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Editorial: Please make up your mind

Published: November 21, 2008

SOME STORIES are reported in the news media so often they become like old friends.

A good example of the phenomenon is the “credit card companies are trying to steal you blind” story, in which consumers are depicted as the hapless victims of thieving banks who force them to take out credit cards and then abuse their customers even further by compelling them to take vacations, buy flat-screen TVs and eat fancy restaurant meals they cannot afford.

Another Old Faithful is the “high gas prices are a disaster” and “oil companies are greedy” story. Every time gasoline prices rise, news outlets in print, broadcast and the Internet immediately jump on the “price fixing” bandwagon. They also can’t resist interviewing people at the pumps who (surprise!) are not happy that gas prices have gone up.

But the present financial downturn sweeping through the country has turned a lot of the news media’s cherished assumptions upside down.

In recent weeks, the San Francisco Chronicle, New York Times and many other newspapers have glumly reported that many banks have curtailed their credit-card offers and even reduced credit limits for existing customers.

“The worldwide financial crisis is making plastic harder to get and more costly to use,” the Chronicle reported Oct. 26.

“American Express is reducing the maximum credit limit for half of its tens of millions of cardholders,” the New York Times said Nov. 18.

But after decades of reporting that easy credit was nothing more than exploitation of the masses by money-hungry banks, the news media surely would see tightening of lending standards and lower credit limits as a good thing, right?


The Times called the reduction of credit limits a “shock” and lamented that they would “force businesses and consumers to cut spending,” while the Chronicle yearned for the days when “credit-card companies had money” which they made available to their customers at “reasonable rates.”

Memo to the news media: Please make up your minds whether credit-card debt is a good thing or a bad thing.

Likewise, reporting about the price of gasoline has been practially schizophrenic. When prices rose rapidly earlier this year, it wasn’t possible to turn on a television or open a newspaper without being told what a disaster $5-per-gallon gasoline was.

But now that the price has fallen to $2.30 per gallon (and $55 per barrel for crude oil), this is also being treated by the news media as something to regret.

To cite one typical example, the BBC reported on its website Monday that crude oil had fallen to $52.84 per barrel because of “fears that demand for oil would be hurt as more countries slide into recession.”

But did the venerable British news organization, or any other news outlet, report earlier this year that oil prices were up because of optimism? Hardly.

We pity the poor, confused citizen, who has been constantly scolded for buying things on credit, only to be told now it’s terrible he stopped. Similarly, high gas prices were a tragedy for motorists, but now it turns out that low gas prices are a disaster for the entire world economy.

Maybe the financial crisis will end when the news media stop being so confused.