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The conspiracy of Big Oil

Probably Texas

A time to reflect

News shows

Ivan, the Terrible

Date: 8/12/06
Show: Hourly Newscast (NPR)

Ivan Watson   Ivan Watson [©N. Sharifi]

Ivan Watson, who was recently promoted from the lowly position of contract reporter to NPR foreign correspondent, filed this report from Beirut on this morning's hourly newscast:

[…] Meanwhile, Lebanese security officers say that the death toll from yesterday's air raid against a convoy of fleeing civilians and Lebanese soldiers and police rose to six killed and 23 injured.

The convoy consisted of hundreds of vehicles, loaded with civilians and disarmed Lebanese security forces left the southeastern town of Marjayoun yesterday after UN peacekeepers received permission from the Israeli military to escort them to safety.

In an interview with Scott Simon on Weekend Edition Saturday he repeated the charge:

[…] Another refugee convoy, uh, which was targeted by Israeli warplanes last night, which killed, uh, six people yesterday and, and, 25 wounded. The difference in this case was that the convoy had been escorted by United Nation's peacekeepers, uh, who won assurances from the Israeli military for save passage before the air strike.

While Watson names a source for the number of casualties, allowing us to judge the reliability of the information, he provides no source for the assertion that the convoy was escorted by the UN or that the IDF had given assurances for save passage. Surly, this must be a well-established fact.

Both, Reuters and the Associated Press reported extensively about the attack. In an article posted 15 hours before Watson filed his report for NPR, AP correspondent Joseph Panossian wrote:

Lutfallah Daher, [an AP photographer], was with the convoy when it was hit near the Bekaa Valley town of Chtaura, about 30 miles north of the Litani River. Israel has said it would attack any vehicle on roads south of the Litani, assuming it was carrying Hezbollah weapons or fighters.

Daher lives in Marjayoun and was fleeing with his wife in one car. His mother, brother, sister-in-law and their child were in another car. None was harmed.

Two armored U.N. peacekeeping vehicles were to have accompanied the convoy, Daher said, but were not present when Israeli forces in Marjayoun gave the convoy permission to head north.

[…] Israel's military said no convoys had been coordinated with the army.

An updated version of the AP report was carried by hundreds of news outlets all around the world.

It is important to note that Daher, himself a Lebanese, admits that the convoy was not accompanied by UN forces. Moreover, both versions of the AP report contain Israel's denial that the convoy had permission to travel. Even Al-Jazeera, generally not known for siding with the IDF, carried the AP report on their web site, although they took it down the 19 day.

10 hours before NPR's newscast, Reuters posted the following news item on its UK site:

The Israeli army confirmed it carried out an air strike on the convoy, saying it had acted on the mistaken suspicion Hezbollah guerrillas were smuggling weapons in the vehicles and that it regretted any harm to non-combatants.

The army said a military inquiry concluded the convoy had been denied a request for permission to move but that it had set out anyway.

[…] The Israeli military said it had attacked while the vehicles were on a "forbidden" route previously used by Hezbollah to transport rockets and other weapons.

A military statement said the convoy left Marjayoun despite a curfew that had been placed on non-authorized vehicles moving south of the Litani river, which flows southwest across Lebanon, several days ago.

Of course, it is possible that Watson is right and everybody else is wrong. In that case, NPR should provide proof for their claim that the attack was intentional and that the convoy was secured by the UN interim forces in Lebanon. In the absence of such proof, NPR is guilty of recklessly misrepresenting the facts.

Reuters, when faced with evidence that one of its employees was doctoring photos from the war, promptly fired the guy. Will NPR follow suit?


Probably Texas

The Conspiracy of Big Oil

Date: 1/2/07
Show: Marketplace (APM)

Oil price   [©2004 Nicholson]

A recent visitor to my site suggested that NPR hire a fact checker, which should eliminate some of the errors and distortions that I am complaining about. Indeed, a bit more fact checking would be nice, but I doubt that it will cure the underlying disease. Besides, NPR is more than willing to check the facts: after each speech of the President, their reporters roam the country to find out whether what Bush had said was true or false. More often than not, NPR comes up with an expert — or just another NPR guy — who says that the president didn't quite tell the whole truth. This otherwise highly commendable quest for the truth is a fairly recent journalistic practice at NPR: none of President Clinton's major speeches were given this kind of attention.

