by David Kopel
April 24, 2004
My column this week is about the most terrible problem afflicting mankind, which has now reached ultra-extreme record levels: namely the tendency of the media to exaggerate.
Last Tuesday, for example, the lead story on the front page of the business sections of the Rocky Mountain Newsand The Denver Postproclaimed that gasoline prices in Colorado were now at an all-time "record" high. Nationally, the average price of a gallon of gasoline is $1.80. That is a record high in nominal dollars. But once you take inflation into account, the picture is entirely different.
For example, in 1918 a gallon of gas cost 25 cents. Because of inflation, 8 cents of purchasing power in 1918 is equivalent to a dollar's worth of purchasing power in 2002. So the same gallon of gas that cost 25 cents in "1918 dollars" would cost about $3 in "2002 dollars."
Once you take account of inflation, you see that every year from 1918 to 1962, gasoline was more expensive than today's $1.80-per-gallon nominal price. Gasoline prices from 1974 through 1985 were likewise higher than today's, if we measure price in real, constant dollars. In 1998 and 1999, gasoline prices plunged to all-time record lows (as measured in constant dollars). The recent 2004 price surge has been very large, but it still leaves us with gasoline prices that are below historic norms. (See "Historical Trends in Gasoline Pump Prices," American Petroleum Institute, www.api.org.)
Another form of exaggeration is applying extreme labels. For example, on April 8, two stories in the Newsmisused the label "ultra-conservative." According to the News,"A lone Republican split with ultra-conservative members of his party Wednesday and helped Democrats kill a resolution that called for controversial rights for college students."
The bill would have given students at state colleges "the right to speak disapprovingly of certain sexual behaviors." That is, a college could not punish a student who said, "I personally believe that homosexual behavior is immoral, because the Bible and the Quran say so."
Unless you believe that anyone who disagrees with the gay rights agenda is necessarily an "ultra-conservative," the Newslabeling of the five Republicans was silly. The Republicans who voted for the bill were Don Lee, Nancy Spence, Keith King, Lynn Hefley and Ray Rose.
According to the Colorado Public Interest Research Group, a leftist and pro-regulation lobbying organization founded by Ralph Nader, in 2003 Nancy Spence voted with CoPIRG 38 percent of the time. Hefley scored 43 percent; Lee and Rose hit 63 percent, and King voted with CoPIRG at a 75 percent rate. A real ultra-conservative would hardly ever vote the Nader line.
U.S. Rep. Marilyn Musgrave says that Rocky Mountain Gun Owners is "Colorado's only no-compromise gun lobby." RMGO frequently criticizes the National Rifle Association, the Firearms Coalition of Colorado, and the Colorado State Shooting Association for being weaklings and appeasers. According to RMGO's 2003 legislative scorecard, Rose, Spence and Hefley supported RMGO only 25 percent of the time; King voted with RMGO 50 percent, and Lee scored 100 percent.
In short, applying the "ultra-conservative" epithet to Spence, King, Rose, and Hefley was factually inaccurate. (Ratings are available at copirg.org and rmgo.org.)
The same day the Newswas misrepresenting state representatives, another Newsarticle referred to the "ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation." The Heritage Foundation virtually defines the conservative position in Washington. So Heritage's positions are not part of the political fringe, but are the foundation of mainstream conservatism.
In 2003 and 2004, only once has the word "ultra-liberal" appeared in a Newsarticle - in Dusty Saunders' review of a television show featuring an "ultra-liberal legislative director" (Jan. 9, 2003). Never has the Newscalled a real person or group of people "ultra-liberal."
In contrast, "ultra-conservative" has been used to describe the Wahhabi sect of Islam, Muslims in northwest Pakistan and Catholics who disagree with the Vatican II reforms of the 1960s. While the label is technically accurate (since all these groups are much more conservative than the mainstream of their religions), it is notable that no leftist religious group, no matter how far out of the mainstream theologically or politically, ever gets labeled "ultra-liberal."
In the Post,a Utah county was called "ultra-conservative," as was Colorado Springs (Jan. 3 and March 4, 2003). The Posthas not identified any "ultra-liberal" places. An April 11 Postarticle on the Colorado caucuses evenhandedly noted the criticism that the caucuses are dominated by " 'extreme thinkers' who nominate either ultra-conservative or ultra-liberal candidates."
The Newsengaged in a mean-spirited slam, however, in a March 10 article claiming that Rep. Tom Tancredo, if he ran for U.S. Senate, "could garner a lot of support from the extreme right who like to hear his anti-illegal-immigrant views." According to the April 19 Gallup Poll, 37 percent of Americans worry "a great deal" about illegal immigration. Although the issue certainly attracts some people on the political fringe, it is unfair to characterize a public problem which greatly concerns more than a third of all Americans as being an issue which appeals mainly to the extreme.