Pity the Pumper?

The media's quest to convince Americans that gas is "expensive"

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.

In additional to this international context, several other articles from The New York Times have tackled the deeper realities underlying current gas prices. On the same Sunday that Marsh’s article appeared, Ben Stein contributed an essay to the Business section, headlined “Why Oil and Wages Don’t Mix,” in which he argued:

Get this, friends: from 1947 to about 1973…real hourly pay for nongovernmental workers rose by about 40 percent… Since then, real wages both hourly and weekly for all nongovernmental workers, on average, have fallen by about 5 percent…

As I see it, the problem is not the price of oil generally. (I think that the price will decline somewhat before long, but the long-term trend is very much up.) The problem is the stagnation of wages.

Stein admits there are problems with using government-provided wage data over long periods, but at least he makes the attempt to move beyond the shock and awe of oil prices. In fact, several other op-eds did the same. A few pages past Marsh’s article on international gas prices, the Week in Review section offered an excellent suite of savvy vignettes from ten different writers on the “consequences of expensive fuel.” (It was a big Sunday for the Times, as far as gas was concerned.) The group’s headline, “Is Your Tank Half Empty or Half Full?” hinted at the degree to which reporters and editors can choose to frame higher prices as either plague or promise. Most of the writers leaned toward promise:

• “Just when did it become sane to have a three-hour commute, anyway?” bemoaned Times online columnist Allison Arieff. “High gas prices may help restore some degree of collective common sense while also forcing much-needed innovation in the way we design and plan our communities.”

• “All the talk about the bad oil bubble obscures the potentially good bubble still inflating in the realm of alternative energy,” argued Newsweek columnist Daniel Gross.

• “Driving less — fewer miles or smaller vehicles — is the rational response to higher fuel prices. But there’s something else motorists can do: drive smarter,” reasoned Tom Vanderbilt, who authored a book about American driving habits. “Another approach is to change the traffic landscape. Roundabouts, which favor slow coasting over starting and stopping and eliminate the need to idle at red signals when an intersection is empty, can cut fuel use 10 percent to 30 percent.

Such enlightened commentary from the Times was not limited to its June 29 issue. In his May 28 column, Tom Friedman foreshadowed the Week in Review writers’ predictions of large-scale change as the ultimate, and only, solution to America’s transportation woes:

There is no short-term fix for gasoline prices… We need to make a structural shift in our energy economy… The only way to get from here to there is to start now with a price signal that will force the change.

Friedman also noted that the shock over prices is already prompting Americans to move in the right direction. Abrogating the current trend, according to him, would cause far more issues than it would solve.

Friedman’s colleague, author Steven D. Levitt, who co-writes the Times blog Freakonomics (and co-authored the eponymous book), agrees that the Americans should accept current gas prices, arguing in a recent post that:

High gas prices act just like taxes, except that they are more transitory and the extra revenue goes to oil producers, refiners, and distributors instead of to the government. My view is that, rather than bemoaning the high price of gas, we should be celebrating it. And, if any presidential candidate should come out in favor of a $1 per gallon tax on gas, vote for that candidate.

Perhaps all of this suggests that the Facebook environmentalists calling for lower gas prices should switch from CNN to the Times. They might recognize the inherent contradiction between the two positions, or simply come to understand the large role the media plays in convincing people that gas prices are “ridiculous” rather than realistic. Either way, the fact that television news networks commonly use victimization and pity tactics to simplify Americans’ views on gas prices could account for the odd enigmas in public perspective.

There is nothing wrong in empathizing with Americans who feel the brunt of the current energy crisis (again, there is real suffering out there), but lowering gas prices would not offer long-term solutions to any demographic. CNN should take a hint from the Times, stop garnering hysteria to boost viewership, and focus on the more complicated issues underlying American energy prices.

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

Elizabeth Tuttle is an intern at CJR.