The media’s gas price theater reached new heights of drama this week. Eagerly reporting from outlier gas stations that charge far above the national average, journalists remain obsessed with pinning the global pump trend on President Joe Biden.
At Monday’s White House press briefing, CBS News’ Ed O’Keefe actually recited quotes from motorists he interviewed at a local gas station. Then he asked press secretary Jen Psaki, “What is the President’s message to Americans who are going to the gas station today and seeing prices so high?”
The pump coverage in recent months has been especially intense because the media under Biden has gone all in on the larger issue of inflation. It’s constantly portrayed as a crushing force on the U.S. economy, even though the economy continues to expand and add jobs at a record pace.
The last time gas in the U.S. climbed above $4 per-gallon was in 2008. But we know news coverage then wasn’t as incessant and breathless as it is today because at the time President George W. Bush had no idea prices were heading towards $4 a gallon — that’s how little coverage there was.
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has disrupted the global energy markets and once again set gas prices higher, the coverage has become truly ceaseless. (See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here. And that’s all just from one day.) “Gas” has already been mentioned 500 times this week on cable news, according to TVeyes. A huge majority of Americans say they’re fine paying more for gas because the U.S. now refuses to buy oil from Russia. Yet most of the news coverage suggests consumers are furious about the price increases.
Worse, today’s reporting consistently lacks crucial context that lets giant oil companies off the hook. Instead of shining a spotlight on their behavior and the central role they play in increased prices by refusing to drill for more crude, the press whitewashes Big Oil from the story, and keeps its focus on the White House. In doing so, they miss a big story.
“Rather than increase production or reinvest to meet the energy demand increase caused by the world reemerging from COVID-19 lockdowns, oil and gas companies are taking advantage of bloated prices, fleecing American families along the way,” noted Accountable US, progressive advocacy group that recently produced a report on Big Oil.
Gas and oil companies, currently banking record profits, are usually portrayed by the media in the day-to-day gas price coverage as disinterested players who have nothing to gain from higher prices because, according to the narrative, Big Oil is simply passing along the marketplace increases to consumers. That’s just not the case.
Oil companies have said again and again that their sky-high earnings in recent quarters are because of “higher commodity prices.” Big Oil doesn’t function as a mere middle man, collecting the same fees regardless of what motorists are paying at the pump. They love higher gas prices.
That’s what BP CEO Nernard Looney told investors late last year: “This has been another good quarter for bp - our businesses are generating strong underlying earnings and cash flow while maintaining their focus on safe and reliable operations. Rising commodity prices certainly helped.”
And from W&T Offshore’s CEO: “It is encouraging to see commodity prices at these levels.”
Meanwhile, instead of drilling for more oil to ease shortages as demand and prices surge, energy companies are using billions in profits to reward shareholders by buying back their stock. “Investors are now demanding greater returns so oil companies are forgoing crude expansion and instead returning cash to shareholders while vowing to keep spending in check,” Bloomberg explained last year.
Virtually none of that context is included in today’s breathless gas price updates. Or the fact that Trump in 2020 urged a global reduction in oil drilling in order to boost U.S. firms during the pandemic when motorist demand for gas was low. That look-the-other-way approach fits the media’s larger trend of whitewashing the role of corporate America in the ongoing inflation story. Big business has most often been portrayed as merely passing along increased costs to consumers, with almost no consideration given to the idea that lots of companies have been cashing in during the pandemic.
The media blackout is especially odd considering CEO’s have boasted on their earnings calls about how they’ve pushed through multiple prices increases while simultaneously posting huge profits.
“Companies benefiting from the dynamics have told investors to expect solid sales and profitability in 2022 even as rising costs tied to supply-chain woes show no signs of letting up,” the Wall Street Journal reported in November. “P&G, maker of Tide detergent and Pampers diapers, last week announced a third round of price increases, which will go into effect over the next few months, and told investors to expect profitability to accelerate as the year progresses.”
Meanwhile, Chipotle jacked up pandemic menu prices and its net income more than doubled during a recent quarter.
It’s misguided for the press to treat gas prices as a political story. It’s actually one about corporate greed.