Our recent bout with inflation brings to my mind the struggle everybody had understanding inflation the last time it afflicted our country — back in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Inflation was much worse for much longer back then — mortgage rates briefly hit 20% in the early ’80s — and it was a major issue in Jimmy Carter’s 1980 re-election campaign against Ronald Reagan. It was also a time when economics journalism was first on the rise, as newspapers and magazines tried to understand and convey to their readers what was going on.
At the time of the 1980 campaign, I was a 24-year-old graduate student in journalism at American University in Washington, D.C., trying to learn the inside-the-beltway ropes. The AU faculty included a number of former business and economics journalists, most notably Lou Kohlmeier, who had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1965 for uncovering LBJ’s shady financial dealings. In the winter and spring of 1980, Kohlmeier and others persuaded the Columbia Journalism Review to fund and then publish an effort by several of us graduate students to examine the role of the press in understanding economic issues in the 1980 presidential primaries.
So, under the tutelage of the legendary investigative reporter Nick Kotz, a group of us undertook to understand how reporting on economics was affecting the presidential campaign — in particular, the Republican primary in early 1980. (Besides myself, this group included Don Groff, who went on to become a travel writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer and later Salon; Harriet Brackey, who for many years was the personal finance commentator on Nightly Business Report; and Francine Schwadel, who later became the main retail reporter for The Wall Street Journal.)
All of us interviewed reporters covering the presidential campaign — I vividly recall my telephone interview with the famous Tom Wicker of The New York Times. Somehow or other I was the lucky student who got to take the train to New York to interview a bunch of people, including the New York Times economics columnist Leonard Silk, perhaps the first journalist to write about economics for a mass auidence; the economist Robert Heilbroner (who, despite being a socialist who was the Norman Thomas Professor at the New School, came from a wealthy family and lived in a fabulous apartment on the…