Drilling Big Oil: Networks Mentioned Profits Nine Times More When Prices Were High

When gas prices were high, the media pumped their shows with stories about profit. But when prices were low, those stories took a back seat.

In 2015, gas prices tumbled from a high of $2.80 in June to a low of $2 in December after a glut in supply flooded the market.  BP and Exxon reportedly lost billions in profit last year, and according to The Telegraph, oil prices crashed into 2016 with depths not seen since the housing crisis.

When prices were much higher in 2006, networks had a field day bashing oil companies and their executives. ABC, CBS and NBC hyped oil profits that anchors dubbed “eye-popping,” “jaw-dropping,” and “breathtaking.” The media flaunted consumer outrage over gas prices, an oil executive’s compensation, and politicians’ scolding of Big Oil.

2015 was just the opposite. Oil prices collapsed, at least 36 firms filed for bankruptcy and oil profits tanked. But the broadcast news media bypassed that. ABC, NBC, and CBS evening news shows barely discussed how oil profits had cratered. The networks discussed oil profits nine times more in 2006 when prices were high than in 2015 when prices were low (76 stories to 8 stories).

Sticking it to the (Oil) Man

ABC, NBC, and CBS attacked oil profits repeatedly in 2006, often taking entire segments to dwell on lofty corporate profits. NBC called Chevron’s profits “eye-popping” on Jan 27, and on July 27 anchor Brian Williams highlighted the fact that ExxonMobil’s quarterly profit of $10,360,000 translated into “$79,000 a minute.”

In 2006, evening news depicted higher gas prices as a flashpoint of conflict between Big Oil companies and ordinary Americans. NBC anchor Brian Williams even went so far as to say consumers “won” against oil companies in a story about artificially low gas prices in Illinois.

During the Aug. 22, 2006, broadcast of Nightly News, Williams reported on a gas station glitch in Illinois that changed gas prices from $3 to 30 cents per gallon. “The pumps were quickly shut down amid fears that oil company profits might plummet,” Williams said.

Williams then abandoned any sense of objectivity and said, “But for one brief shining moment, we the consumers won.” He then reminisced over “the old days before you needed to refinance your home to fill your tank.”

ABC anchor Elizabeth Vargas repeatedly hinted at an exploitative connection between high oil profits and pain at the pump. For example, during her April 26 broadcast, Vargas said, “We begin with overflowing profits for the oil industry, as Americans struggle to pay rising prices at the pump.”

ABC anchor Bob Woodruff made the connection more explicit on Jan. 25, 2006, when he said Conoco-Phillips’s “record-high profits are the result of record high oil and gas prices people are paying at the pump and to heat their homes.”

While it’s true that oil companies benefitted from higher oil and gas prices, the higher prices did not stem from schemes to exploit consumers. American Petroleum Institute Chief Economist John Felmy testified to the House Judiciary Committee in 2007 that “oil companies do not set the price of crude. It is bought and sold in international markets, with the price for a barrel of crude reflecting the market conditions at the time of purchase.”

The Federal Trade Commission investigated high gas prices after Hurricane Katrina and found “no instances of illegal market manipulation that led to higher prices.”

Former Exxon Mobil CEO Lee Raymond must have felt a lot of heat in 2006 as networks covered his $400 million severance package against the backdrop of rising gas prices and oil profits. CBS called Raymond’s compensation a “golden parachute” on May 31, and during the April 13 evening news show, Anthony Mason called Raymond’s retirement package “breathtaking.”

The media portrayed higher oil prices as bad because of how they impacted consumers at the gas tank. But higher prices fed employee’s salaries and oil operations. In October 2015, Forbes writer Christopher Helman reported that “The collapse in oil prices has so far claimed more than 200,000 jobs worldwide.” Helman also wrote, “The industry bloodbath has coincided with the mothballing of more than 1,100 drilling rigs and a halving of capital spending.”

During 2015, networks barely covered weakened profits resulting in job loss. Instead, CBS ran two stories about high gas prices, and mentioned how they contributed to oil profits. On July 22, 2015, CBS correspondent Ben Tracy reported that gas prices stayed high in California even when they dropped in the rest of the country. For a touch of bias, Tracy added, “there is one very small silver lining: Gas prices in the state did drop overnight by one cent per gallon.”

Methodology: MRC Business searched Nexis for transcripts from ABC, CBS and NBC evening news programs (World News, Evening News and Nightly News) that contained the phrases “oil” and “profit” during 2006 and 2015 broadcasts. Each transcript was examined to determine whether it mentioned or contained a story about profits in the oil industry. If a transcript contained one or many mentions of the term, it was counted as one story. MRC Business found 76 total stories or mentions of oil profits in 2006, and only 8 stories or mentions in 2015.

Tell the Truth 2016


Business Coverage Oil & Gas Prices Broadcast Television ABC World News CBS CBS Evening News NBC NBC Nightly News
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