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Fuelish: NBC Devotes 3 Times As Much Airtime to Gas Prices in 2008, as 2013

Comparison shows NBC News far less willing to report soaring gas prices under Obama.

No rising price affects the American psyche like skyrocketing gas prices. After all, many people drive past one or more gas stations each and every day, making it impossible not to see the prices soar. Then when the weekly, or bi-weekly fill up time rolls around, they feel the pain acutely.

How network news media cover the consumer issue seems to have a lot to do with who resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. NBC News is a perfect example – covering rapidly rising prices in 2008 three times more than far higher prices in 2013.

In February 2008, NBC news programs “Nightly News” and “Today” spent a whopping 22 minutes 36 seconds talking about gas prices, from interviewing people struggling between food or fuel, to warning consumers about potential rip offs at the pump. Gas prices climbed from $2.988 to $3.164 that month. Prices were a problem that “could get a lot worse,” according to NBC.

February 2013 gas prices were at record highs for the time of year.. They started out much higher ($3.462 on Feb. 1, to $3.771 by March 1) than February 2008 and rose further, but NBC devoted far less coverage to the issue: only 6 minutes and 43 seconds. That means there was more than three times as much coverage in the 2008 study window on that network.

As of March 5, 2013, gas prices had retreated slightly to a national average of $3.73 a gallon.

ABC and CBS devoted similar amounts of time to the issue in both 2008 and 2013, but the stories were still much more negative in 2008. Both of those networks brought up the idea that the U.S. was undergoing “stagflation.”

According to Merriam-Webster, stagflation is “persistent inflation combined with stagnant consumer demand and relatively high unemployment.” But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for February was 4.9 percent (announced in March 2008).

Gary Wolfram, William E. Simon professor in economics and public policy at Hillsdale College, told Business and Media Institute that the media were “mislabeling the problem.” Although there is no technical definition of stagflation, it is normally a period of high unemployment and high inflation.

“Unemployment nationally was rising in 2008, from 4.6 percent in 2007 to 5.8 percent in 2008 and it rose quickly from there to 9.3 percent in 2009 and 9.6 percent in 2010. On the other hand, the CPI [Consumer Price Index] rose only at 3.8 percent average for the year 2008 over 2007, and the average over 2009 was .4 percent less in 2009 than in 2008. So overall prices were not rising very fast, compared to the Carter era where the term was coined,” he explained adding that annual inflation was 7.6 percent in 1978, 11.3 percent in 19769 and 13.5 percent in 1980.

Networks Show Pain in 2008, Focus on Supply Disruptions in 2013

The pain of high gas prices was evident among network stories in February 2008, but much less so in 2013, even after the Energy Information Administration announced that households spent nearly four percent of pre-tax income on gasoline in 2012. That tied with 2008 for “the highest percentage in roughly 30 years,” according to Ben Geman of The Hill.

NBC “Nightly News” aired a heartbreaking testimony on Feb. 27, 2008. The network interviewed Virginia Mereno who said, “I only had so much money, so I just did not buy groceries. I had to put that money in the gas tank.”

CBS “Evening News” had a similar story to tell. On Feb. 29, 2008, correspondent Bill Whitaker spoke with Leslie Martinez who “tries to work at home two days a week. Not for convenience, for cost.” But the Martinez family wasn’t the only one suffering, according to Whitaker the “whole country is feeling her pain.” 

NBC “Today” co-host Matt Lauer also complained about the “sky high” gas prices and warned they were causing pain in other places, not just the pump – but also at the grocery store. 

Back then the networks anticipated that prices would continue rising. “Gas prices already now high and headed higher,” was Bill Plante’s pessimistic assessment on Feb. 28, 2008. That was in a story about the country possibly heading into recession. In 2008, prices did eventually rise to $4.11 in July and the country did succumb to recession. But for years the networks had made similar predictions only to be proved wrong.

In February 2008, ABC warned that $4-a-gallon gas would be “common by spring.” Even when prices fell a bit, NBC undermined the news saying “Even so, gas prices are up about 74 cents a gallon from a year ago.”