For sure, NPR is not the only news organization that could benefit from hiring a fact checker. American Public Media, the producer of the public radio show Marketplace, is at least as careless about the facts as NPR. In a recent Marketplace commentary, consumer advocate Jamie Court blamed the American oil industry of manipulating the price at the pump to help Republicans win in last November's congressional election. Obviously, the oil bosses weren't very good at this, unless, of course, the real purpose of the conspiracy was to hand over congressional powers to the Democrats.

Any attempt to manipulate the price at the pump for whatever purposes is a long shot, at best. The price of gas is mainly determined by the world market price for crude oil. Even OPEC, the most powerful cartel of oil-producing countries, often has the hardest time to keep the price for oil in their desired "target range." Oil companies have virtually no control over the price they pay for crude.

However, the situation is different for the refiner margin, the difference between the purchase price of oil and the wholesale price of gasoline. Although a number of refineries in the United States are independent, the majority is owned by big American and European oil companies. Also, big oil controls, at least partially, the distribution margin, the profit made by the distribution and retailing of gas.

Refining margins   [©NPRsucks]

The oil industry does not provide these data, but, fortunately, there is the California Energy Commission that jealously watches over everything the industry does, including the margins for refining and distribution. The graph above is based on their weekly estimate of the average refiner (blue line) and distribution margin (purple) per gallon of gasoline in 2006. The data are for big oil only; however, the graph for independent oil producers looks very much the same.

At first blush, the data seem to support the conspiracy theory: the refiner margin went down before the election (arrow). On second thought, however, it seems strange that the oil companies would allow the gas prices to soar during the peak traveling season. Wouldn't the voters remember this on Election Day? Wouldn't Bush be much better served by keeping the price as low as it was at the beginning of the year? Why did the conspirators allow the distribution margin to rise just weeks before the election?

A much stronger argument for a manipulation of the gas price is the spike in the refiner margin that occurred immediately after the election. However, under closer inspection even this turns out to have an ordinary explanation. The main cause for the spike was a rapid fall in crude oil prices. Since the refiner margin is calculated by subtracting the price of crude oil from the price of the refined product, a fall in crude oil prices will initially make the refiner margin appear to be larger until the cheaper oil is reaching the refineries.

As in most years since the Commission started collecting these data, the refiner margin goes up during the traveling season, driven by the increased demand for gasoline. When, in the fall, the demand for gasoline goes down, the refiner margin goes down as well. Among economists this up and down of the price of a commodity is known as the free market, an old concept that is still not fully appreciated on American Public Media's Marketplace.

  • Gas-price conspiracy? You bet! Marketplace commentator Jamie Court accuses oil companies of manipulating gas prices [Marketplace, 1/2/07]
  • California Energy Commission. The site provides a more detailed definition of the refiner and distribution margins. Margins are not profits. To arrive at an estimate of the profits, the costs of refining, transportation, marketing, etc., must be taken into account.

During the first half of 2006 the rise in the refiner margin actually preceded the start of the traveling seasons by a few weeks. That prices may rise in anticipation of an event is, of course, a fairly common occurrence. In this case, however, the explanation is more likely that oil refineries along the Gulf Coast were not yet running at full capacity due to damages suffered during the 2005 hurricane season.


A time to reflect

Probably Texas

Date: 2/3/07
Show: Weekend Edition - Saturday (NPR)

Campaign button   2008 campaign button

Early during his 2007 State of the Union Address, the President took his eyes off the teleprompter, looked at the Democratic side of the aisle, and said:

Some in this chamber are new to the House and the Senate -- and I congratulate the Democrat majority.

You probably couldn't hear it, but right at this very moment the champagne corks went off in the Democratic blogosphere. Here, they had it, got the proof that they had been waiting for: the Republicans are stealing the "ic" from Democratic. It didn't matter that the other four times the word came up in the speech, Bush managed to pronounce it correctly: the horrible deed was done.

In an interview with the President a few days later, NPR Senior Correspondent Juan Williams broached the sensitive subject:

By the way, in the speech, you spoke about the Democrats. You said, you congratulated the Democrat majority. And I notice your prepared text said Democratic majority. I surely think that you know that for the Democrats, they think when you say Democrat, it's like fingernails on the blackboard. They don't like it. They like you to say Democratic.

Yeah. Well, that was an oversight then. I mean, I'm not trying to needle. Look, I went into the hall saying we can work together and I was very sincere about it. I didn't even know I did it.


And that I did, I didn't mean to be putting fingernails on the board, I meant to be saying why don't we show the American people we can actually work together? There is a lot of politics in Washington — in my judgment, needless politics. And it's almost like, if George Bush is for it, we're against it, and […] if he's against it, we're for it. And the American people don't like that.


