5.15.2008

Blaming the Media for High Gas Prices, the Mortgage Crisis, and the Recession

by Jeff Siegel*

A Dallas restaurateur was livid last week, lashing out at the media for the country's economic woes. She told the Dallas NBC station KXAS-TV that her business is good — except for the constant barrage of bad news about the economy. If the media would only shut up, she said, everything would be fine.

Regular visitors here know that I am always ready to blame the country's various newspaper and TV outlets for the role each has played in the continuing disintegration of the American political and cultural system. But that's because the media don't say enough — thanks to muzzling from their corporate bosses, who don't want independent voices questioning their wisdom.

But this woman, who owns a pizza place called Sali's near where I live, says the media are saying too much. I'm not going to spend a lot of time on the irony here — that a TV station would give a viewer valuable minutes to criticize it — because irony is so deeply ingrained in the TV news business.

But I do want to make a couple of points about her complaints, and how they speak to the larger problems that have put us in the sad shape we're in now.

"My business is fine."
Yes, it probably is. This part of the country has largely escaped the havoc elsewhere. We're seeing a bump in foreclosures, but our home prices have held steady. And, in fact, if she had noticed, I wrote about this in a local publication in January.

But this doesn't mean that business is fine elsewhere or that the businesses of others here are fine. In fact, I have had more than several students at the wine class I teach at the Dallas Cordon Bleu tell me they couldn't come to class because they couldn't afford to buy gas.

Is she not aware of this? Is her world so small that it only exists in the couple of square miles where she works and lives? This kind of parochialism is becoming increasingly common, and it's worrisome about what it says about us. We have traditionally been a compassionate nation, something that DeTocqueville noted in his classic Democracy in America: "When an American asks for the co-operation of his fellow-citizens it is seldom refused, and I have often seen it afforded spontaneously and with great goodwill." That we act this way less and less is a symptom of the changes in our political culture. We can ignore the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina because it didn't happen to us, and we can acquiesce in our government's failure to respond to Katrina because it didn't happen to us. Hey, screw them, cut my taxes, and a heckuva job, Brownie.

"The media are making it worse."
Yes, but not for the reasons she cites. A couple of years ago, I paid about $2.10 a gallon for gas. Then, over the next 30 months, as the Bush Administration's weak dollar policy kicked in (which mostly benefits the multi-nationals and the oil companies that prop up its policies with piles of campaign cash), the price of gas rose to $3.60 a gallon. In February 2006, I spent about $50 a month in gas. Last month, I spent $90. I'd love to blame The New York Times for this — "Damn you, Punch Sulzberger!" — but it's not going to help me make up the 80 percent increase in the money I spend on gas. My income did not go up that much, so I have had to make cuts elsewhere. One thing I do? Eat out less.

What should the media be doing that they aren't? How about, to paraphrase Deep Throat: follow the money? The oil business, according to Followthemoney.org, contributed $24 million to various candidates in 2006, two-thirds to Republicans. In this year's presidential race, each of the three major candidates received about $1 million from the oil business, according to Opensecrets.org. Is it any coincidence that the oil business is enjoying record profits?

Why aren't we seeing reporting that examines the weak dollar and its effect on gas prices and the consumer? Those of us who are old enough remember the outrage in the media during the oil crisis in the 1970s, when gas prices tripled almost overnight; we are stunned to see how little fuss is being made today. But we shouldn't be surprised, because the media represent different interests than they did 30 years ago. In the 1970s, for example, CBS and ABC were owned by TV companies. Today, they're owned by entertainment multi-nationals, CBS by Sumner Redstone's National Amusements and ABC by Disney. Theme parks and discussions about the weak dollar don't go hand in hand.

So blame the media if you want. But blame them for perpetuating the Fantasy Land that we're in, and not for making things worse. The last thing the media want is that we realize how bad things are. Because, then, we might actually want to change them.

*Jeff Siegel is the wine columnist for the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram and the Advocate magazines in Dallas. He also writes and edits the blog The Wine Curmudgeon. These are the author's opinions and do not reflect the opinions of these other publications.

(Graphic from radicalgraphics.org, which offers its material for free.)










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