Check out yesterday’s editorial in the Kansas City Star. The one sticking up for reporter Steve Everly‘s six-year campaign to stamp out hot gas (and maybe win a Pulitzer).
“Kansas Retailers get a pass on ‘hot fuel,'” the editorial’s headline reads. “A costly verdict hurts consumers.”
That in reaction to a unanimous, 10-person Kansas jury that ruled earlier this week that gasoline-selling retailers were not ripoff artists engaging in the deceptive practice of selling “hot fuel.”
But before we delve into the questionable “science” behind Everly’s hot fuel concept, a brief lesson on how journalism often works….
A reporter listens to an album, watches a play, dines at a restaurant – then writes about what he or she heard, saw or tasted – after which advertisers and other media attribute what that person wrote to the Kansas City Star. Or Pitch. Or New York Times. Or whomever.
One single person’s opinion somehow takes on the mantle of representing the full faith and prestige of an entire news organization.
But folks, it’s really just that one guy’s opinion – so take it or leave it.
Just because Robert Trussell was mad about some geezer-pleaser at the New Theater in Overland Park and happens to be a really good writer (and maybe decided not to drop the hammer on an advertiser) doesn’t mean the entire newspaper staff is on the same page.
Yet that’s how the game is often played.
So when that play hits Joplin, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ll see a Trussell quote promoting it in local media ad touting that the “Kansas City Star” said it was great.
As for the Star’s “hot fuel” editorial yesterday, it’s based on the findings of a single, mid-level reporter. One who prior to hopping on the Hot Fuel bandwagon was choking out stories like, “Terms of bewilderment; The Confusion of winter bills can get you hot under the collar” and “Tank tutorial, First off, get the right size water heater.”
You see, with rare exception journalists are not scientists or experts in the field that they cover. They’re people who can write well and were taught how to ask questions. However, sometimes they ask the right questions, other not. Sometimes two and two adds up to four. Other times six.
Speaking of which, let’s do a some math on the so-called “hot fuel” claims.
In the Star‘s front page graphic Monday it estimated that a car with a 20 gallon tank getting 20 miles-per-gallon would travel 400 miles with cool 60 degree gas and 392 with 90 degree hot gas – a two percent hit.
Yet in Everly’s initial 2006 hot fuel opus, he reported that, “a database of fuel temperatures at 1,000 retail stations compiled by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, obtained by The Star, reveals that fuel in this country is sold at nearly 65 degrees when averaged year-round and across the entire country.”
In other words, fewer than 5 degrees above the benchmark 60 and far below the 90 degrees used to dramatize the miniscule mileage loss cited in the newspaper’s front page graphic.
Meaning that a less than a one percent difference – fewer than 4 less miles would be traveled – rather than the 8 claimed by the Star.
Longtime Prairie Village service station operator John Roney is skeptical of Everly’s analysis.
Roney’s family operated their family-friendly gas station since 1951 before selling out two years ago.
And even during the hottest of Kansas City summers Roney never remembers his gas – stored in tanks approximately 15 feet below ground = climbing anywhere near the 90 degrees the Star used to calculate a 2 percent loss in miles traveled.
“We had readouts on all of our storage tanks and I would push a button and it would tell me how much was in there and what the temperature was,” Roney says. “And I don’t ever remember it getting up to 90 or 95 degrees. It just didn’t because it was stored in the ground and we would check it each day.”
“Overall it evens out,” Roney says. “Sometimes you’re on the bad side and sometimes you’re on the good side. And if you take an average over time, it’s negligible – over a year’s time it all evens out.”
Look, pretty much everyone is upset with the huge tax breaks granted to large highly profitable oil companies, but sensationalizing the reporting by referring to the companies as “Big Oil” makes it clear that Everly and the Star are trying to demonize them to make the story sexier.
The $64 million question: if the situation is so egregious, why did an entire jury of local consumers come down on the side of “Big Oil” after hearing both sides of the argument presented to them?