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How The Press Distorts The News About US Energy Security

The facts are compelling: our oil addiction is destroying the country. But as long as the media refuses to talk about it, we won't get policies that lead to real change.
 
 
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Are lawmakers pursuing a "fundamentally misguided" goal when it comes to U.S. energy security? That's the concern voiced by a  group of retired military officers and business leaders in a  recent report warning that strategies focused on reducing imports of "foreign oil" are missing "the true nature of the problem." This spring, when average U.S. gasoline prices  jumped 70 cents, the news media had an opportunity to clarify which policies and candidates actually stand to improve energy security. On the whole, they failed.

The report from the Energy Security Leadership Council (ESLC) says the notion of "energy independence" is "widely misunderstood" in a way that "misdiagnoses the problem as one characterized largely by import levels," when in fact "energy security is almost entirely a function of the importance of oil consumption in the domestic economy." In other words, it's how much oil we need that makes us vulnerable, not where the oil is produced.

NPR fuel economy standards

After all, countries like Canada and Norway, which have long been net oil exporters, saw the  same debilitating price volatility that Americans have faced in recent years. The report, echoed by a subsequent analysis from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, says expanded domestic oil production benefits the trade deficit and employment, but not energy security -- contrary to the claims of  industrypoliticians, and  commentators. Instead, it is vehicle fuel economy standards that the panel identified as "the most important energy security accomplishment in decades."

Connecting The Dots

While experts agree that policies reducing oil consumption do more to protect Americans from price shocks than policies  increasing oil production, this fact has not been clearly communicated by the news media. Our analysis of news coverage of rising gasoline prices earlier this year  found that only 2% of broadcast coverage, 4% of cable coverage, and 13% of print coverage mentioned fuel economy standards.  Out of 69 print items on gas prices, only three acknowledged that reducing oil consumption is the most effective solution. Instead, the coverage often discussed  domestic oil production or the  Keystone XL pipeline. There are persuasive arguments in favor of both of these, but energy security and gas prices are not among them. (Unfortunately, energy security and gas prices are two of the  arguments used most frequentlyby proponents and relayed uncritically by reporters.)

In an interview with  Politico, Steve Koonin, former chief scientist for BP, said "When you hear the international oil companies advocating for energy independence, it's really about making money, which isn't a bad thing." "If they produce a million more barrels a day, they're not going to change the global price much. And since they know the global price is going up, they'll just make more money," he said, adding, "There's nothing wrong with that, but it doesn't solve the price problem."

The price problem, is of course, what Americans care about. So you'd expect news outlets to tell readers which political figures support policies that tackle the problem and which do not.

According to a Nexis search of The Washington Post, The New York Times, CNN.com, The Associated Press, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, ABC, CBS, and NBC, major news outlets mentioned Newt Gingrich's  pledge to drill his way to $2.50/gallon over 65 times this year (excluding instances in which the writer or host explained that his pledge was implausible). But with a single exception (a Dina Cappiello  fact check for AP), those outlets never mentioned that Gingrich  wants to repeal corporate average fuel economy standards (CAFE).

And so far this year, not one reporter from those same news outlets has mentioned Mitt Romney's positions on fuel economy standards, alternative vehicle investments, biofuel research or mass transit in their coverage of gasoline prices. (One  column on gas prices by Doyle McManus at the LA Timesdid note that Romney endorsed Rep. Paul Ryan's budget proposal, which would slash funding for alternative energy.) By contrast, reporters routinely quoted Romney  blaming the Obama administration for the price spike and calling for more drilling.

 
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