How press failed to hit the gas on pipeline crisis

White House has ‘deliberate’ strategy to distance Biden from media questioning: Kurtz

‘MediaBuzz’ host Howard Kurtz joins ‘America’s Newsroom’ to discuss the White House’s communications strategy.

After the cyberattack on a 5,000-mile pipeline, the message from the Biden administration was that there wasn’t much to worry about.

Top officials assured the country that there was plenty of gas supply in the system and no prospect of shortages.

Even as those assurances turned out to be wrong, the White House tone was essentially that everything was under control.

And much of the press, while concerned about the breach of cybersecurity, did not challenge the administration’s handling of the growing mess.

“There have been no long lines or major price hikes for gas,” the New York Times tweeted.

But then came this Washington Post headline yesterday: “Biden Administration Struggles to Limit Political Damage from Gas Shortage.”

And the president felt the need to speak out from the White House.

So how did we go from nothing-to-see-here to Biden dealing with “political damage”?

Why did most journalists not realize that there could be political fallout, giving that gas lines or shortages have been a radioactive issue since Jimmy Carter’s days?

What happened to the pipeline that runs from Texas to New York is obviously not Biden’s fault. Nor would it have been Donald Trump’s fault if it had happened last year. But it’s not hard to imagine an army of reporters demanding to know what Trump was doing about the crisis and suggesting he didn’t care about gas prices.

By midweek, 69 percent of gas stations in North Carolina had fuel “outages,” along with more than half in Virginia and 46 percent in Georgia. Television carried images of long lines of drivers awaiting their turn at the pump. 

That had greater impact, at least in the affected regions, than the White House sending out Jennifer Granholm and Pete Buttigieg to say the administration was working closely with Colonial Pipeline and doing everything it could.

On Tuesday, Granholm said: “It’s not that we have a gasoline shortage, it’s that we have this supply crunch and that things will be back to normal soon.” Not very comforting if you can’t gas up the car to go to work.

Even now, the Washington Post is portraying this as a public relations battle: 

“President Biden has struggled this week to contain an escalating gasoline shortage in the Southeast, prompting Republicans to open a new line of attack against him on an issue that has long been fraught with political peril for the party that controls the White House.”

The Post story seemed to indicate the problem was being exacerbated by Republican attacks—including on Biden’s move away from fossil fuels—and coverage in conservative media. Shouldn’t the gas lines be a story for Fox News—and everywhere else?

On the cyberhacking front, Deputy National Security Adviser Anne Neuberger, asked whether Colonial Pipeline was paying the hackers’ demand for ransom, said “typically that’s a private sector decision…We recognize that victims of cyberattacks often face a very difficult situation and they have to just balance often the cost-benefit when they have no choice with regards to paying a ransom.” Shouldn’t it be an administration decision when national security is at stake?

Biden told reporters yesterday that with Colonial having restarted the pipeline, “we expect to see a region-by-region return to normalcy beginning this weekend and continuing into next week.” He urged motorists not to engage in panic buying.

Now the reporters asked tough questions for the first time:

“You said that the hackers are believed to be living in Russia.  At what point does the U.S. start to try to inflict pain on governments who allow this sort of this to happen in their territory?”

“Are you confident that Putin was not involved?”

“Will you consider doing any kind of retaliatory cyberattacks to shut down these criminals? Are you ruling that out?”

The president said there should be international standards for countries harboring cyber-criminals, that his intelligence agencies say Vladimir Putin’s government was not involved, and he would not order retaliation. (He wouldn’t comment on a Bloomberg report that Colonial had coughed up a $5-million payment.)

Now the coverage is skeptical, as it should be. But the press waited too long to hit the gas.

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