It’s the peak of summer – when sane people vacation and even Congress has recess. Last summer, it was also time for gas prices that peaked at stratospheric sums.
This summer not so much. While drivers might be thrilled, America’s media are unhappy. Journalists don’t believe no news is good news. No news for the working press means uncomfortable moments of silence punctuated by commercials.
It’s easy to recall last year. ABC’s Chris Cuomo did so July 8, reminiscing about better news days during one “Good Morning America” segment. “Alright, let me take you back one year from today. OK? Gas was at, like $4.14 a gallon. We were in a panic.”
That certainly sums up the gas-price coverage from 2008. Any time you post a commodity’s cost in numbers a couple feet high like they do in gas stations, consumers are going to be price sensitive. Throw in journalists ever eager to step on the gas and you have a recipe for national angst.
This year, the price of a regular gallon of gas is more than $1.60 less than last July’s all-time high. The price isn’t even near the high for 2009. Gas prices have dropped about 20 cents off that mark. Instead of pumping up positive economic news, journalists are paying little attention.
It’s easy to understand. Reporters and anchors actually like higher gas prices – even if viewers or readers don’t. Remember, you don’t count.
Here are five reasons journalists use to convince themselves high gas prices are news they can use.
1. High Prices Make News
It doesn’t matter what gas is selling for if journalists want to make news. What matters is how much it might sell sometime in the future. The higher the price, the bigger the potential news. If you are an oil expert, start peddling $5 a gallon, $6, $7 or $8 along with the threat we’ll get European-style prices and taxes. Go even crazier and your comments are guaranteed to end up on TV.
Forbes magazine writer Christopher Steiner recently warned of $20 a gallon gas decades from now. That got him a prime spot on NBC’s July 24 “Today” to talk about a Utopian world without oil where we all walk most of the time. Yes, no sane person thinks that’s “Utopian” except Nike salesmen, but it is an ideal news environment. That’s the same thing that drove journalists to cover outlandish predictions in 2005, 2006 and 2007. And the same thing that made those gas price predictions wrong nearly two-thirds of the time last year.
2. Journalists like high taxes
You don’t have to look far to find journalists backing higher taxes on your driving habits. A July 26 Washington Post editorial summed up that paper’s position nicely, saying “we have long argued on this page, increasing the gas tax – both federal and local – is the best way to change this country's bad energy habits.”
They aren’t alone. Back in 2007, then Managing Editor of CNNMoney.com Allen Wastler told viewers government should hike the price of gas with a huge new tax. “Put in a tax to make it $4 a gallon right now,” he urged. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman called for taxes to “keep prices around $4 a gallon.” But what does he care, even his servants are probably wealthy.
3. Global Warming’s Cool
Forget the downturn in the global thermometer; journalists would fight a hungry polar bear for a good (or bad) global warming story. Hike the price of fuel, gasbags tell the media, and you save Mother Earth.
The networks bombard viewers with global warming orthodoxy while news outlets openly call for carbon taxes. “[I]t’s time to pay a price to curb global warming,” the Christian Science Monitor declared in a 2008 editorial. Nowhere do media organizations assess their own King Kong-like carbon footprint.
4. They Can’t Do Math
Take a bunch of reporters out to lunch (expect to pay) and ask them to figure the 15 percent tip. Watch the blank stares. The sad truth is journalists are science-weak policy wonks who are often math-challenged. They can’t do percentages or addition, though the downturn is teaching them subtraction.
Throw in tough concepts like inflation-adjusted numbers and they freak. Back in 2005, Post writer David Montgomery called out “inflation-adjusted nerds” who were able to show the differences between old prices and new ones.
5. They Are Liberal Elitists
Journalists like to think of themselves as representing the people – until they have to dine with them or get stuck behind them in traffic. Then watch out. CNN’s blowhard-in-chief Jack Cafferty showed this character type famously back in 2006. “I hope gas prices go as high as they have to go to get the rest of these morons off the road in these big Hummers.”
Can’t inconvenience a network star, after all.
So the next time you fill up, enjoy and know that every time you get low-priced gas, you are giving journalists gas pains.