After 120 days of the new presidency, the automobile industry provides some of the best evidence of an administration that favors the heavy hand of government meddling in the private sector. And as is the case with mostcoverage of President Obama and his policies, criticism of his automotive tinkering has been sparse.
On May 19, Obama announced a 30-percent increase in Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, which would come to a 35.5 miles per gallon (mpg) average for both cars and light trucks. It will equate to a higher percentage increase for cars, up from its current level of 27.5 mpg standard to 39 mpg starting in 2016. And the average for light trucks would rise from 24 mpg to 30 mpg.
"We have set in motion a national policy aimed at both increasing gas mileage and decreasing greenhouse gas pollution for new trucks and cars sold in the United States of America," Obama said during his May 19 announcement.
Leading up to this announcement, details were leaked to ABC, CBS and NBC just in time for their primetime newscasts, earning top billing on each of them and also coverage on their morning shows. Those broadcasts dutifully included administration talking points that these regulations would save consumers money in the long run while saving the environment.
Broadcast Networks Favor CAFE Standard Proponents by 6-to-1 Margin
Across the board, the announcement the federal government would be dictating what automobiles would be manufactured in the United States received lots of fanfare and very little criticism on the three evening network broadcasts. During the May 18 evening newscasts and the May 19 morning show coverage, the networks featured the comments of pro-CAFE standard experts by a margin of 6-to-1 over skeptics.
The "NBC Nightly News" CAFE standards segment on May 18 featured two environmentalist activists - Ann Mesnikoff of the Sierra Club and Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund. Also, reporting for NBC was the network's chief environmental affairs correspondent Anne Thompson, who has a history of championing so-called anti-global warming activism.
"Environmentalists hail the national standard for greenhouse gas emissions as a complete victory, one they say will propel automakers from being a laggard to being a leader in reducing global warming pollution," Thompson said. "Tomorrow's announcement will change what America drives to the future by limiting the amount of greenhouse gases vehicles put in the air and dramatically raising the amount of miles they get to the gallon."
Chip Reid's "CBS Evening News" report on the increased standards included interviews from Mesnikoff and Cliff Winton of the left-leaning Brookings Institution. Reid applauded how, in addition to fighting global warming, this expansion of regulations by the Obama administration would trump individual states' regulatory authority. .
"The mileage requirements are expected to stimulate development of cleaner burning vehicles and reduce harmful tailpipe emissions that contribute to global warming," Reid said. "The standard is almost identical to a plan California and other states fought to put in place for years but were blocked by the Bush administration. Now instead of a patchwork of state rules and regulations - there will be one set of standards for the nation."
The sole instance of criticism came during the May 18 broadcast of ABC's "World News with Charles Gibson." But even that report stated the regulations would "curb global warming."
"Environment groups are hailing this as the first major step ever by the United States to curb global warming. It's also a move designed to change the kind of cars we drive," ABC's Jonathan Karl said. "The changes are sweeping. Auto companies will be forced to cut the amount of greenhouse gas emissions by about 25 percent. New cars will also need to be more energy efficient."
The lone voice in the wilderness was the Cato Institute's Patrick Michaels, who countered a "World News" interview with Dan Becker, director of the environmental group Safe Climate Campaign. Michaels explained why he was skeptical of the policy.
"U.S. automakers used to be U.S. automakers," Michaels said. "Now they really are because they're owned in part by the government. So the government can tell them pretty much what they want to produce can't they?"
Change the Media Believe In: Consequences Largely Ignored
Ronald Reagan famously quipped, "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'" That wisdom hasn't quite sunk in with many of the reporters covering this story.
ABC's Jake Tapper did say increased CAFÉ standards would bring added costs for consumers. "This will mean the cars will cost more to manufacture and therefore to buy - an average of $1,300 a car more by 2016," Tapper said on the May 19 "World News" before quickly adding, "But the president said that cost would be more than made up for by savings at pump."
