The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion TV coverage amplifies the GOP’s false claims about gas prices

WASHINGTON, DC ‐ March 10, 2022: White House press secretary Jen Psaki during the daily press briefing at the White House on March 10. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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Unsurprisingly, the most egregious examples of the media regurgitating right-wing talking points on gas prices often come from Fox News. White House reporter Peter Doocy has parroted oil industry talking points at White House briefings and insinuated that the administration is being dishonest about the cause of inflation. (Disclosure: I am an MSNBC contributor.) It’s increasingly obvious to those outside the right-wing bubble that the “news” side of Fox often serves as a content provider for the MAGA propaganda machine.

But the rest of the White House press corps and cable TV news outlets also habitually repeat GOP talking points on energy, even as reliable print media debunks them. Headlines such as “GOP blames Biden for gas prices after pushing for Russian oil ban” on ABC News’s website serve to amplify false claims. Politico’s “Biden blames Putin for inflation. GOP blames Biden.” might be the perfect distillation of bothsidesism. And NBC’s “Republicans cheer Russian oil ban and jeer Biden for rising gas prices” epitomizes coverage that treats the topic as a contest of partisan claims.

We know Republicans’ claims are untrue. The Post’s fact-checker Glenn Kessler awarded four Pinocchios to an ad from former vice president Mike Pence that “tries to make two distinct statements — Biden canceled the Keystone pipeline and Russian imports of oil reached a high under Biden — but it does so in a way that virtually all viewers are going to think the two are connected.”

Likewise, the New York Times found that GOP claims blaming the Biden administration for rising energy prices were “misleading.” The report confirmed, “The primary reason for rising gas prices over the past year is the coronavirus pandemic and its disruptions to global supply and demand.” The pandemic brought the economy to a halt, reduced energy demand and slowed production; when demand popped back, supply was low and prices increased.

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Moreover, the administration has not reduced domestic production since the Trump administration. “The country became a net exporter of petroleum in 2020, the first time since at least 1949. That remained the case in 2021. It became a net exporter of natural gas in 2018 and remains so today, with exports reaching record levels in 2021.”

As for the administration’s cancellation of the Keystone XL Pipeline, another go-to GOP attack, our imports from Canada increased 70 percent without it. And when it comes to federal oil lease permits, “the Biden administration actually approved 34 percent more of these permits than the Trump administration did in its first year.”

So if GOP talking points are factually incorrect, why does the White House press corps repeat them, giving them the air of legitimacy? It is part of a familiar pattern in which mainstream TV reporters and White House press equalize the two political parties. Republicans say X; the White House says Y. That is the prevalent notion of “balance” and being tough on an administration (even though the current one does not routinely lie, the way its predecessor did). When facts are verifiable, the media’s pretense of balance is misleading.

Even more egregiously, TV news media fails to confront Republicans about their provably false allegations. You simply do not hear TV interviewers ask Republicans: “Since the Keystone XL Pipeline would not have increased supply, why do you keep using its cancellation to attack the White House?” “Energy companies can pump all the oil they want from private lands and even begin drilling on lands with unused leases, so how is this the White House’s fault?” (Even more rarely do you get a succinct explanation that oil prices are set globally in the international marketplace.)

In framing oil prices as a political story of the “GOP claim vs. White House defense” variety, the media provides demonstrably false accusations with oxygen. The political story gets tilted in Republicans’ favor and, moreover, misinforms the public about the substantive issues surrounding “energy independence” and pricing. To boot, the media largely avoids confronting GOP politicians on their dependence on political contributions from the oil and gas industry.

This media failure is part of the larger problem in coverage of two parties that do not equally respect facts and truth. As unnatural as it may be for reporters trained not to “take sides,” their obligation to news consumers is to tell the truth, not to provide cover for disingenuous politicians. They should be on the side of the reality. It’s Republicans’ own fault if they get caught denying it.