The economy is formally in a recession, as the National Bureau of Economic Research and President Bush said last week. But the current crisis lacks a capital-letter name.
Then again, the Great Depression did not become “great” immediately, and World War I wasn’t known as No. 1 at the time. While the “economic crisis” — a term often used by journalists — has also been called the “credit crunch” and the “Wall Street crisis,” it remains the rare major news event without a defining logo, one that crystallizes attention and acts as shorthand for reporters.
One day, perhaps, the slow-motion downturn of the economy will receive the same one-name treatment as Vietnam, Watergate and Iran-Contra. But for now, the language of the current economic woes remains understandably murky, despite the impulses of journalists.
“The news always feels the need to name everything,” Jonathan Wald, the senior vice president for business news at CNBC, said. “If it’s not branded, it doesn’t exist in modern television.” He observed that the television channels in India quickly labeled last month’s militant attacks in Mumbai as the “War on Mumbai” and “India’s 9/11.”
CNBC, which has seen sharp ratings gains in recent months, initially called the economic situation a “credit crisis.” Eventually it became a “Wall Street crisis,” and before long it was a “Wall Street/Main Street crisis.” In the last week,
“Great Recession” has become a popular phrase.
“Sometimes there are no easy names for things that are this big and important,” Mr. Wald said. CNBC used a temporary title, “Is Your Money Safe?,” for special reports from 7 to 9 p.m. in March when Bear Stearns collapsed, and again in September and October when other investment banks folded or revamped. But in mid-November, the network renamed its 7 to 9 p.m. hours “CNBC Reports,” partly because the other title was “asking a question no one could really answer,” Mr. Wald said.
The titles and logos that news organizations bestow upon major events, unseemly as they sometimes are, can affect public opinion. Already, language has influenced the debate about the economy: the depiction of the government’s $700 billion “troubled assets relief program” as a bailout helped inflame opposition to the proposal. More recently, Democrats have moved to call their stimulus plan an “economic recovery program.”
The art of language did not go unnoticed during the 1930s, either. Eric Rauchway, a professor of history at the University of California, Davis, and the author of “The Great Depression and the New Deal: A Very Short Introduction,” said that by 1932, Americans were already referring to the economic downturn as a singular event. By 1933, the Stuart Chase book “A New Deal” had used the phrase “Great Depression,” and in 1934, the British economist Lionel Robbins had published a book titled “The Great Depression.”
The label indicated that the downturn was “qualitatively different” from previous economic contractions. “Regarding it as exceptional probably helped people think a bit about exceptional solutions — although, you know, the problem with the New Deal was basically that it wasn’t exceptional enough,” Mr. Rauchway said in an e-mail message.
Wars also receive capital-letter titles, although sometimes only with the passing of time. World War I was called The Great War and “the war to end all wars,” Mr. Williams wrote, “until we learned there would be another.”
As for the current economic crisis, he added, “Sadly, we’ll come up with something to call it, soon enough ... just as soon as we figure out what it is, exactly.” Other journalists agree. “Crisis” is the most common term being used by the news media, said Ali Velshi, the chief business correspondent for CNN, but a full accounting of the story will require some distance.
“We need some time to go by before we know what the turning points are and what actually happened,” he said. Mr. Velshi, whose book about the crisis, “Gimme My Money Back,” will be on bookshelves in January, says he believes that a title like the Great Intervention may suit the story. “It’s the defining characteristic,” he said. “This is the greatest intervention of the government since the Depression.”
That said, assigning a name and a logo to a news event runs the risk of devaluing it in the public’s mind. The propensity to name every potential scandal a “gate,” in an allusion to the Watergate break-in that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation, “tends to cheapen it,” Mr. Wald said.
Moreover, he said, reporters, editors and anchors also have a responsibility, one often discussed within news organizations in the last months, not to overreact or offer an undue sense of panic about the economic situation, whatever history winds up calling it. “Nobody wants to title it worse than it is,” Mr. Wald said.