Journalists Give Viewers the High Test on Gas

     Head for the hills; gas prices are over $3 – just make sure you carpool.

     That’s the message network Chicken Littles are telling viewers as they hype so-called “record prices” and warn of an economic cataclysm tied to $4-, $5- or $6-a-gallon gasoline. Diane Sawyer even linked the prospect of pain at the pump to the idea of another stock market crash.

     “Will runaway gas prices keep soaring, and did you know that the stock market has hit a milestone reminiscent of what happened before the big crash?” she asked during the May 8, 2007, “Good Morning America.”

     Since Jan. 1, 2005, ABC, CBS and NBC pretended we’re on the highway to hell. Instead of giving us decent directions, all they did was hit the gas. They’ve warned us 59 times that “$4 a gallon gas could easily be on the horizon,” as CBS’s “The Early Show” reported on July 13, 2006. The morning and evening news shows also said more than 20 times that gas could hit $5, $6 or even higher.

     And the American public was listening. According to a May 7, 2007, CNN poll, “more than three quarters of Americans” think they’ll be paying $4 a gallon this year. It’s no wonder. The media have been telling viewers that for years.

     But we’ve never come close to their $4 destination. The average national price for a gallon of regular unleaded reached a high of just $3.06 on Sept. 5, 2005. That’s 16 cents below the real record – the inflation-adjusted high of $3.22 from March 1981.

     Back in spring 2005, NBC’s Carl Quintanilla conjured a future no driver could love. “Imagine a world with $5 gasoline,” he told the “Today” audience. “What would you do?”

     The correct response, paraphrasing one oil expert, might be to leave tony places like Beverly Hills and drive someplace with fewer regulations and lower taxes. That’s because California, with its tank full of rules and special blends – and a gas tax 25 percent higher than the national average – is on its own road to nowhere.

     Gas is high there because they gave the keys to an eco-friendly and driver-unfriendly government. Instead of explaining that, the mainstream media have tried to convince us all roads lead to California.

     Quintanilla’s fantasy of high prices was followed by a horrifying reality. Hurricane Katrina hit and Rita followed, leaving devastation and death in their wake. Even those terrible storms weren’t able to make Quintanilla’s dreams come true.

     In the mild 2006 hurricane season, the high price barely topped $3, once again.

     Why then have the Big Three networks insisted gas was “approaching,” “closing in on” and “bumping up against” $4?

     Because reporters take Americans for a ride every spring and no one stops them for being reckless.

     CBS’s Anthony Mason warned of an energy crisis after Iran kidnapped 15 British marines and sailors. Mason emphasized the danger of Iran shutting the essential Straits of Hormuz. “In a heartbeat, oil could hit $100 a barrel. Imagine gas at $5 a gallon,” went his doomsaying from the March 30, 2007, “Evening News.”

     It took only a few days to prove Mason was going the wrong way. Iran released the prisoners and gas prices increased just 4 cents in that time.

     But predictions still rule the day, and journalists seem more intent on looking in crystal balls than looking out the windshield and telling us what’s coming our way. Between Jan. 1, 2005, and May 8, 2007, the networks made at least 52 references to high gas prices that might someday occur.

     None of the national predictions ever came true.

     One ordinarily reliable ABC correspondent even said prices like those in Europe were likely – the equivalent of $7 per gallon in some cases. Perhaps she just guessed that we’ll also get European levels of taxation courtesy of Al Gore and his eco-disciples.

     Surprisingly, CBS defied its usual depiction of the economy as darker than asphalt. The network turned repeatedly to oil expert Tom Kloza, who decried “apocalyptic” predictions of $4 gas and urged reporters to put the brakes on the hype.

     But in the last few years, journalists have accelerated conspiracy claims implicating Republicans and oil companies. They’ve repeated claims of non-existent “record highs.” They’ve overstated every possible danger, even legitimate ones, to predict a gas-tasrophe of $4, $5 and $6 a gallon, just to bring in viewers.

     The media are in the driver’s seat, and Americans are getting on board the fearmobile. We’re still waiting for them to be right.

Dan Gainor is The Boone Pickens Free Market Fellow and director of the Media Research Center’s Business & Media Institute.