The phrase “job killer” is rarely substantiated when it appears in news stories, according to a study published Thursday morning.
The analysis, conducted by Peter Dreier of Occidental College and Christopher R. Martin of the University of Northern Iowa, examined every occurrence of the phrase or one of its variants, like “kill jobs” or “job-killing,” in articles by the Associated Press, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post going back to 1984. Of the 381 stories that contained the phrase — usually in a source’s quote — fewer than 10 percent substantiated it.
“The news media’s chronic lack of fact‐checking has only encouraged ramped up use of the ‘job killer’ allegation as a political strategy against the Democrats in recent years,” the study says.
The study noted that while legacy papers usually didn’t bother to look into job-killing claims, other sources occasionally did, like when PolitiFact.com checked out whether the 2010 health care reform law was as “job killing” as Republicans said it was and found the claim false. It rested on a Congressional Budget Office report (PDF) that found that subsidies in the law would reduce available labor, since some poorer workers won’t need to work as much in order to cling to health insurance.
Job-killing claims persist in the face of flimsy supporting evidence. Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), defended the term’s use to describe health care reform in particular. “From the president’s health care law, to the national energy tax, to the largest tax hike in history, to the overall regulatory juggernaut coming out of Washington, DC … ‘job killing’ is a fair modifier for an awful lot of their policy proposals,” Steel said in an email.
“There have been efforts to try to undermine any kind of fact checking,” Martin said in an interview, noting that the phenomenon makes him lose hope for investigative journalism.
Dreier and Martin found the phrase pops up more frequently during elections and Democratic presidential administrations, with more than half of all mentions in the period studied occurring during Barack Obama’s presidency. It is most frequently used by conservatives and business interests and is typically aimed at Democratic policies that would raise taxes or beef up environmental and consumer protections. The study found no correlation between the use of “job killing” and the national unemployment rate.
But it’s not just Republicans and CEOs who complain about job killers. In more recent stories about the 2012 presidential campaign, Democrats have used the term to attack presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney for his tenure as CEO of Bain Capital, a private equity firm that acquired companies and often fired workers in an effort to turn the companies around.
Turns out Democrats are deploying the term in the same way it was originally used. The study notes the phrase first appeared in print in a 1922 Los Angeles Times article in which the author described the most efficient job killer as a bad corporate boss. “The jobkiller is an executive who ruthlessly fires men on the pretext of retrenchment and economy, but really in order to ingratiate and intrench [sic] himself more firmly in the good graces of his own superiors,” the author wrote.
“Job killer” first popped up in its more familiar context in 1938 when Raymond Moley, an aide to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, complained of “two particularly oppressive, job-killing taxes” the administration wanted to repeal. Moley is sometimes credited for coming up with the term “New Deal” for FDR’s safety net programs.
Arthur Delaney is a writer for the Huffington Post, covering unemployment and other economic issues. He has written for the Washington City Paper, The Hill newspaper, Slate Magazine, and ABCNews.com. This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post.