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Jobs Report Covered Through 2012 Election Lens, Media Not Focused On Impact To American People

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NEW YORK -- Romney's up. Obama's down.

That's the takeaway from much of Friday's media coverage of another disappointing monthly jobs report and unchanged unemployment number of 8.2 percent. Like clockwork, political reporters quickly sized up whether the addition of 80,000 jobs in June would help or hurt President Barack Obama's chances of keeping his own job, rather than the broader impact on millions of unemployed Americans.

The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza tweeted that June's number presents a "major political problem for Obama." He later suggested in a blog post that any hope the president "will be able to run for reelection bolstered by an improving financial picture is rapidly disappearing."

Kicking off MSNBC's "The Daily Rundown," host Chuck Todd said that "another disappointing jobs report puts more pressure on the president with just four months until election day." On Twitter, Politico's Ben White said the report is "not good news for Obama."

In covering the campaign horse race, reporters often make snap judgements following statements, reports, or "gaffes" that are mostly forgotten days later amid the stream of non-stop election coverage.

Earlier this week, the consensus among reporters was that Team Romney was down, following adviser Eric Fehrnstrom's comment that the individual health care mandate is a "penalty" rather than a "tax." Similar to health care -- where the media focused more on the politics of the bill rather than its contents -- the jobs numbers could be reduced to a win or loss in a long election season.

But as the summer holiday week came to a close, Team Obama was on the defensive, as Friday's news was ruled a tough blow for the president -- at least according to the news media.

"The U.S. unemployment rate remained flat in June, which is bad news for President Obama," began an ABC News piece.

While the jobs news is arguably a lot worse for millions of people looking for work, the media's focus on Obama turned into easy fodder for Republicans arguing that their candidate would be better for the economy.

The Republican National Committee quickly created an ad juxtaposing a CNBC clip of reporter John Harwood describing the "weakest job-adding quarter in two years" with Obama's comments Friday about the economy taking a "step in the right direction." Not responding to Harwood, Obama said Friday that the June jobs add to the 4.4 million new jobs created over the past 28 months.

The Republican National Committee also blasted out a number of articles and tweets from reporters like Cillizza and White, as well as quotes from cable news reporters summing how the report will impact presidential race.

On "Morning Joe," CNBC’s Mary Thompson said that the “numbers certainly could have an impact on who will be the next American president.” Fox News' John Roberts said that report is "not good for the president" and, borrowing from "I Love Lucy" co-star Desi Arnaz, said Obama has some "'splainin to do' today touting his economic record."

"So let's be real," said Krystal Ball on MSNBC. "It doesn't exactly take a rocket scientist to tell you that today's jobs numbers are bad for the president and somewhat better for Mitt Romney." Next, Ball and her co-hosts on "The Cycle" debated the impact of the June numbers on voters heading to the polls in November.

Given that both Obama and Romney responded to the jobs numbers, it's understandable that political reporters, including at The Huffington Post, would cover those statements in a political context. But if news organizations only cover the horse race aspect, they're essentially ignoring the much larger issue of unemployment.

Matt Bai, a political writer for The New York Times who often focuses more on long-form pieces than the daily churn, told HuffPost that in covering job numbers, "the economic story has to have some political context and the political story has to have some economic context -- that every month's jobs numbers aren't this thing in-and-of-itself."

Bai summed up media tendency's to use such reports in crowning the day's political winner as "a manifestation of what I call the ESPN-ing of American politics, the use of data and prognostication in the constant pursuit of knowing how things are going to turn out before they actually turn out." A diehard Yankees fan, Bai said that it's one thing to cover who's up and who's down in the major leagues, but suggested the political media pack should avoid assigning points to candidates over important topics like the jobs crisis.

"Baseball really has no impact on anybody's life," Bai said. "I have less of a problem with baseball becoming a Sabermetrics obsession and a constant source of prognostication. Politics is not, actually, a game. Politics, as we know, has profound implications. If it didn't, I'd go cover baseball."

[Video produced by Ben Craw]

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