Oil prices may have fallen 6 percent over the last two days, but the Facebook Group “15,000,000 for lower gas prices!!!” is still going strong. It’s about 13 million members short of its stated goal, but the more interesting observation is not how many people have joined — it’s who. Perusing the Employment History section of its members’ profiles reveals a surprisingly high number of Greenpeace interns and Sierra Club volunteers.
Why the surprise? Because many environmentalists and energy pundits believe fuel prices should not, in fact, return to the relative bargain levels of a year ago. Rather than arguing that gas is “expensive,” they say that the era of “cheap” gas is over—and happily so, given their predictions that higher prices will spur more thoughtful consumption practices as well as the development of renewable fuels. In other words, there is, to some extent, an intrinsic paradox in having both a green viewpoint and a desire to lower prices. How could those Facebook environmentalists (and other like-minded Americans) have missed this? Did Tom Friedman’s dedicated followers skip a few Sundays?
More likely, the culprit is television news. Over the last couple months, networks like CNN and MSNBC have repeatedly broadcast pump-side interviews with “average” Americans bemoaning the cost of a tank of gas. Rather than offering some kind of objective commentary or exploring the conditions that force these people to depend so heavily on their cars, however, television reporters tend to parrot motorists’ complaints.
Take this clip from an afternoon CNN news show on July 1, from a report about how a Houston, Texas school district will cut one-time, $250 checks for gas to all employees who earn less than $30,000 per year:
CHARLIE REED, PUBLIC SCHOOL BUS DRIVER: Seventy-five dollars. And that probably will last me about three or four days. That’s ridiculous. The gas price is ridiculous.
SUSAN ROESGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): They are ridiculous, and Charlie Reed spends more time at the wheel than most. He does plenty of driving as a public school bus driver in Houston.
Ridiculous? By what standard? The report mentions that Reed earns only $15 per hour, equating to five hours of work per tank, but we still don’t know what percentage of his total income goes toward gas (one assumes he is getting one of the $250 checks, but that’s not actually stated). And the U.S. price is certainly not “ridiculous” by international standards (Europeans, among others, have long paid far more too fill their tanks). To be fair, the CNN’s report was not about Reed, but the school district’s gas checks, but what about the circumstances that make those checks necessary?
In the clip, Reed is shown filling up his F-series Ford pickup, yet Roesgen never asks whether, given Reed’s financial pinch, he actually needs such a large, inefficient vehicle. Nor does she ask him about the things that impact his ability to choose other, less costly transportation options. The report notes that Reed works seventeen miles from his home, but what about public transit? Ride-sharing? Available and affordable housing that is closer to his workplace and other centers of commerce? Without examining any of the forces that govern how much Reed spends on transportation, CNN inconspicuously (but no less effectively) floats the idea that gas prices are “ridiculous.”
Such criticism is not meant to denigrate Reed or the vast number of Americans who are truly and unfortunately hamstrung by the cost of transportation. Their circumstances are dependent on much more than the price of gas, however, and most television news totally misses that. Rather than exploring issues like consumer choices, wage discrepancies, and America’s transportation infrastructure, short clips like the one from CNN ask viewers to blindly pity the poor soul standing by the pump and accept that he or she (and by default, the government) is powerless to change the status quo. Americans are indeed experiencing serious energy pains right now, but such facile reporting is no help to them.
Coverage need not be so superficial or prone to frenzied consternation, however. Take The New York Times, for example. In an article by Bill Marsh in the June 29 Week in Review, which turned the conventional wisdom of TV news on its head with one simple lede: “Gasoline in the United States is cheap.”
What followed was a short, but much needed, piece accompanied by a comprehensive graphic, which showed the price for a gallon of gas in twenty-seven countries. The United States ranks as the ninth cheapest, at $4 per gallon, while prices have skyrocketed to $10.05 in the Netherlands and to $8.71 in the U.K. Most of the countries boasting cheaper gas prices are oil-producing nations, like Venezuela, that offer heavy subsidies.