Media Hit the Gas -- Correctly, for a Change

     They say even a broken clock is right twice a day. The mainstream media aren’t quite that good when it comes to gas prices.

     It took them 26 years to get it right. Rip Van Winkle woke up in less time.

     March 1981, right in the midst of the Iran/Iraq War, used to be the inflation-adjusted high for gas prices.

     According to various oil experts, on May 24 we hit a new record – $3.227. That’s all of four-tenths of one cent higher than the old one.

     And journalists finally found the time to get that one right.

     Twenty-six years of errors and false claims of “record” high gas prices. That’s not dozens. It’s not even hundreds. It’s thousands. So many, in fact, that it’s almost impossible to narrow it down with a Nexis search, because the Nexis limit is 3,000 results.

      The misreporting has gotten far worse in the last two and a half years. It’s as though journalists set their alarm clocks to go off every year and remind them to start hyping gas prices.

      When gas prices spiked in 2005, the media used the word “record” so often they sounded like a broken … well, you get the idea.

     ABC’s Aug. 11, 2005, “Good Morning America” started off claiming “Today, oil and gas prices breaking all records.” Gas was just $2.37 a gallon nationwide.

     Economists, and our own Energy Department, track prices based on inflation. That way, they can compare costs accurately from one year to another. Thanks to inflation, the record price keeps going up. This concept seems to elude reporters perennially.

     Washington Post Style writer David Montgomery clocked in on the “new records” concept in an Aug. 24, 2005, story that took shots at people who calculate the price accurately. He complained about “inflation-adjusted nerds who point out that regular unleaded gas today is still cheaper” than it had been in 1981.

     Prices did skyrocket soon afterward. Not thanks to journalistic gloom-and-doom predictions, but because of the devastation from Hurricane Katrina and her evil sister Rita. Gas hit $3.057 on Sept. 5, 2005.

     That was again enough for the media to claim a record high had been reached. And they were again wrong. After all, who wants to let an economist ruin a sensational story?

     Though prices dropped back to $2.12 after the storms had past, journalists soon forgot anything they might have learned about how to calculate them.

     Those prices went back up, as they typically do, with the 2006 summer driving season. And by August the reporters were back at it, claiming new “record highs” that weren’t even as high as the one they wrongly claimed in 2005. We’re not talking advanced math here.

     NBC’s Natalie Morales and CBS’s Julie Chen both told their respective August 14 audiences that gasoline prices of $3.03 a gallon were at “record” highs – 3 cents lower than the non-record of 2005.

     “Nationwide gas prices have hit yet another record high, rising just over a penny in the last three weeks,” Morales said on the “Today” show. Chen mentioned “record prices at the pump” to her “Early Show” audience a half hour later.

     Given that record-setting performance, it’s no surprise that the media have been at it again in 2007. It’s just surprising they were finally right.

     Even then, they were determined to beat the clock. ABC’s Charles Gibson told his audience, “Gasoline across the nation hits an all-time high, a record price, before the summer even begins.” But that was May 14, when the price was a hefty but decidedly non-record $3.10.

     Pardon me if I don’t celebrate that they’re finally right. This long-overdue accuracy about record prices fixes just one of the common media myths about energy. Networks also hype high prices either by emphasizing high-tax locales like California or showing photos of the most expensive prices – as much as 75 cents higher than the national average.

     That consistent misreporting helps set our national agenda on energy. Capitol Hill liberals are using it to push price gouging legislation that doesn’t even define the term “gouging.”

     The media have been contributing to the hype about gas prices for decades. Now that they finally got the story correct, it’s time for them to fix the rest of their reporting.

     Otherwise, be prepared to wait another 26 years for them to get the story straight.

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