I am surprised, frankly, at the amount of distrust that exists in this town. And I'm sorry it's the case, and I'll work hard to try to elevate it. So the idea that somehow I was trying to needle the Democrats, it's just, gosh, it's probably Texas. Who knows what it is. But I'm not that good at pronouncing words anyway, Juan.

But if President Bush thought he would get away with it by apologizing and claiming that it was "probably Texas," he had another thing coming. On WE Saturday, NPR White House Correspondent David Greene presented an expert witness, Texas linguist Dianne Markley, who testified that there was no such thing as a Texan expression "Democrat Party." Of course, she was somewhat off the mark as what the President actually had said was "Democrat majority."

David Greene   ©NPR: David Greene

The Democratic paranoia was stoked by a piece in the New Yorker last year, in which Hendrik Hertzberg claimed that he had uncovered a Republican plot to steal the "ic." The evidence for the conspiracy? An unidentified e-mail from Bush in which he used the bare word "Democrat" three times, a GOPAQ memo by Newt Gingrich in which he exhorted Republicans to use words with positive connotations, and the fact that GOP pollster Frank Luntz in 2001 supposedly road-tested the adjectival use of "Democrat" in focus groups.

Nothing of this is new, of course: if true, Bush's e-mail would make him a serial word-mangler, a fact that political observers of lesser stature than Hertzberg have noted before. The reference to the GOPAQ memo is a red herring as the word Democrat cannot be found in the text. While the focus group story is repeated ad nauseam in Democratic blogs, nobody ever cites a source for it.

The fact that the same liberal elites who invented speech codes are complaining about an Republican attempt to control the language is a bit disingenuous, to say the least. The last time that Democrats tried to control the language was when Bush suggested a troop surge in Iraq, just two weeks ago. To a man and woman, Democrats talked about an "escalation of the war," carefully avoiding the less threatening "surge."

The use of "Democrat" as an adjective is clearly in ascendancy. Nearly 1 of 5 citations in a Google search, say "Democrat Party" instead of "Democratic Party." More sites urge you to "Vote Democrat!" than the grammatically correct "Vote Democratic!" The adjectival use of Democrat is more common in the Midwest, South, and — of all places — the United Kingdom. Its use is by no means confined to Red States or Brits: Long Island Democrats call themselves proudly the Nassau County Democrat Party; on-line stores specializing in Democratic paraphernalia sell campaign buttons with "Democrat Party" printed on them, and, most ironically, a prominent site for Democratic bloggers is named "Democrat Headlines."

With the possible exception of Dianne Markley, linguists have long been complaining about the adjectival use of nouns, but to little avail. 9 of 10 Google citations talk about the "Iraq War" instead of the proper "Iraqi War." Restricting the search to the news media, only 1 out of 200 journalists get it right. If the Franco-Prussian War would have been fought today, it would enter the history books as the France-Prussia War.


A very wrong quote

A Time to Reflect

Date: 4/4/07
Show: All Things Considered (NPR)

NPR's Senior News Analyst, Daniel Schorr, asked Bush to reflect on his sins. While the story he talked about was true — the Italian connection to the sales of yellow-cake from Niger turned out to be false — the charge against Bush was misplaced. The famous 16 words in the 2003 State of the Union Address were based on information provided by the English intelligence service, not on the Italian story. But 4 years after the events, who really cares?

While the picture of a mushroom cloud over New York may have exited some Americans, and may have been a useful prop to scare them to fall into line, it really did not figure prominently in the decision to go to war. The war decision was based on two critical items: first, the fact that operation Desert Storm Saddam had ended with an armistice and, second, that Saddam had not complied with 14 earlier Security Council resolutions. The idea that Saddam would be able to acquire nuclear weapons was one of the ideas that moved minds, but it was legally entirely unimportant.

Valerie Plame   Plame with Husband

Of course, to Daniel Schorr the story made sense: Bush lies about yellow cake, Wilson dispells the yellow cake story, and Scooter Libby gets convicted of exposing Valerie Plame. The problem with this scenario is that neither did Bush lie about the yellow cake affair, nor did Libby get convicted of exposing the supposedely secret undercover agent. It was Dick Armitage who disclosed Plame's name.

Too bad, the story sounded so good.

  • audio file Mr. Bush, Take Time to Reflect [ATC, 4/4/07]
  • A Pretty Good Week
    Eric Westervelt turns what seems to have been a pretty good week for the Bush administration into another indictment
  • Daniel Schorr, NPR's Senior News Analyst
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Revised 8/12/08