Networks Still Get High on Gas
News shows have highlighted a volatile stock market and housing concerns in recent months. But even when consumers have had reason to cheer â€“ like a 44-cent-per-gallon drop in gas prices â€“ the networks have misreported it by a nearly 3-to-1 ratio.
Since prices began declining on May 25, the Friday before Memorial Day, the national average for a gallon of unleaded gas has dropped a total of 44 cents. Thatâ€™s 14 cents lower than this time last year, according to AAAâ€™s Fuel Gauge Report. The news shows on ABC, CBS and NBC have told a different tale â€“ emphasizing â€śskyrocketing, â€śsoaringâ€ť and â€śpainfully highâ€ť gas prices 71 percent of the time (69 out of 96 stories).
When prices rise the slightest amount, the media cover it breathlessly. The problem is, they do the same thing â€“ covering rising prices â€“ even when prices are really dropping.
On August 14, nearly three months after the decline began, â€śTodayâ€ť host Meredith Vieira still complained about the price of gas. â€śIf you feel like your wallet is getting sucked dry this morning, youâ€™re not imagining things. On average a gallon of gas is $2.77.â€ť She failed to mention that $2.77 represented a decline of nearly 44 cents or 16 percent.
This spin on prices isnâ€™t new. Last fall, the Business & Media Institute found a similar pattern in network coverage. In 35 straight business days of falling gas prices, evening news shows emphasized â€śhighâ€ť or â€śrisingâ€ť gas prices more often than falling prices.
With this yearâ€™s drop, the networks were still doing everything they could to hype the situation. ABCâ€™s â€śGood Morning Americaâ€ť sent reporter Bianna Golodryga to â€śexotic, luxorious, suburban New Jerseyâ€ť to find families who donâ€™t actually travel for their vacation, so they donâ€™t use any gas.
â€śWith gridlock at the nationâ€™s airports, skyrocketing gas prices and a weak dollar overseas, vacations can create more stress than they relieve,â€ť Golodryga explained in the August 11 segment. According to an ABC poll, she said, 30 percent of Americans â€śsaid that they were not planning long-distance driving vacations this summer, primarily due to high gas prices.â€ť
Gasoline had dropped to $2.801 the day of that report â€“ 43 cents below its recent record.
Three days later, NBCâ€™s â€śTodayâ€ť played down the decline in gas prices and played up an increase in the cost of milk.
In a June 27 â€śGood Morning Americaâ€ť story, Chris Cuomo led into a report about rising prices for milk and pizza with this ironic comment: â€śWe always hear about rising gas prices.â€ť Perhaps Cuomo simply watched the network news.
If he had, he would have seen reporters looking for the most extreme examples of people coping with gas prices, even with the decline. Journalists profiled commuting alternatives like bikes and roller blades, and CBS found one man who traveled to work via horse.
Despite the news, journalists were shocked that many Americans refused to change habits. Cuomo complained that â€śmore people than ever are choosing to drive alone to workâ€ť in a June 14 â€śGood Morning Americaâ€ť story.
Gloom, Meet Doom
The theme of high gas prices twisted some stories like a pretzel. When the Dow hit a record high of 14,000, ABCâ€™s Elizabeth Vargas still found a reason to complain. She whined that gas prices were â€śsky-highâ€ť during a July 19 â€śWorld News with Charles Gibsonâ€ť story, though they had dropped 21 cents since late May.
CBS anchor Kelly Wallace gave the typical media view on July 22 when she introduced a story on the lack of refineries. â€śGas prices never seem to go down much these days,â€ť she claimed.
Prices had dropped 25 cents a gallon since Memorial Day. And Wallace clearly forgot about the decline in 2006, when gas plummeted 84 cents a gallon in five months from August to December.
One of the downsides of gas price reporting is that it led some journalists to say truly stupid things. In a May 25 report, ABCâ€™s Betsy Stark described how tough the high prices were on motor home owners and that â€śno matter where you gas up an RV this weekend, itâ€™s not going to be cheap.â€ť
Stark went on to bemoan â€śtriple-digit fuel pricesâ€ť for the 100-gallon RV. However, any price of gasoline $1 or more would result in â€śtriple-digit fuel pricesâ€ť for a 100-gallon vehicle. The last time gas prices were below $1 was February 1999, according to the Energy Information Agency.
News shows did occasionally remind viewers that prices had declined. But even when they did so, they sometimes skewed the reporting.
