It is well-established that the broadcasts networks covered rising gas prices different under President George W. Bush’s administration than they did President Barack Obama, in tone and even the amount of coverage.
In addition to fueling discontent with many gas price reports, one of the networks’ frequent suggestions for lowering gas prices during the Bush years was for the federal government to release oil from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR), a 727 million barrel emergency supply of oil stored in salt caverns in the Gulf states. These same media outlets have been much less insistent about Obama releasing oil from the SPR, and were quicker to praise him when he did.
The morning and evening news shows of ABC, CBS and NBC called for Bush to release oil from the SPR 37 times between 2004 and 2008. These same shows called for Obama to release oil only 11 times, fewer than 3 times as often as they pressured Bush. CBS pressured Bush to open the SPR, calling $2.11-a-gallon gasoline a “financial and economic disaster” on May 4, 2004. But on Feb. 23, 2012, when gas was $3.61-a-gallon, the networks noted that tapping the SPR was an option, but that it probably wouldn’t make much of a difference.
However, when it came to praise for releasing oil from the SPR, the networks acknowledged Obama 13 times, as opposed to just 10 times for Bush.
Networks treat Bush, Obama differently on SPR release
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the SPR was opened six times during the Bush years, and two so far during Obama’s presidency. When Obama did it (such as June 2011) the networks spoke positively.
“This morning, worldwide oil prices may keep dropping now that the U.S. is using some of its emergency reserves. 30 million barrels of oil is being released from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve into the market. The move could bring gas prices down 15 cents or more over the next month,” CBS News anchor Betty Nguyen said on CBS’s “The Early Show” on June 24, 2011. Gas was $3.60 at that time. Other outlets made much larger predictions of prices dropping 50 cents a gallon.
On Aug. 18, 2012, “Good Morning America” found a female motorist who said tapping the SPR “would make me happy. I could buy more things for my kids.”
However, when Bush released oil from the SPR, ABC and CBS suggested it could be politically motivated.
Senior business and economics correspondent Anthony Mason reported a gas price “conspiracy theory” on CBS “Evening News” on Oct. 16, 2006. Gas had gone down to $2.22-a-gallon from just over three dollars when Mason reported that “a recent poll found 42 percent of people actually believe the Bush administration has deliberately manipulated the price of gas to affect the election.” Mason went on to say that there was “an uncanny connection between President Bush’s popularity and the price at the pump.”
Back then NBC and CNN also reported conspiratorial claims that Bush was manipulating gas prices for political gain.
Much more recently, Obama has accused Republicans of wanting gas prices to rise. “Last week, the lead story in one newspaper said, gasoline prices are on the rise and Republicans are licking their chops. Only in politics do they greet bad news so enthusiastically,” Obama said on Feb. 23, 2012, referring to a Politico article.
Network coverage of gas prices reveals double standard
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 of the inconsistency. They covered rapidly rising prices in 2008 three times more than far higher prices in 2013.
The Business and Media Institute found that when comparing gas price coverage in February 2008 to February 2013 there was a stark difference in coverage. During that time, 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, but NBC warned that prices were a problem that “could get a lot worse.”
In February 2013 gas prices were at record highs for the time of year, but got far less coverage on the network. Prices also started out much higher ($3.462 on Feb. 1, to $3.771 by March 1) than February 2008 and rose further, but NBC devoted 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.
2008 was a year of pumped up predictions, as BMI 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, 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.
For this analysis, BMI tallied news stories from the morning and evening shows of ABC, CBS and NBC from 2004 to 2008 for stories related to the Bush presidency, and from 2009 to the present for stories during the Obama presidency.
There were 11 more stories insisting that Bush release oil from the SPR from between 2001 and 2003, which have been omitted for a more accurate comparison. An additional 10 stories called for Bush to stop adding to the reserve during 2004, 2006 and 2008. These were also not counted in BMI’s tally. The networks also covered rising gas prices more during the Bush years, prices which were the motivation behind the pressure to release oil from the SPR.