Hype-brids: Networks Tout Green Vehicles, But Americans Buy Four Times as Many SUVs

August 12th, 2010 11:30 AM
If news outlets were fueled by bias, then ABC, CBS, and NBC would be Hummers.

Over the past two years, the media have declared Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs) "dying" while celebrating the popularity of hybrid cars. Americans disagree. Data from Edmunds.com showed SUV market share has grown or remained stable whereas hybrid market share has declined. In July 2010 alone, SUVs outsold hybrids 4 to one.

When gas prices were high in summer 2008, the media eagerly reported the demise of the SUV and wrote its epitaph, as CBS News's Hattie Kauffman eloquently did on May 26, 2008:

"Here lies the mighty sport utility vehicle, once a symbol of status and power, now collecting dust."

From July 2009 to July 2010, total SUV sales increased by 38.9 percent whereas hybrid sales have decreased by 32.7 percent. Large SUV sales alone have increased by nearly 40 percent.

Yet back in 2008, the three networks all paid their respects to the "dying" SUV, with ABC's Chris Cuomo jumping on the hybrid bandwagon before the SUVs body was even cold:

"Everybody's trying to sell their SUV, want to get into one of these new jobs, you know, the smart car, the hybrid, the high-mileage type vehicles, all these alternative cars."

The "everybody" Cuomo mentioned must only have included the hybrid owners and not the SUV owners.

Despite the overwhelming numbers, since June 2008, the Business & Media Institute discovered the networks' covered hybrid cars three to one over SUVs. Specifically, there were more stories about the Toyota Prius (37) than on the top 5 best-selling SUVs combined (24).

Still, back in 2008 network reporters such as ABC News's David Muir predicted a green upheaval as he erroneously reported on the SUVs demise.

"American carmakers are looking for a revolution, too. The gas guzzlers so popular yesterday are no longer popular today," Muir said on July 20, 2008.

The only "guzzlers" are the media members who continually drink the liberal Kool Aid. In May 2008, the first month of high gas prices, hybrid models had 2.52 percent market share. The hybrid model market share in May 2010, two years into the "revolution:" 2.52 percent.

Those numbers didn't stop CBS's Anthony Mason from ushering in the "electric era" on the April 1, 2010 CBS "Evening News:"

"Well, it's a real challenge, but Katie, we are at the dawn of the electric era," Mason declared.

That "dawn" may not be rising as fast as Mason hoped. According to the Market Data Center, the best selling vehicle in the month of July was the Ford F150, a pickup truck.

Fortunately, for Kauffman, Muir, and Mason, as their network ratings crumble, there are plenty of "gas guzzling" SUVs around to carry their remains.

Volt and Prius: A Media Love Story

Despite pedestrian sales numbers and recalls, reporters at the big three networks continue channeling their inner Billy Mays, turning their segments into infomercials for eco-friendly cars.

The media's favorite green cars have been the new Chevy Volt and the Toyota Prius. The networks aired nearly twice as many Volt stories (42) as they aired on the top five selling SUVs combined (24).

Further proof of network favoritism: Ford F150's have outsold the Prius nearly three to one, yet the networks have covered the Prius over the F150 three to one (37 to 12).

The Prius has established itself as an environmental symbol thanks to the media hyping its popularity with the liberal Hollywood elite, as CBS reporter Ben Tracy did on Feb. 11, 2010. Tracy interviewed actors Penelope Cruz and Orlando Bloom and concluded Hollywood star power "helped make the Prius a household name."

Being outsold three to one by a "gas guzzler" is an awfully big amount for a "household name."

The Chevy Volt, a plug-in electric car expected to hit the market in November, has also been popular with the media. Both NBC "Today" host Matt Lauer and CBS's Mason took test rides in the Volt, with Lauer being the first non-GM person to actually drive it. Additionally, all three networks hyped the Volt in their coverage of the 2009 and 2010 Detroit International Auto Shows, nearly two years before the Volt was even expected to hit the market.

Recently, some in the media were outraged when GM announced the Volt would be priced at $41,000. Of course, when challenged about the price in a July 29 press conference, Ron Bloom, Obama's senior advisor to the Treasury Secretary for automobiles, distanced the government from GM.

"We do not tell GM what to charge for cars," Bloom said. "Most kinds of new technology are expensive."

Unlike batteries, which require positive and negative charges to work, the government only operates on positive charges, such as the positives touted by Obama in his July 30 visit to Michigan, but dismisses negative charges.

The Obama Administration found plenty of positive charge in the network news reports, as all three networks praised Obama's July 30 visit to GM where he test rode the Volt. ABC's Karen Travers called it a "victory lap" and NBC's Savannah Guthrie echoed Obama's remarks that the "American auto industry [is] resurrected from the dead."

Since summer 2008, only ABC and NBC interviewed analysts skeptical of the green car business model. NBC's Phil LeBeau interviewed Standard and Poor Equity analyst Efraim Levy on May 6, 2009, where Levy noted smaller, green cars would result in smaller profits but larger losses.

