Here We Go Again: Inane Hype for 'Record High' Gas When Price Lower than in 1981

As another summer driving season approaches, media outlets cannot resist again hyping dire stories about the supposed “record high” price of a gallon of gas when, adjusted for inflation, the current $3.10 average for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline is still lower than in 1981. ABC was out front Monday night with the fallacious reporting. World News anchor Charles Gibson teased up top, “Record prices: Gasoline across the nation hits an all-time high, a record price, before the summer even begins.” With “Record High” on screen, Gibson relied on new numbers from the Energy Information Administration as he introduced the subsequent story by asserting that “a gallon of gas has never been more expensive than right now. The government announced this afternoon that the average price of regular gas is $3.10 a gallon.” Reporter John Berman also cited the “record high” price before marveling at how demand is rising: “Despite the agony, for the most part, we haven't changed our actions. Demand for gas is actually up one percent from this time last year...”

The headline over a Monday afternoon article on USA Today's Web site, which matched stories all over the Web from wire services and television news sites, declared: “Gasoline prices top post-Katrina record.” But USA Today reporter Barbara Hagenbaugh at least noted that “prices are still below the all-time high when adjusted for inflation, $3.223 in today's dollars set March 1981, according to the Energy Department.”

Earlier in her story, Hagenbaugh reported the $3.10 average national pump price “tops the old record of $3.07 set in September 2005 after Hurricane Katrina disrupted refinery operations and oil production along the Gulf Coast, the EIA said.” It's silly, however, to see the current $3.10 as higher than the September of 2005 price of $3.07 since the inflation rate over the past 20 months has certainly exceeded three cents on three dollars.

Just over two years ago, the networks also erroneously trumpeted “record high” gas prices. The March 17, 2005 MRC CyberAlert, “Networks Falsely Claim Oil and Gas at 'Record High' Prices,” recounted:
The futures price for a barrel of oil and the cost of a gallon of gas at the retail pump have been soaring, but they are far from record highs, yet the networks make that false assertion. On Wednesday night, Peter Jennings teased: "On World News Tonight, the price of oil is at another record high." Betsy Stark soon issued an inaccurate prediction that "gas prices are now within a penny of their all-time record." On CNN, Erica Hill referred to how "crude oil prices hit a record high today closing" and the "AAA predicts U.S. gas prices could reach an all-time high tomorrow." CBS's Bob Schieffer insisted that "the price of oil hit a record $56 a barrel today." NBC's Brian Williams declared that "the price of oil set a new record high -- $56 a barrel." PBS's Jim Lehrer maintained that "the price of crude oil rose to an all-time high today." FNC's Shepard Smith warned: "The cost of oil hitting an all-time high. It looks like the cost of gas is not far from behind." In fact, adjusted for inflation, oil will have to hit $90 a barrel to set a record high and gasoline would reach a record not at $2.07 per gallon but at a $2.97.
The April 12, 2005 MRC CyberAlert, “ABC, CBS and NBC All Falsely Hype 'Record' High Gas Prices,” relayed:
Adjusted for inflation, gas at the retail pump will have to hit $2.97 to match a record high, but that didn't deter ABC, CBS and NBC on Monday from falsely describing much lower prices as a "record" high price. "Gasoline hit yet another record high," CBS Evening News anchor Bob Schieffer insisted as he cited a $2.28 price. ABC's Good Morning America painted "Record Breaking Gas Prices" on screen over a story in which David Muir claimed that "the price of a gallon of regular gas is now at an all-time high" and highlighted a woman who supposedly moved in order to avoid driving. Katie Couric declared on NBC's Today: "Gasoline prices have hit an all-time high today averaging $2.32 a gallon." Couric soon suggested that "political analysts say one of the main reasons" for President Bush's falling approval level "is the record high gas prices." Maybe it wouldn't be such a problem if the media weren't making such false statements about "record" high prices.
And the August 12, 2005 CyberAlert, “Nets Falsely Cite 'Record High' Gas Prices, Target Oil Profits,” reported:
To reach a record high, the price of a gallon of gas would have to exceed $3 a gallon and oil would need to go over $90 a barrel, yet the media continue to erroneously hype lower price points, such as $2.37 for gas, as "record highs." On Thursday night, ABC anchor Bob Woodruff fallaciously cited "record high" gas and oil prices before Betsy Stark fretted that if "record" prices on home heating oil "comes on top of record gas prices, there will be lots of consumers with nothing left to spend after they've paid all those energy bills." Woodruff spun the story into an indictment of the energy industry: "Oil companies and oil-producing countries are making massive profits while American consumers are really feeling it." A second ABC piece featured two soundbites from far-left Naderite Joan Claybrook, whom ABC's David Muir innocuously described as a "consumer advocate." CBS's John Blackstone, who showcased $4 gas at a remote California station 65 miles from any other service station, proclaimed that "across the nation, gas prices went to record highs today." He also ridiculously asked: "Will it get to the point that only the privileged can afford gas?"

The MRC's Brad Wilmouth corrected the closed-captioning against the video to provide a transcript of the May 14 World News story:
Anchor Charles Gibson: "A turnaround for Chrysler looks even more difficult tonight with the word that gas prices as of today are at a record level. A gallon of gas has never been more expensive than right now. The government announced this afternoon that the average price of regular gas is $3.10 a gallon. That's up five cents from a week ago. And ABC's John Berman is here with some word on the effects of all that. John?"

John Berman: "Charlie, anyone who drives knows just how bad these record prices are, paying $50 or more to fill up, but the concern is that the ripple effect will move beyond your gas tank and hit the rest of the economy. The math at the pump is brutal."

Unidentified man #1: "Takes $60 to fill up my tank."

Berman: "Despite the agony, for the most part, we haven't changed our actions. Demand for gas is actually up one percent from this time last year, 391 million gallons per day, even though gas is 16 cents per gallon more expensive."

Unidentified man #2: "I mean, I'm going to pay it and hate it."

Berman: "This frenzied demand is coming as supplies are unusually low. Because of maintenance or breakdowns at refineries, the national supply of gas has dropped 12 of the past 13 weeks. The ripple is reaching the skies. American, Delta and Continental have all hiked domestic, round-trip fares by $10 to offset higher fuel costs. It's hitting retailers, too. Wal-Mart reported a 3.5 percent drop in sales last month, the biggest drop since the company started keeping records. One of the main reasons, the company says, shopper jitters over gas prices."

Peter Kretzmer, Bank of America: "A typical family has certain driving needs, and they can't quickly change those driving needs. And if they have to spend more on gasoline, then they have to cut down somewhere else."

Berman: "Sixty-seven percent of Americans said gasoline prices are causing them financial hardship. And the people feeling it the most can afford it the least. Eighty percent of lower-income Americans say that gas prices are a hardship."

Unidentified woman: "It's going to make me really consider what kind of jobs I take and where I take them."

Berman: "One of the big ripple effects may be political. President Bush today directed federal agencies to find a way to cut gas consumption by 20 percent over the next 10 years. Most of the analysts I spoke with today think that prices are nearly as high as they're going to get, but that's assuming the refining and supply situations get worked out. In either case, Charlie, it will be a long, expensive summer."
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center