However, Nick Loris explained on The Heritage Foundation's blog that these cost-savings in the name of bettering the environment are a fallacy.
"Energy efficiency is a good thing, but it rarely works when the government forces standards on businesses," Loris wrote May 19. "Although touted as a measure to curb global warming, fuel efficiency standards have very little environmental impact. Newer vehicles with better efficiency standards may emit less carbon dioxide per mile, but increased fuel efficiency often leads to more driving and new cars ‘constitute a miniscule source of overall carbon dioxide emissions.'"
Nonetheless, NBC's Anne Thompson parroted the "cost savings at the pump" line in her glowing reporton the May 19 broadcast of "Nightly News."
"Saying the status quo is no longer acceptable, the president today took what he called the first step in a transition to a clean energy economy," Thompson said. "In America you are what you drive, but gas guzzlers sending tons of greenhouse gases into the air will soon be in the rearview mirror. Today President Obama announced what he called an historic agreement to make new vehicles cleaner and more efficient."
But perhaps it wasn't as "historic" as Thompson reported. This has been tried before and last time, it didn't work out so well for the automakers or consumers, according to as ABC's Tapper on the May 19 "Good Morning America."
"The change over the lifetimes of the new vehicles will reduce emissions enough to be comparable to taking 177 million cars off the road and through 2016, it will save 1.8 billion barrels of oil that will not have to be imported," Tapper said. "But will the cars be as safe? That's an open question for automakers, if they're being given enough time to meet these requirements. In the late '70s, the U.S. pushed for better fuel efficiency very quickly. The result: Cars like the Chevy Vega and Ford Pinto."
The Skeptics: What Are We Really Getting?
While you might not know it from watching the broadcast networks, there are some who skeptical of Obama's announcement. Fox News host Glenn Beck weighed in on his May 19 program with his own cost-benefit analysis.
"The auto industry is in full-fledged collapse, and what does Washington decide to do? We're going to put in some new CAFE standards on it - to fight global warming or whatever they're calling it these days," Beck said. "The government isn't content with just firing car company's CEOs and then slashing advertising budgets. It's now telling the American people that they need to spend between $1,300 and $7,000 extra to drive a car that is likely to be crappy and be a lot lighter, and therefore, less safe."
Based on that observation, the Fox News host ridiculed the entire premise behind these costly regulations.
"Let me ask you a simple question - does common sense tell you that you are more likely to die in a car crash or, you know in a fiery flood from global warming? Yes. I thought so. What should our priorities be here?"
The problem, according to "CNBC Reports" host Dennis Kneale, is the math doesn't add up. The cost for the saving in fuel-efficiency standards will only decrease fuel consumption (and thereby the so-called addiction to foreign oil) by a paltry 1.6 percent.
"Alright, so cars - they've got to raise their miles per gallon with this one fell swoop 42 percent," Kneale said on his May 19 program. "Trucks, they're going to have to raise their miles per gallon 30 percent. But guess what - by the year 2020, its estimated lower gas usage, it's only going to go down 1.6 percent. Is it worth it then?"
The other concerns - it's going to put American automakers at an even larger competitive disadvantage and not address the safety concerns associated with these smaller, lighter automobiles.
"Six-hundred dollars added to the price of a car at a time when the big three automakers already have a $2,500-per-car cost disadvantage," Kneale added. "Lighter cars, you die more often. Since CAFE passed in 1975, 46,000 more traffic deaths occurred by the year 2002. It's up over 50,000 [currently], no doubt. What are we doing here?"
An editorial in the May 20 Wall Street Journal also mocked this government-mandated path to prosperity by pointing out that this is folly even by the standards of traditional socialists.
"We wish these folks luck ‘working together' with the Obama auto-design team. One thing seems certain by 2016: Taxpayers will be paying Detroit to make the cars Americans don't want, and then they will pay again either through (trust us) a gas tax or with a purchase subsidy. Even the French must think we're nuts."