Front Page Economics by GERALD D. SUTTLES MARK D. JACOBS Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Gerald Suttles is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Chicago and adjunct professor of sociology at Indiana University.


Mark Jacobs is associate professor of sociology at George Mason University

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