The Early Life of the Gas-Tax Story

Reporters let bloggers and columnists do the work

The possible suspension of the federal gas tax has become a big issue in the presidential race, and the latest media frenzy surrounding the candidates. As we noted last week, the press aggressively (if belatedly) attacked the idea, which John McCain and Hillary Clinton support and Barack Obama opposes. But regardless of whether tax holiday amounts to political “pandering” on the one hand, or needed relief for struggling Americans on the other, one can look at the evolution of the gas-tax story as a vision of how the mainstream press can live symbiotically with the blogosphere.

In fact, the evolution of this story turned the typical journalistic protocol-news first, opinion later-on its head. Attention to the gas-tax holiday began in the blogosphere, and then bled over into a print-media fury. The popular and left-leaning was on top of it from the outset. It covered McCain’s April 16 call for a summertime suspension; followed up when Clinton echoed the call on April 28; and dug deeper into her record on April 30 when a blogger cited a quote from 2000 in which she called a gas tax holiday, “a bad deal for New York and a potential bonanza for the oil companies.”

The bit about Clinton’s 2000 quote originated at another blog,, however. A blog at Plenty magazine also picked it up and the story about her flip-flop began to jump around until it landed at a blog hosted by mainstream press bastion MSNBC. The wildfire was lit; next stop, print.

The progression of this piece fit an increasingly workable mold: blogs, as part of their contribution to the news world, dig up stories that the mainstream press has missed or failed to give enough attention to. The mainstream press then realizes, there’s a story here! (Then other blogs and media critics dissect how it all played out-that’s where we fit into the picture.)

Still, something peculiar happened in this case. The first accounts that appeared in the press weren’t news articles-they were mostly op-eds and editorials. Thomas Friedman touched off a spate of other opinion writing when he used his New York Times column to rip both Clinton’s and McCain’s gas-tax holiday proposals to shreds. “When the summer is over,” he wrote, “we will have increased our debt to China, increased our transfer of wealth to Saudi Arabia and increased our contribution to global warming for our kids to inherit.”

The Times ran an editorial the next day headlined, “The Gas-Guzzler Gambit,” calling the gas-tax holiday “a new way to pander to American voters.” The Times also had Paul Krugman-who has been tough on Obama on some issues-sounding off on his blog about what he called a “pointless” plan.

The Times wasn’t the only outlet with columnists that got into the frenzy. Even the Montreal Gazette -that’s Montreal, Canada-ran a piece called, “Real leaders don’t engage in gas-pump populism.”

This was-and continues to be-a place where the mainstream press could take a nice hand-off from the blogs and give us a few stories digging into the balance of what consumers want, what they actually need, and how much of that is doable with something like a gas-tax holiday.

To give credit where it is due, The Washington Post ran a standard point-counterpoint type news story to this effect on May 1. A handful of staff writers worked on the story, which basically involved tallying the responses of a number of economists to Senator Clinton’s plan. And while the story itself didn’t go very deep, at least it took a first-step towards analyzing what the tax cut could mean for budgets, long-term prices, and the environment:

Environmentalists noted that suspending the gas tax also would undermine efforts to curb global warming because it would increase the use of gasoline, a fossil fuel that contributes to climate change. It would also reduce incentives for buying fuel-efficient vehicles and developing alternative fuels. Relying on a windfall-profits tax to replenish the highway fund would leave less to invest in renewable energy, which is what Clinton had previously said a windfall tax would go toward.

For the most part, however, the big news outlets relegated the tax-break holiday to their staffwriters’ blogs or to opinion pieces and editorials. (Then, of course, television took over-with rounds of white-collar experts chiming in on the relief-vs.-pandering debate.) It’s one thing to hear Thomas Friedman describe how Clinton and McCain’s plans threaten economic and environmental sustainability, but in today’s rapid-fire media climate, there is an ever-greater need to anchor opinion writing with objective reporting in the rest of the paper.

Traditional news outlets are afraid of losing their shine (and dollars) to low-cost, low-resource, fast-moving new media, and it’s a real fear. There was a time when the daily newspaper was the fastest horse in town. Those days are over.

But newspapers still give us the well-reported news stories that bloggers have not the time, the energy, or the desire to cover. Authoritative objective reporting supplies the stipulated facts for the discussion. Readers and citizens need that, and always will.

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

Russ Juskalian is a contributor to The Observatory and a freelance writer.