"Smaller cars have smaller price tags. So, therefore, you have less room to make the profits, and if a car's not successful, the losses are even more painful," Levy said.

Case in point: the 1997 GM EV1, which was named one of Time magazine's ‘Worst Cars of All Time.' The EV1, GM's first attempt at an electric car, flopped due to disappointing battery power and a lack of demand. The EV1 retailed at $34,000, cost GM $80,000 per vehicle, and ultimately GM lost $2 billion on the EV1 program. The $2 billion is more than the $1.3 billion second quarter profit GM recently reported.

Instead of the SUV, the GM EV1 is now the vehicle "collecting dust."

Cart Before the Horse

On April 1, 2010, the big three network news broadcasts fooled their viewers with reports on fuel emission standards.

ABC, CBS, and NBC evening news shows each aired stories about the new fuel emissions standards, which had been based on the 2007 Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) rules and championed by the Obama Administration.

According to the new standards, by model year 2016 all cars and light trucks must average 35.5 miles per gallon.

ABC and CBS sandwiched their reports between stories on - you guessed it - Toyota and the Volt, whereas NBC's Lee Cowan devoted a full two minute report on the new standards. He actually noted the cost of lowering emissions will trickle down to the consumer:

"But reaching that new efficiency level does come with a price, an estimated $52 million for car manufacturers to be paid by the consumer. About $1,000 per car may be added on to the sticker price," Cowan reported.

But Cowan still encouraged viewers to buy a green car, saying it will save them money in the long run: "Now, Brian, although these new cars will cost a little bit more, the government says that will be more than offset by your savings in fuel, they're saying about $3,000 over the course of that new environmentally-friendly vehicle."

Cowan's report was misleading. A 2006 study by Kiplinger's Personal Finance Magazine discovered that of the top seven hybrids, only the Prius will save you money over five years compared to a non-hybrid vehicle. According to the study, three out of the seven hybrids will cost you over $3,000 more, the amount the government claims you'll save.

Myron Ebell, director of energy and global warming policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free market think tank, told BMI he thinks the new fuel emission standards will lead to more dire consequences than just hitting consumers' pockets.

"I think automakers will go bankrupt again," Ebell said. "In order to meet the new standards, big cars will become expensive and they're going to have to sell a lot of small cars. Detroit automakers have never figured out how to make a profit on small cars."

Ebell added that the 2007 CAFE standards "foreshadowed" the auto bailouts and that the bailouts have turned Chrysler and GM into "creatures of the Obama Administration.'

"The automakers are in worse shape than had they gone into bankruptcy," Ebell said. "Bankruptcy would have broken the worst part of the union contract and they [GM and Chrysler] wouldn't have to answer to the government."

Only ABC News interviewed anyone challenging the government's boat-without-a-paddle auto policy and its relation to energy standards. On Jan. 11, 2009, ABC's Bianna Golodryga interviewed Jean Jennings, editor-in-chief of Automobile magazine:

"The government is on the wrong track because they are dictating fuel economy without an energy policy," Jennings said. "And yet, they are forcing the car companies to spend billions of dollars in development costs for a technology that might be way ahead of what people want."

Yet the networks didn't challenge the Obama Administration's fuel emission demands for the auto industry. Ironically, for three networks that won't cover SUVs, they've become SUVs for Obama's auto plan: Steadily Urging Victory.

End of the Road

In "Home Improvement," Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor often shouted "more power!" For the media, it's worth shouting "less bias."

With SUVs alive and well, the network news shows remain committed to promoting green cars and cheerleading the Obama Administration's auto policies.

According to Michael LaFaive, director of the Morley Fiscal Policy Initiative at The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free market think tank, Obama's auto praises are played out in the media like a "Rooseveltian victory lap."

"There's no ribbon cutting ceremony for tax cuts like there is for opening a new battery factory," LaFaive said. "The government has nothing to sell this as a way to stimulate demand."

Despite the unfavorable media coverage, SUVs are still in demand and rather than collecting dust, they're making hybrids eat their dust.


The Business & Media Institute examined news stories from ABC, CBS, and NBC from June 1, 2008, through July 15, 2010. June 1, 2008, was selected because it was after Memorial Day and in the thick of the high summer 2008 gas prices.

BMI also examined the three evening news stories from Friday, July 30, 2010, the day Obama visited the Volt assembly plant in Michigan.

Final numbers included 69 stories on hybrid vehicles and 19 on SUVs. Based on the June sales from AOL Autos, the top five best selling SUVs are the Chevy Traverse, Chevy Equinox, Toyota RAV4, Ford Escape, and Honda CR-V.

Only stories longer than 100 words were counted. Recall stories were excluded because they focused on consumer safety as opposed to the actual cars.

Data was provided courtesy of Edmunds.com, HybridCars.com, The Wall Street Journal Market Data Center and AOL Autos.

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