Broken records: Media repeat phony claim of all-time high gas prices

Broken records: Media repeat phony claim of all-time high gas prices
Major medias problem with adjusting prices based on inflation adds to anxiety about cost.

By Dan Gainor
August 17, 2005

     No gas price records have been smashed the only broken records are the ones in the media that endlessly repeat the claim.

     Take Good Morning Americas Charles Gibson for example. On the Aug. 15 broadcast, Gibson misled his viewers: And here at home, if you were driving this weekend, we dont have to tell you, gas prices right through the roof, $3 in some places, breaking more records.

     But Gibson wasnt alone. Melissa McDermott of the CBS Morning News the same morning repeated the claim: The price of gas you got it hit a new record this week. NBCs Today host Katie Couric couldnt deliver a levelheaded report. Fill her up and up and up. Gas prices soar to yet another all-time high. When will the madness end?

     Reporters on every network and in many print outlets cried records were being broken. Occasionally, reality slipped into the news, but it wasnt commonplace. The Aug. 16 Washington Post included an article that led with the 18-cent jump in price in the previous week. Reporters Justin Blum and Anjali Athavaley got the economics correct: The soaring prices stir memories of spikes in the late 1970s and early 1990s. But adjusted for inflation, regular gasoline remains below the 1981 high of $3.11 a gallon, according to the Energy Department.

     Only four days earlier, Post reporter Mark Chediak had fallen victim to the same kind of record-breaking attitude. A gallon of regular in the Washington area hit a record $2.398 on average yesterday, according to the AAA survey. That's up 27 percent from a year ago, when a gallon of regular cost $1.89 in the Washington area.

     The media have also focused almost exclusively on American gasoline prices, even though Drivers in some European cities, like Amsterdam and Oslo, are paying nearly 3 times more than those in the U.S., according to a article. listed March 2005 prices from around the globe with most of the European Union prices above $5 per gallon because of taxes. An Aug. 10 article from Norways Aftenposten showed the trend continuing and cited the current gas price in that nation as $6.68 per gallon.

     CBSs Aug. 13 Early Show took the rare stance of reminding viewers how much higher gas was in Europe. Host Russ Mitchell put things in perspective. After making the mistake about record-high oil, Mitchell did say, And people would argue with us and say, You know, were still better off than they are in Europe, where theyre paying like five and six bucks a gallon for gasoline.

     Here are a few other important facts about the gas coverage:

    Greedy capitalists: Several stories have raised the point about how much money is being made on gasoline. The Post again did an accurate job on this point: The Alexandria-based National Association of Convenience Stores, which represents more than 110,000 stores that sell gas, said many of its members are making about a penny, or less, per gallon.
    Cause, not effect: After Katie Couric complained about ridiculously high gas prices, NBCs Aug. 16 Today attempted to answer the question of why the price hike. Andrea Mitchell explained: What's causing the recent spike in the price of crude? It's not because the world has too little oil, but production is stretched thin. She continued with a quote from Energy analyst Daniel Yergin who added: We don't have a shortage of oil. What we have is tight capacity to produce oil. While that was useful, it left out the reasons for the capacity problems limitations on new energy such as nuclear power, dams, oil or gas power plants, as well as environmentalists and high building costs strangling the ability to build new refineries.