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Who’s gutless now?
About two months ago, UNR journalism professor/Sparks Tribune columnist/KUNR commentator Jake Highton recorded an incendiary radio spot on recent goings-on at the University of Nevada, Reno. Highton has been what he himself calls “harshly critical” of UNR administrators’ dealings with personnel at the Mackay School of Mines. Mackay Dean Jane Long was fired earlier this year, shortly after expressing discontent with UNR’s plan to morph the mining school into a new College of Science.

“I wrote that [UNR President John] Lilley was autocratic, squelched dissent, was not the choice of the faculty committee, pushed bad ideas, thought UNR was a junior college before he arrived, was lightly credentialed for a university president and had plunged into reorganization immediately in order to make his mark before getting the lay of the land,” Highton explained in a recent Tribune column. “I also wrote that Provost John Frederick was Lilley’s hatchet man and sycophant.”

The broadcast of Highton’s commentary was to run at 7:30 a.m. on a Monday. KUNR didn’t air the piece.

Highton said that KUNR News Director Brian Bahouth decided not to run the program because it lacked balance. But that rule hadn’t been applied to other commentaries that Highton had produced.

“For almost two years, [Bahouth] let me talk against [President] Bush, against his cabinet, against everything,” Highton said. “Suddenly he would not broadcast my commentary on the Lilley affair. … That’s why I say he was gutless: He refused to air my program. In my judgment that’s a clear case of censorship.”

Bahouth said he chose not to run the commentary “belittling President Lilley and the provost” not because he was in the mood to censor some free speech, but in the name of fairness. He said he was thinking about the best interest of his listeners, who might benefit from an actual dialogue.

“Instead we got the provost on a one-hour call-in show,” Bahouth said. “Jake was invited to appear in the studio, where he could belittle and grill the provost to his heart’s content. He declined.”

Bahouth was disappointed that Highton wouldn’t appear on the show. Bahouth was even more disappointed that Highton didn’t even call in during the hour show—especially since Highton later lambasted Bahouth’s interview in his Tribune column.

“That program could have also used some balance, since the articulate Frederick easily swatted away the softball questions—while Bahouth fawned,” Highton wrote.

Bahouth agreed that the issues needed debate. But he wasn’t about to air Highton’s comments unless the professor had the courage to sit “hip to haunch” with the individual he was attacking.

“It’s pretty easy to lob grenades, to hunt fish in a barrel,” Bahouth said. “I expressed concern to him that his wanting to say his piece unopposed was nothing more than him wanting to further his agenda rather than making a difference. He said, ‘Agenda? I have none. I am a man of the left.’ … The funniest thing is that we’ve aired Jake over and over again. And I’ve taken a lot of heat—let me emphasize, a lot of heat. I was happy to let him come on the show and really say his piece, but he let me down.”

Bahouth said that he laments losing Highton as a friend, especially since the two men are on the same end of the political spectrum. But Bahouth also resents being called a censor.

“The idea that I’m afraid for my job at the university—that’s ludicrous,” Bahouth said. “Anyone who listens to KUNR knows that we don’t shy away from anything. … Maybe Jake has more in common with George Bush than he thinks, since Bush also avoids press conferences.”

Ouch.

Bahouth also criticized the Reno News & Review.

“It’s a convenient position you guys take,” he said, “to question my bravery when I’ve run over one hundred of his commentaries. Why don’t you run his column? … I appreciate the RN&R’s zeal, but I think the word is ‘cheap.’ ”

Highton said he’s 99 percent sure that Bahouth did not invite him to appear on the show alongside Frederick. Regardless, he probably would have declined.

“I’m a commentator, not a debater,” Highton said.

Highton agreed that Bahouth had taken a lot of heat over past commentaries. But now, Highton said, Bahouth is “in denial.”

“He fancies himself as a fearless journalist, a courageous journalist,” Highton said. “But he was afraid [the commentary] might offend Lilley. He thought, ‘Jake has tenure, I don’t.’ … He has a guilty conscience. He knows he should have aired me.”

Said Bahouth: “Jake ducks debate. His favorite word is ‘gutless.’ Guess who that word applies to today?”

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Media

Gas price reality check
Journalism—with a few exceptions—has not been doing its job on the gas price story. The simple truth is that the price of gas now, in real dollars, is remarkably low.

Nearly all news coverage on this story has used raw dollar figures for gas prices. But when adjusted for inflation, the price is only moderately higher than the post-1973 low of January 1999. Prices were higher many times in the recent past. The main reason they seem high now is that consumers have been spoiled by an extended period of low prices that began in 1996 and hit a post-1973 low in 1998.

UNR economist Thomas Cargill says he thinks reporters fail to convert gas price figures because “it takes most of the spectacularism out of the news if you deflate it. If you say, ‘Compared to 20 years ago…’— that’s not news.”

1973 is a benchmark year because the United States stopped living in a fool’s paradise of oil prices that year. In October 1973, the Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries used their power as a cartel during the Yom Kippur war to stop shipping oil to nations that supported Israel against Egypt in the conflict, sparking what became known as the 1973 Oil Shock. Gas prices shot up four-fold, and, while they eventually came back down (and it took 10 years to happen), the world never returned to the low prices of the earlier 20th century.

Right now, the price of gas, in real dollar terms, is exactly what it was in 1985 and 1978, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. And prices are only two thirds what they were in 1980 and ’81. Moreover, gas as a proportion of the total spending of most people today is also very low.

In addition, the United States is the world’s bargain basement for gasoline, according to research by Britain’s Automobile Association and the Dallas Morning News (which on Sunday devoted a full page to gas price myths). In Europe, it runs from a low of $3.46 a gallon (Poland) to a high of $5.64 (Holland).

Why journalists generally don’t provide this kind of context is anyone’s guess, since it’s a simple process to do the math. Inflation calculators are easily available on the Internet these days (if you’d like to do the math yourself, there’s one at www.westegg.com/inflation/).

Finally, while most reporters put a viewing-with-alarm tone to their gas price stories, in fact there are upsides to people driving less. It means fewer traffic accidents, less pollution and less resulting health care problems, and preservation of petroleum for other more useful purposes. UNR scientist Glenn Miller says there are better things to do with petroleum than drive.

“Oil contains so many valuable chemicals that we should not just be burning them up because we’ll need them in the future. They are used for everything from prescription drugs to agricultural chemicals to plastics.”

Miller also says any adverse reaction to gas prices helps Lake Tahoe and the Truckee River.

“Pollutants out of exhaust causes heavy molecular [contaminants] to be absorbed into the ground and then run off into the rain and into the lake. I’ve got a graduate student who’s doing a thesis on this. The Truckee River is the same thing. These things get absorbed into fine sediments and flow down the river.”

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...