Although drivers expressed frustration over high gas prices, sob stories were much harder to find on the networks in 2013. On “Nightly News” Feb. 18, Brian Williams mentioned that gas “prices [were] now really hurting everybody who drives.” But instead of focusing on that pain, Tom Costello’s report attempted to answer the question of why prices were going up.

About two weeks earlier, Costello’s “Today” report also looked at the reasons for the gas price hike. He mentioned refinery shutdowns, the rising price of oil and more. After interviewed a few complaining drivers, Costello optimistically reported: “while gas prices may move higher in the coming weeks, over the coming months they could go lower.”

On Feb. 25, ABC’s Josh Elliot reported on “Good Morning America” the “good news” that “prices are finally beginning to level off” because oil is starting to drop. Unlike in 2008, the reporter did not undermine the news.

Even when ABC marked the 35th day in a row that gas prices “ticked up,” “World News” only gave 24 seconds of airtime to the issue, saying tensions in the middle East were one of the reasons for the surge.

Compared to its very downbeat coverage in 2008, CBS did a good job covering gas prices in February 2013. One thing that helped its recent coverage was the network’s decision to consult oil analyst Tom Kloza for a couple of stories. One of those was a lengthy on set interview Feb. 23, 2013, with the respected oil analyst with the Oil Price Information Service.

A History of Gas Price Hype

Spinning economic stories is one way the media criticize or protect presidents. On the issue of gas prices, there has been a huge difference between treatment of the issue under George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Bush, a Texan, was a pro-oil president, and for years was battered by the network media on the subject of gasoline prices. In May 2004, network morning and evening shows aired story after story about “skyrocketing” gas prices. Gas prices at the time were above $2 a gallon, but well below inflation adjusted records set in 1981. At the same time, a dropping unemployment rate and the creation of 288,000 new jobs got little attention.

In 2006, the media took gas price conspiracy theories seriously, attacking Bush with claims that he was involved with “plummeting gas prices.” Also in 2006, the networks bemoaned rising fuel costs, while again downplaying about the great economic conditions including very low unemployment and a climbing stock market.

2008 was a year of pumped up predictions, as Business and Media Institute noted in a Special Report that year. Network reports continually said there was no relief in sight and prices would only get worse. They predicted $5 or $6-a-gallon. Those predictions were wildly incorrect, and gas prices actually peaked at $4.11 nationally.

In February 2008, CBS also portrayed Bush as out of touch, showing press conference video of the president unaware of predictions about $4-a-gallon gas.

In contrast, President Barack Obama practically promised rising energy prices. In a January 2008 interview he promised bankruptcy to anyone foolish enough to build coal power plants, under his cap-and-trade plan. But the media virtually ignored it.

Although Obama did not succeed with cap-and-trade, he has cracked down on energy production through the Environmental Protection Agency. He also instituted a moratorium on oil drilling permits following the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Under his administration, the national average for gasoline has more than doubled since his inauguration in 2009 and the nation has experienced sustained high gas prices, but that has gotten little criticism from the network news media. BMI found that when comparing a month of coverage in 2008 to 2012, the networks had hyped the rising gas prices 4 times more for Bush than Obama.

During Bush’s tenure, gas prices were a huge economic threat and cause of suffering. The networks also used the high gas prices to attack the administration. In 2012, the networks aired mostly matter-of-fact stories on the rising gas prices, and worried primarily that they would hinder the economic recovery, not that they are making people suffer.

Methodology

The Business and Media Institute compared how much time was spent talking about gas prices from Feb. 1, 2008, through Feb. 29, 2008, to Feb. 1, 2013, through March 1, 2013 (since 2008 was a leap year, and 2013 wasn’t). Entire stories were only counted if gas prices were woven throughout the economic discussion, otherwise only the mention of gas prices was counted toward the overall times for each network. Stories that mentioned only oil prices were excluded, as well as stories about waiting in gas lines due to weather and references to “big oil” or Exxon profits if they were not connected by the reporter to gas prices. Jet fuel stories were also excluded.