Inflation at the News Pump

This morning, the San Francisco Chronicle greeted its readers in the Bay Area with a bit of bad news about gas prices. The paper reported that Hurricane Rita was now bearing down on the Texas coastline and could “drive gasoline prices above $4 per gallon.”

Yikes. That’s scary stuff. But apparently for some news outlets, not scary enough. To wit: If you flip on cable news today, you’ll soon hear dire warnings that Hurricane Rita may cause gas prices to jump to … [dramatic pause] … $5 a gallon.

Blame it on inflation at the news pump.

“Hurricane Rita is causing new worries over gas prices,” Kelly Wallace said today on CNN’s “American Morning.” “The average price at the pump is about $2.76 a gallon. But — get this — some experts say it could reach $5 a gallon in the wake of Katrina.”

Cue the experts.

“Rita would be the Grinch that stole Christmas,” an energy trader named Phil Flynn, said today on CNN’s “Daybreak.” “Because more than likely we would see gasoline prices probably push up toward, you know, $3.70, $4 a gallon; maybe even as high as $5.”

With Hurricane Rita still a day or so shy of hitting shore, talk of the $5 specter will undoubtedly continue to haunt the around-the-clock dispatches from the Gulf Coast. After all, this was at one point a Category 5 storm. And as every reporter looking to spice up evacuation coverage knows, a one-time Category 5 storm calls for Category 5 response at the pump.

Print journalists have been slow to match the inflation — with the notable exception of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. This morning, in a story titled “High gas prices grease path for vegetable oil fuel option,” Daniel Tedder, a professor at Georgia Tech, speculated that gas prices might soon spur manufacturing of alternative fuels. “I think it’s got a future, but it will be economy-driven,” Tedder said. “I don’t know where that [tipping point] is. It could be [when the cost of gasoline hits] $4 a gallon or $5 a gallon.”

When would that be? Perhaps this weekend, according to another story in this morning’s Journal-Constitution.

“Another hurricane barreling toward the Gulf Coast is threatening again to lift pump prices skyward by shuttering production of oil and gasoline,” reported the Journal-Constitution. “A damaging hit to the energy infrastructure could shove gasoline prices to $4 or even $5 a gallon, some analysts said Wednesday.”

To its credit, the Journal-Constitution went on to report that the $5 scare was most likely just that — a scare. “But economist James Williams of WTRG Economics said it would take a devastating hit to trigger $5-a-gallon gasoline,” noted the story.

“You’d just about have to destroy Houston to do that,” said Williams.

Meanwhile, the Houston Chronicle reported recently that Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott would be leading a multi-state crackdown on price gouging at the pump.

Nothing was said about inflation in the headline biz.

Felix Gillette

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.