The Economy, the Media and Deceptive Sob Story Headlines

When it comes to reporting on the U.S. economy,  never let it be said that the media allows facts to get in the way of a good sob story.  So it was today in yet another report in the New York Times.  The Times has been running a series called  “The Debt Trap” about “the surge in consumer debt and the lenders who made it possible.”   Right away from the subtitle we see that the Times is blaming the “debt trap” on the lenders, not the borrowers.

This particular report in the series was published under the headline “Downturn Drags More Consumers into Bankruptcy.”  Upon reading the report, you start to wonder where this headline came from and who made it up.  The report definitely talks about consumers in bankruptcy – nothing wrong there.  The deceptive part is that for the young couple featured in the story, the economic “downturn” had little to do with their financial mess and ensuing bankruptcy.  Rather, they were suffering the consequences of their own reckless behavior, all of which occurred independently of any “downturn.” 

This is how the story described the situation:

Tony and Carrie Forsyth, both 30, chose not to walk away from their house in Florida. The couple said they thought their financial situation would improve in 2006, when Mr. Forsyth accepted a promotion from his employer, a Michigan food distributor, that required them to move to Florida. But they could not sell their home in Ypsilanti, Mich., so they decided to rent it out.

In June 2006, the couple headed south and bought a house for $220,000 in Tamarac, Fla., with no money down. Five months later, their tenants in Michigan stopped paying, and the family had to carry two mortgage payments, just as the adjustable-rate mortgage on their Michigan home reset to a higher interest rate. They lost the Michigan home to foreclosure in February 2007.

What did the “downturn” have to do with their problem and bankruptcy?  Was it because Mr. Forsyth was promoted?   That can’t be it.  Did the downturn keep them from selling their house in Michigan?  I don’t think so.  This was June 2006, before the real estate bubble burst.  Sounds to me like they were asking too much for the house.  

Did the “downturn” cause them to buy the house in Michigan with an adjustable rate loan that was going to jump upward?  Did the “downturn” cause them to buy a second house in Florida with no money down?  Did the downturn cause them to have so few financial reserves that when the Michigan rent stopped, this couple went immediately to their credit cards to make up the difference, losing the Michigan home to foreclosure after only three months? 

Why on earth did this couple buy a second house with no money down when they could not even handle three months of mortgage payments if something went wrong?   It’s money insanity.

No, Ms. New York Times reporters, the story of Tony and Carrie Forsyth is not about downturns.  It’s about irresponsible behavior and the consequences of assuming too much financial risk.  So why the deceptive headline?  Because the New York Times and many other media outlets are all about promoting victimhood at the expense of personal financial responsibility.  Someone other than the designated victim must be blamed.  In this case, blame the mystical “downturn.”

I don’t know about you, but Mr. ToughMoneyLove is not fooled by headlines or reporting from people who do not know a downturn from a left turn.  I prefer to let the facts tell the story.  My guess is that the Times reporters were themselves carrying hefty consumer credit balances.  They wanted to feel like victims so why not write about others who similarly mess up their financial lives  Everyone feels better when blame can be deflected in another direction, away from themselves.

I am sorry that the Forsyths are in bankruptcy.  But I am also sorry that neither the Forsyths nor the media can properly assign responsibility for that bankruptcy.   I want to help by writing a new headline for the Times story about the Forsyths.  How about this one:  “Underfunded Consumers Gamble and Lose with High Risk Borrowing.”   Do you think that will sell papers? 

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5 Responses to “The Economy, the Media and Deceptive Sob Story Headlines”
  1. Great post. It’s about time somebody had the balls to call it like it is. I really get tired of hearing how people were duped into taking on more financial burden than they could afford. If you can work a calculator, you can figure out what you can afford.

  2. kelsi says:

    You nailed it. In fact this post should be published in the The Times directly underneath that story.

    Personal accountability has taken a vacation.
    Some of us have it, some of us don’t – and the ones that don’t, paint themselves as victims. It’s kind of embarrassing really.

  3. Stop: Do you think that the Times reporters tried to tell it like it is but were overruled by the editors to create victims?

    Kelsi: Maybe the Forsyth’s will Google themselves, find my post, and hear the hard truth.

  4. Unfortunately, their goal is to sell newspapers and that is it! Great post.

  5. RC Brooks says:

    I don’t feel too bad for anyone who can “afford” a second home. I know a few who “haven’t been able to sale” because of what they think they should get for their home. They felt assured of their investment because they added in a new tile floor and some new window treatments. Oh and lets not forget those ever so lovely covenants. I mean, beauty through homogenization is sure to push your property value up another ten percent, yes? We became far too materialistic, ascribing material wealth as a reflection of character. Nevermind that much of this “wealth” was not paid for. You could talk till you were blue in the face, but it wouldn’t change a person’s opinion that having a grill on the front porch was dropping her property value and taking it as a personal affront. If they had taken a loss on their Michigan home, they wouldn’t have had to worry about two mortgages. I would wager that their thought was to rent their MI home, essentially paying for itself and then have the asset for free. Even if they didn’t want to sell it at a loss, something tells me their rent wasn’t all that cheap either.

    Before last year, I was starting to see some ridiculous figures for rents. Rental properties were largely for mobile people, the young and the poor right? My cousin’s neighbor had a house go up for rent across the street. It was a two bedroom, one car garage home. I mentioned it to someone who was looking to rent. I figured five to six hundred dollars. MAYBE seven hundred. Eleven hundred dollars! A month! About a year later the house was sold, but who would pay that much in a market where the average worker makes twelve dollars an hour? Insanity to be sure.

    However, I do have a lot of sympathy for many throughout the Midwest who have been hedged into ten dollar an hour factory jobs. I know it sounds ridiculous, but there are many who had no support from family and had to truly live on their own out of high school, some before hand. Many of these people took jobs in factories as it offered the best pay. One of my good friends was one of those people. He made eight dollars an hour starting out and then worked to ten. It is a common salary where I live. Trying to work a second job was impossible as there was a lot of mandatory overtime. The rent just kept going up and up. They had a contract negotiation and took a pay cut to eight and some change. Of course, eventually they went out of business. He did have some savings, which had to be used on a new deposit, moving expenses, and to personally continue his health insurance so his “pre-existing” condition could be covered when he found a new job. He found work within a few months, but starting back with no insurance, base pay, no vacation or similar. That was three years ago. Now the job he is at (another factory) is looking at the same situation.

    I had recommended a while back that he just take loans and go to college, but many of the people I know that went to college are just as unemployed as everyone else, except they have student loans they can’t get rid of till its paid.

    While many of us complain about the salary union workers used to make at GM, there are a great number who wouldn’t work for what most factories pay. That in itself is fine, but there are many who really have little other option than to work those jobs. There is always luck, but I try not to count on that.

    Yes, there are many who are victims of their own greed, but there are many that are victims of other people’s greed, that simply want to work for their daily bread, but due to market competition from countries that like to effectively use their people as slave labor, are unable to do so effectively.

    Just a view from the other side.

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