Upside Down Economics

Despite much better economy, networks blamed President Bush more than President Obama for financial troubles.

Gas and oil prices impact everyone, and “records” are sure to grab headlines. So it was no surprise that in 2004 and 2012 the price of fuel made news. But much lower ‘04 “record” oil and gas prices made the network news more than 3 times more often than 2012 records for gasoline (22 percent of stories compared to 6.8 percent).

Hurricanes helped drive oil prices to $48.86 by the last week of September 2004. (it had been higher during the month, but BMI compared Energy Information Administration data for the final week of each month.) The networks pointed to it as a re-election threat, pain for everyone in the economy, and noted that relief wasn’t coming “anytime soon.” Gas prices in that same month closed around $1.92-a-gallon.

It was NBC’s Matt Lauer who reported crude oil’s surge to more than $50 a barrel. Even though Bush had little to do with the surge, Lauer said it “could put the president’s re-election hopes into a skid,” on “Today” Sept. 29. The same morning, his colleague Anne Thompson declared that “experts don’t think we’ll see any kind of relief any time soon.”

The night before, ABC’s Betsy Stark even mentioned the “r” word in her “World News Tonight” report on soaring oil. After interviewing oil analyst Phil Flynn, Stark said “Fifty-dollar oil is not expected to push the economy, as a whole, into a recession. But it is causing plenty of pain for truckers, airlines, and anybody on a budget who drives.”

“[T]he days of $15 and $20 a barrel oil are probably gone forever,” Stark concluded gloomily.

Since 2004, gas and oil prices have nearly doubled, and by September 2012 it was gasoline prices that were setting records after a sustained national average of $3 or higher since Dec. 23, 2010. In the last week of September 2012, a barrel of crude oil cost $92.89 and an average gallon of gas $3.83. Yet, network reporters in 2012 routinely found reasons to be optimistic on gas prices, saying relief was on the way. 

The broadcast networks certainly had a glass half empty outlook in 2004, but by September 2012 news outlets were finding the glass half-full. Repeatedly especially on ABC, it was only a matter of time until prices dropped.

Journalists put on a positive spin as gasoline prices set records for the time of year on Labor Day weekend, Gas prices typically drop during the fall due to the switch to winter blends, so that change should have been notable. Instead, ABC’s Diane Sawyer said “relief is in sight and soon” on Sept. 4. Gasoline cost $3.84 a gallon that day, but correspondent Alex Perez optimistically noted prices that “our experts predict by thanksgiving, average gas prices will drop to about $3.25 or $3.50 a gallon, a big improvement.” 

Just a few days earlier, on Sept. 1, “Good Morning America” looked forward to a potential 20-cent a gallon price drop by October. Stories on NBC, in spite of the “sticker shock,” had also predicted prices would come down, between “Thanksgiving and Christmas,” conveniently after the election.

The 2012 stories ignored Obama’s anti-oil and gas policies. In fact they didn’t mention the president at all. Nor did they remind people that gas prices were much lower when he took office in January 2009, or that gas prices have been above $3-a-gallon since December 2010.