ELLIOT: The news youre not getting and why

In his 2005 book “Taking Heat,” former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer writes about media bias. Fleischer, George W. Bush’s longtime media minder, recounts a story of his visit to a top-tier journalism school, where he asked how many of the students voted for Al Gore, Jr. for president. Hands went up from all but one student. Fleischer commented to the students that they should be concerned that only one student in the class had voted for the man who won 31 states and the election. He was then interrupted by the lone student, who wanted to make sure his fellow students knew who he actually voted for — Ralph Nader.Fleischer points out ideological media bias when he thinks he has a good case, such as when the press declared that the 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court’s Bush v. Gore decision was “closely divided,” while the Florida Supreme Court’s 4-3 decision just three days earlier (which ordered the recount that the national court halted) did not get the “closely divided” treatment for some reason.But Fleischer does not dwell on the ideological bias of the news media in the book. However, he consistently harps on another kind of bias. The media are most certainly biased, Fleischer says, in favor of conflict and woe.A corollary to that observation is the old journalistic saying that, when a dog bites a man, it is not a story — but when a man bites a dog, it is. The ordinary, in other words, is not worth reporting on; the extraordinary is.These biases manifest in many ways, many of which are quite obvious. But the least obvious way is in the stories that journalists don’t write, not in the stories they do write. An example of this phenomenon shows both kinds of bias, ideological and conflictive.Historically, the household energy budget is one of the stock stories of journalism. Because utilities are legal monopolies and operate at great scale, electricity prices are a recurring David vs. Goliath angle for news outlets. Consumers cannot escape paying for electricity, and they can’t even choose what company to buy it from. Add in easy comparisons that apply almost equally to all consumers, and you get a highly relevant, compelling pocketbook article.So why are we not seeing more energy bill stories? A few forces are at play. The first is the aforementioned bias against the ordinary. Household electricity prices, adjusting for inflation, have gone up significantly. But in terms of what is squeezing the pocketbook of the American middle class, energy pales in comparison to health care costs. Nationwide, consumer prices have increased by about a third (pre-inflation) over the past decade, but health care costs increased much more significantly, and value has plummeted. So while in the absence of health care, power bills would have been a story, now it’s a shrug.Other forces in the lack-of-power-bill story phenomenon may have more of an ideological bias. Energy providers, led by environmental regulations, have been idling coal-fired plants and building natural gas-fired ones. Historically, this fuel switching would have led to higher consumer bills, as companies traded low operations and maintenance costs at existing plants for massive capital outlays to build new ones. But the current and coming increases in the “base rate” in consumer bills have been offset by lower fuel prices for natural gas provided by the shale revolution. With the ideological bias against fossil fuels and “fracking,” some journalists are loath to explore what the shale revolution has meant for the American consumer.What it all amounts to is that energy prices are not at the top of the list for journalists, and thus are not discussed much by Americans these days. But the complex story is worth writing about, even if it doesn’t fit the biases of the news media. Drew Elliot is a member of the North State Journal’s editorial board, separate from the news staff. Unlike other newspapers, the North State Journal does not publish unsigned editorials; the author or authors of every editorial, letter, op-ed, and column is prominently displayed. To submit a letter or op-ed, see our submission guidelines.