Friday, September 5, 2008

TV News Misleads About Offshore Drilling

Recent polls show that 51% of Americans believe that opening up coastal areas to offshore drilling would significantly lower gasoline prices. But the U.S. government agency that reports data on energy issues says it's not so, that the impact of new drilling would be minimal.

So how come so many Americans think otherwise? They heard it on TV,  in the mouths of their favorite newscasters.

 A study of transcripts of 267 news programs between June 16 and August 9 found that only one--that's right, just one-- bothered to mention that the Energy Information Agency (EIA) predicts that increased offshore drilling would have no significant effect on oil prices. At peak production in 20 years, the new wells would yield 200,000 barrels a day, two-tenths of one percent of world production.

The study of the newscasts was done by the Center for Economic & Policy Research, an independent, non-partisan think tank whose advisory board includes Nobel Laureate economists.

So what's going on here? Nothing less than an abdication of journalistic responsibility.

Reporting on the government prediction would have meant contradicting assertions by Republican presidential candidate John McCain that we urgently need to risk our coastal environment for the sake of more oil.  CNN, for example, mentioned the proposed drilling 139 times, but only once also bothered to mention the EIA forecast. None of the other broadcasts studied--ABC World News Tonight, NBC Nightly News, CBS Evening News, etc.--ever referred to it at all. 

Neither did Fox News, behind only CNN with 86 reports on the proposed drilling.

These newscasts treated the issue as simply open to opinion because the falsehood about the benefits of new drilling came out of the mouth of a man running for president. To have knocked him down would have incurred the wrath of Republican leaders with ready access to the owners of the major media. Rather than take any heat that might have come, the editors and anchors of these broadcasts simply sat on their microphones.

Remember that the EIA is like the Labor Department and the Federal Reserve, an agency that is non-partisan and whose mission is to gather information for everyone's benefit, including corporations. This is one of the legitimate reasons why we pay taxes, folks, so armies of bureaucrats can go out and collect data. We don't guess about the employment or inflation rates, and we certainly listen to the economic forecasts from agencies like the Federal Reserve. Energy forecasts are no different. 

It bears repeating that the most important function of the media is to provide the public with the information we need  to be engaged in the running of our democracy. That's why the founders of our country enshrined freedom of the press in the First Amendment. Shame on the TV newscasts for failing us so badly. 

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