- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 25, 2006

I paid too much for gasoline last week. My fill-up of premium gas cost me $3.04 per gallon or $42.40 just to replenish the near-empty tank. Premium? Heck, we might as well change the name to “outlandish.”

Like most Americans, I fumed more than my exhaust pipe. I was looking for someone to blame. I didn’t have to look any further than my TV. Why investigate the issue and find out the many major reasons gas prices are so high when I can blame the oil companies just like TV news does? That’s the attitude the media have been driving home for more than a year now. They bemoan the “record profits” of oil companies and don’t bother to tell you they have no idea what that really means.

In the real world, that means merely the oil companies are big, and big companies, if well-run, inherently make big profits. The actual percentage profit, a number used by investors, not blowhards, illustrates this. ExxonMobil had more profit than any other company, but it also is “gi-normous” as a friend of mine used to say. Still, its profit margin was 10.6 percent, placing it at No. 116 on Fortune’s list of top 500 companies.

By contrast, Microsoft made almost 3 times as much — 30.8 percent.

It wasn’t long ago the Redmond giant was one of the most hated companies. Now Bill and Mrs. Gates are Time magazine Persons of the Year for their charity efforts in a story titled “The good Samaritans.” And Microsoft rakes in profits as a successful company should.

Even Microsoft did poorly compared to some other tech firms. The Internet giant Yahoo made a 36.1 percent profit. The wireless Internet company Qualcomm made a 37.8 percent profit.

Yet the media criticize oil companies. We got sarcastic comments by Charles Gibson of “Good Morning America” April 11 when he made it clear he blames the oil industry for our problems. Mr. Gibson says current events led “everybody to be very cynical about what the oil companies are doing.” I’m cynical about what he’s doing by asking such loaded questions as: “Is it really, truly a supply-and-demand issue, as so many people wonder, or is it that the oil companies gouge us?”

I wish that were the end, but it’s barely the beginning. When ExxonMobil’s Chief Executive Officer Lee Raymond retired with hefty compensation, many in the media took swipes at the company. On April 17, “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams described Mr. Raymond’s huge salary with this un-subtle comment: “The New York Times did the math, that works out to $144,573 a day, and even better, $100.40 per minute. That includes time spent sleeping and we can only assume that worries about money didn’t keep Lee Raymond up at night.”

Presumably, someone at NBC could have replicated the math, but their lazy reporting didn’t allow for even that much originality.

Mr. Williams might have mentioned Mr. Raymond headed up a super-successful merger, while big mergers can fail just as mightily. Or he might have asked some of the millions of shareholders how they felt. I bet they’ve been pleased with Mr. Raymond’s results.

Three days earlier, “Good Morning America” had the audacity to refer to the “stunning details” of Mr. Raymond’s salary. Anchor Robin Roberts explained they were “Details that left us saying, ‘You must be kidding,’ ” during the April 14 broadcast. I didn’t see similar comments from any network about Katie Couric’s new salary “details.” Maybe TV newsies don’t like people making more than they do.

Or maybe the story is just too darn complicated for TV. Though a few oil stories did touch on some of the real causes of our gas prices, too many didn’t. They left out the fear factor from Mideast instability — BusinessWeek says that adds $15 a barrel, though other estimates are up to $30. Then there’s Hugo Chavez in Venezuela threatening to turn off our oil, and terrorism in oil-producing Nigeria. Journalists ignored the taxes that can add more than 60 cents per gallon in New York, nearly 50 cents in five other states and 40 cents in about 17 more.

Of course, we still have some refineries offline after Katrina and a shortage of ethanol the government mandates as a gasoline additive.

That doesn’t begin to address increased U.S. demand because of warm weather driving, not to mention increased demand worldwide.

Yeah, I think I’ll just blame the oil companies. It’s simpler.

Dan Gainor is a career journalist and the Boone Pickens Free Market Fellow. He is also director of the Media Research Center’s Free Market Project www.freemarketproject.org.

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