This post has been updated.
The economy added 114,000 jobs in September and unemployment declined to 7.8 percent. Not great numbers, but paired with major upward revisions to previous monthly reports and taken in the context of a slowly recovering economy, the report was viewed as good news for America.
Unless, of course, you were hoping for bad news. And apparently quite a few of President Obama’s critics were — so much so that they suggested the Bureau of Labor Statistics was part of a vast conspiracy.
The leader of the “job truther” movement: former GE CEO Jack Welch.
“Unbelievable jobs numbers..these Chicago guys will do anything..can’t debate so change numbers,” he said on Twitter.
He had some friends in Congress too. Rep. Allen West (R-FL) tweeted “I agree with former GE CEO Jack Welch, Chicago style politics is at work here.” He added on Facebook that the jobs report was “Orwellian to say the least and representative of Saul Alinsky tactics from the book ‘Rules for Radicals.’”
FOX News’ Stuart Varney apparently sensed where his audience was going. Within minutes of their release he told viewers that “there is widespread mistrust of this report and these numbers.”
“How convenient the rate drops below 8% [for the] first time in 43 months, five weeks before the election,” he added later.
CNBC host Jim Carmer said he was pilloried by viewers for defending the BLS report’s integrity.
“This is very hot. You believe the number, you must be a card-carrying Communist,” he joked on the air.
Betsey Stevenson, a former chief economist at the Department of Labor under President Obama, said in a phone interview with TPM that the conspiracy theories were misguided in just about every way possible. For starters, the Bureau of Labor Statistics isn’t currently run by a political appointee. For most of Obama’s term, the commissioner was a holdover appointed by President Bush. The current acting commissioner John Gavin is a career BLS economist, not an Obama appointee.
The underlying data behind the BLS reports is also publicly released and used by analysts across the private sector and academia, meaning a conspiracy would have to survive scrutiny from trained economists of all political stripes.
Nor is there much time to cook the books at the top level if they wanted to.
“I worked for Secretary Hilda Solis and she didn’t know the job numbers until 8 a.m. on the day,” Stevenson said. “Which made my job very difficult, because I had to help her figure out what she was going to say when they were released.” The BLS releases the numbers publicly at 8:30 a.m. ET.
But conspiracy theorists are out in full force. Conn Carroll, a columnist at the Washington Examiner, noted that the Household Survey, which is used to calculate the unemployment rate, was more positive than the raw jobs numbers, which come from a survey of employers, and suggested that the true conspirators were unemployed Democrats:
I don’t think BLS cooked numbers. I think a bunch of Dems lied about getting jobs. That would have same effect.— Conn Carroll (@conncarroll) October 5, 2012
Justin Wolfers, an economics professor at the University of Michigan, told TPM these kinds of fluctuations between the survey and payroll numbers were common.
“It’s not unusual — the household survey is a noisy measure, there’s no doubt about it, and that’s why most analysts rely more on the payroll survey,” he said.
Update: The conspiracy crowd may need to expand their theory to the private sector. The consensus from market analysts the day before the report was a 110,000 job gain. The private ADP survey, released earlier this week, found that US businesses added 162,000 jobs.
Update II: Add radio host Laura Ingraham to the mix.
Update III: CNBC host Rick Santelli criticized Welch for his tweet, but added that it was a common concern.
Update IV: Here’s FOX News’ homepage as of 12:10 PM ET:
The headline on the post itself refers to a “campaign firestorm” and flags Jack Welch’s tweet. It then goes on to cite mainstream economists who suggest that the unemployment rate drop may be a statistical outlier, not a conspiracy.
Update V: Allen West took to CNBC to say Obama “absolutely” is cooking the books.
Update VI: A White House spokesman, Josh Earnest, told reporters the conspiracy theories around the BLS were unfounded:
“They’re utter nonsense. Anybody, any serious person who has any familiarity with how these numbers are tabulated understands that these are career employees at the Bureau of Labor Statistics that are responsible for compiling and analyzing these numbers and they do that on their own.”
Update VII: Romney campaign policy director Lanhee Chen told Fox Business that they would adress the BLS report without delving into speculation over its validity.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Justin Wolfers’ academic affiliation. TPM regrets the error.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.