CBS â€śEvening Newsâ€ť anchor Katie Couric showed how to find the dark cloud for any silver lining. â€śNews that gasoline prices are falling usually comes with a warning: Donâ€™t get used to it. So consider yourself warned as we tell you gas has fallen 17 cents the past two weeksâ€¦â€ť
The Predictions Were Pumped Up
One consistent theme with gasoline and oil is that network predictions seldom turn out well. This summer was no exception. NBC brought out Alaron Trading energy analyst Phil Flynn who warned of even higher prices. â€śI think weâ€™re one problem away from $4 gallon gasoline,â€ť said Flynn on the May 26 â€śToday.â€ť
That problem never happened. Nearly three months later, gas has dropped substantially.
Eric Horng of ABC took his own shot at predicting gas prices. On July 15, as gas settled at $3.05, he said it wasnâ€™t likely to get better any time soon. â€śWith planes nearly full and roads jam-packed, lower air fares and gas prices are not expected until after Labor Day.â€ť
Horngâ€™s â€śWorld News Sundayâ€ť prediction that prices wouldnâ€™t go below $3.05 was more than 27 cents off the mark and Labor Day, historically the end of the busy summer driving season, isnâ€™t even here yet.
One reporter couldnâ€™t even wait for the news to happen to complain about rising gas prices. On July 23, Cuomo predicted an increase. â€śNew government numbers will be released later today, expected to show the price of gas is still climbing high,â€ť he explained. Cuomo then went on to focus his â€śGood Morning Americaâ€ť segment on the â€śunique way of copingâ€ť some drivers use.
Cuomo was going in the wrong direction. He was right that the government made its weekly price announcement that day, but the price actually went down nearly 11 cents a gallon.
Even when the networks turned to experts who tried to put a positive spin on the situation, it turned out badly. The July 12 â€śWorld News with Charles Gibsonâ€ť turned to one analyst to discuss the impact of higher prices. Art Hogan, chief market strategist at Jeffries and Co., explained that â€ś$3.35 gas is not a brand new thing to us.â€ť
Of course, Jeffries was wrong. Nationwide, the average price for a gallon of unleaded has never gone that high. On the day Jeffries made his comment, gasoline was $3.026 â€“ more than 30 cents lower than the price he mentioned.
ABCâ€™s Dan Harris responded by warning that things might get even worse. â€śBut, and thereâ€™s always a but with the stock market, if, say, gas goes to $4 a gallon or interest rates spike unexpectedly, all bets are off.â€ť
Gas dropped another 24 cents following that comment.
Not all predictions were wrong. Once more, CBS turned to oil expert Tom Kloza of the Oil Price Information Service. In a May BMI report, CBS was rated the best network for gas price coverage because of its reliance on Klozaâ€™s insight.
His June 21 â€śEarly Showâ€ť crystal ball worked just fine. When asked about prices he said â€śI think theyâ€™ll continue to drop this month.â€ť He was right, and gas prices slipped a little further. Kloza also estimated that prices would â€śflirtâ€ť with $3 a gallon again, which also occurred.
He predicts prices will â€śdrift lowerâ€ť between now and Labor Day, according to posts on his blog at http://blogs.opisnet.com/archive/2007/08/21/ten-oil-questions-for-the-last-ten-days-of-august.aspx.
Why Are Gas Prices High?
Experts say the cost of gasoline can be summed up in three words: supply, demand and ethanol.
Supply has been impacted by maintenance problems at U.S. refineries. Global demand continued to keep the price of oil high, while the governmentâ€™s push toward bio-fuels like ethanol raised the cost of that product as well.
At least those issues crept into some reporting. NBC addressed the supply problem by giving time to an oil executive on the May 30 â€śToday.â€ť Anchor Matt Lauer interviewed ConocoPhillips Chairman and CEO James Mulva about the high price of gas. While Lauer raised questions about company profits, he did give Mulva a chance to explain that â€śWeâ€™re running our refineries at capacity.â€ť And that demand had run into a crunch because of low supplies of gasoline.
â€ś20/20â€ť addressed profit in a June 1 report. Host John Stossel defended oil firms. â€śWhen did profit become a dirty word?â€ť he asked, and pointed out that â€śnearly all the money goes to looking for more oil and in following the environmental rules that you want us to follow.â€ť
The problems at the nationâ€™s refineries cropped up in several stories. CBS â€śSunday Morningâ€ť took just a few words of its July 22 report to explain the problem, but the message was clear. â€śTodayâ€™s New York Times reports that a record number of technical problems at oil refineries are trimming production and driving up gasoline prices,â€ť said Charles Osgood.
Ethanol has been responsible for higher food prices as well.
Scott Cohn told â€śNBC Nightly Newsâ€ť viewers that the â€śhuge demand for ethanolâ€ť was hardest on consumers. â€śAn Iowa State University study estimates the price increases has [sic] added $14 billion to Americaâ€™s grocery bill,â€ť Cohn concluded.