- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The end is near.

As near as your remote control, at least. All you have to do is turn on, tune in and drop… any pretense of news. “CNN Presents,” the network’s “award-winning” weekly documentary, has done just that. It’s given up just reporting the news of the day. Now it’s predicted it three years into the future.

That was special correspondent Frank Sesno’s strategy on March 19. He claimed his report, “We Were Warned: Tomorrow’s Oil Crisis,” was a “dramatic scenario.” Those were TV news code words for something even a child would understand — they made it up.

Viewers received an hour-long mixture of hype and fantasy about the combined threat from a fictional storm and terrorists who apparently watched the Weather Channel for kicks. Mr. Sesno’s disclaimer was just as bad. “We can hope it never happens, but it’s entirely plausible,” he told the audience in somber tones. In effect, CNN was setting up a perfect storm of its own. If there are real oil supply problems in the future, the network can say “we told you so” while blaming evil oil companies and foolish consumers for the problem.

The show was set in the year 2009, as the category 5 Hurricane Steve threatened Houston and the Gulf. Mr. Sesno portrayed it as “this year’s monster storm,” with winds more than 200 mph. It hit and devastated the oil industry, sending gas prices shooting above $6. And things went down hill from there, with gas hitting $8 and the world economy literally running out of gas.

CNN’s timing was perfect. Spring is the beginning of driving season for most people, and gas prices do tend to rise. Currently, the average price per gallon is about $2.50, a significant increase from just a few weeks ago. Thanks to threats from both Iran and Venezuela to cut off oil, the prices are already high. A March 13 Business Week analysis estimated that “the world paid the Persian Gulf oil states an extra $120 billion or so last year because of the premium in prices due to fear of unexpected supply disruptions.” CNN should get kickbacks from OPEC for feeding that fear premium.

That kind of useful information was left behind as the network introduced the show as the “Best Documentary Series,” according to the International Documentary Association. Apparently, the competition in that category included “Battlestar Gallactica,” because the CNN program was the same kind of science fiction — minus the robots. The slide beginning the program stated clearly: “The program you are about to see is set partly in the future. Many of the events have not happened yet. … But they could.”

They already have — on FX. Watchers of schlock shock TV can probably recall the June 5, 2005, FX Networks movie “Oil Storm,” though they would be just as happy to forget it. That mock-umentary looked “back” on a virtually identical series of catastrophes that piled on top of one another. “It probably will be viewed as the worst disaster on American soil, ever,” proclaimed FX, and viewers were left to wonder — then and now — whether that referred to the movie itself.

In both dramas, al Qaeda was lying in wait, anticipating the next big hurricane — either the Category 5 that CNN fantasized about or the amazing Category 6 they received on FX. To hear Mr. Sesno spin his yarn, the impact from the storm was made far worse because of al Qaeda, “who have been waiting patiently for this moment ever since they saw Hurricane Katrina in 2005.” If that’s really the case, then the terror group should change its name to the Weather Underground. (Oops, that’s taken.)

America has seen this all before. Hollywood brought us images of oil conspiracies in 1975’s “Three Days of the Condor” 30 years before George Clooney’s “Syriana.” “The Last Chase” with “Six Million Dollar Man” star Lee Majors portrayed an America where the gas had run out — in 1981. Nothing has changed. Right in the middle of CNN’s latest end-of-the-world flick was an advertisement for the Discovery Channel’s “Perfect Disaster” six-part series.

But that was Hollywood, not an allegedly respectable cable news network. Mr. Sesno used to be a regular on CNN. He once served as White House correspondent, anchor and Washington bureau chief. These days he is a professor of public policy and communication at George Mason University, where his bio claims he “teaches how the media affects the creation of public policy.”

Working in conjunction with CNN, he just gave Americans a perfect lesson in setting an agenda — and he did it the good old-fashioned way. He made it up.

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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