Media Pump Up Obama, Despite High Gas Prices

For years while George W. Bush was in the White House, the three broadcast networks and other media repeatedly hyped the threat of rising gas prices, exaggerated the "record" price of gas and incorrectly predicted, $4, $5 and $6 gasoline or even higher. Now the gas price story has been turned upside down under the anti-oil presidency of Obama, despite sustained high gas prices.


Rather than using gas prices to attack Obama, many in the news media have spun prices predicting lower prices and failing to make year over year comparisons. When gas prices peaked this year on May 5, 2011, at $3.985, media outlets didn't wait long to predict a "steady decline." Just two days later on May 7, Associated Press wrote on: "Expect a drop of nearly 50 cents as early as June, analysts say." It took an additional three months to realize a drop of that magnitude (Sept. 27). But in 2008 after gas prices had been sliced in half, a CBS reporter called low prices "bad news."

USA Today also got it wrong, predicting on June 24, 2011, that gas would be at $3.40 or lower by July 4. But on Independence Day, gas prices were 16 cents-a-gallon higher than the paper predicted.

In June, the Obama administration decided to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to lower pump prices. The Heritage Foundation called the decision a "big mistake" and a "short-sighted political ploy." Yet media outlets like CNN Money claimed that "boosting the nation's oil supply [via the SPR] could lower gas prices as much as 50 cents a gallon" although that relief was "still weeks away." CBS found that prices initially dropped about 5 cents, but then started to rise again.

At the time CNN and other media outlets predicted the SPR release would reduce prices by as much as 50 cents, the national average for gasoline was $3.612-a-gallon. Five months later, prices still haven't fallen 50 cents from that day's price.

Networks Hype Falling Prices in 2011, Imagined Much Higher Prices in 2005

For much of 2011, the three broadcasts networks have hyped falling prices and included predictions of dramatic drops in price.

On Aug. 15, 2011, ABC "World News" touted the "stealth stimulus" of a 7-cent drop in gas prices for that week, down to $3.60-a-gallon. Diane Sawyer called it "bright economic news." Sawyer ignored the fact that gas had been 85 cents-a-gallon cheaper exactly one year earlier. A few network reports in August also predicted 50 cent drops in the price of a gallon. So far, they've been wrong.

Back in 2005, those same networks did the opposite inflating the price of gas (which was around $2.62) by showing pictures of pump prices, on average, 75 cents per gallon higher than the national average. In some cases, the prices were up to $3.25 higher than the national average.

In 2008, ABC's "World News" made a rare admission for any news program after gas prices had dropped roughly $1-a-gallon from the July 2008 peak of $4.11. To their credit, they admitted that the network's predictions of $5-a-gallon gasoline had not happened. Prices continued to fall that year, bottoming out $2.50 lower than the July high by Dec. 30.

Yet, the networks continue to spin gas prices the way they want. As of Nov. 16, 2011, the national average price for gas was at $3.40, much higher than the end of Bush's term. A week earlier some news outlets reported that gas prices could be headed much higher, perhaps to $4.50-a-gallon in some places by spring.

If the year were 2005, 2006 or 2007, this would have been big news to the networks which berated Bush with high gas price stories. But instead, the three broadcast networks virtually ignored the prediction of much higher prices airing only one news brief during ABC's "Good Morning America" that mentioned the potential for $4.50-a-gallon gasoline. One additional story warned that $4 gas could happen within months.

The Los Angeles Times reported that the average price of gasoline, $3.424 on Nov. 7, had "shattered the old record for this week", according to the Energy Department. Never had the U.S. seen such high gas prices during the first week of November. That same report quoted Tom Kloza of the Oil Price Information Service. Kloza said, "I think we will see prices in 2012 that will break … records."

Another price expert in that story, Bob van der Valk predicted gas in California would reach $4.50-a-gallon by Easter.

Unfortunately, media spin on economic issues including gas prices is nothing new. Hyping falling prices, when they are much higher than in prior years and during the tenure of a anti-oil president is disingenuous. Obama consistently attacks oil in his messaging and his administration which had in place a de facto moratorium on drilling and just postponed a decision regarding the Keystone XL pipeline. That pipeline would have brought more than just Canadian tar sands oil to the U.S., it would have created jobs for thousands.

In early 2011, Business & Media Institute compared a period of rising gas prices in 2008 under Bush to a similar (slightly longer) time period in 2011. BMI found the networks did more than 2 ½ times as many stories during the Bush time period versus Obama. Bush was also linked to "skyrocketing" gas prices. He was mentioned in 15 times more gas price reports than Obama was in 2011.

Julia A. Seymour
Julia A. Seymour
Julia A. Seymour is the Assistant Managing Editor for the MRC's Business and Media Institute.