Dan Gainor

News by its very nature is unpredictable. Too bad many journalists don’t seem to understand that fact.

Ever since gasoline prices began a wild ride in 2004, the media have been obsessed with predicting future energy prices. Gasoline, we were told, would hit $5 a gallon. Or $6, or $7. Or maybe even $12 or $15.

The predictions were consistently wrong. ABC, NBC and CBS, who can seldom get current events correct, are even worse guessing future news. In fact, for most of 2008, network news stories that predicted oil or gas prices were wrong nearly two-thirds of the time (63 percent).

Two-thirds? You’d be better off flipping a coin or even counting on an NFL referee. Not one network report had guessed that gas would drop to $1.66, the current national average.

Journalists weren’t content with reporting high prices. They had to warn those prices would go higher – much higher. In 2008, they got their wish. Sort of.

Gas started the year near $3 a gallon and oil near $100. Network reporters hyped each daily increase -- $3.50, $3.75 and finally $4. CBS’s Ben Tracy told viewers in his March 10 broadcast of “the rude awakening that high gas prices are here to stay.” Other stories bemoaned the impact on truckers who had to cope with “over $1,000 a fill-up.”

But those stratospheric prices weren’t enough for journalists who live by hype. CNBC quoted Robert Hirsch, a Management Information Services Senior Energy Advisor, saying: “others who watch this very closely forecast that we're going to be hitting $12 and $15 a gallon, and then, after that, when world oil production goes into decline, we're going to talk about rationing."

ABC’s Charles Gibson zeroed in on the fear du jour on his July 11 broadcast. “We told you earlier that crude prices hit another new record today, which has analysts warning that $4 a gallon gas may become a permanent fact of life.” Gas prices began to decline just a week later and dropped below $4 a gallon before the month was out.

And they kept right on falling – for 86 days straight. Even media outlets desperate for doom and gloom should acknowledge that’s big news. Few reports did so. Instead, the networks tried to predict how low gas prices would go, which they also got wrong by underestimating the price collapse.

Dan Gainor

Dan Gainor is The Boone Pickens Free Market Fellow and director of the Media Research Center’s Business & Media Institute.