Molly Butler / Media Matters

Research/Study Research/Study

Cable news has covered Judge Amy Barrett's disqualifying climate denial and dark money funding poorly

Since she was nominated by President Donald Trump for a seat on the Supreme Court on September 26, it’s been clear that 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Amy Coney Barrett would be a solid vote to thwart climate action and roll back environmental protections for decades to come. But this became even more evident during her confirmation hearings, which were held from October 12 through October 15 and included Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s (D-RI) detailed presentation on how dark money interests have funded the nominations of right-wing judges like Barrett and her own climate denial in response to direct questions about her stance on climate change. 

Despite the timeliness and newsworthiness of these issues, Barrett’s answers on climate change and information about the dark money interests funding her confirmation battle were still rarely mentioned and never became a part of the broader cable news coverage of her nomination. 

A Media Matters analysis found that only 13 out of the 264 cable news segments aired about Barrett’s nomination from October 12-16 mentioned climate change or the environment, while only 17 mentioned her nomination’s dark money funders.  

Media Matters analyzed the morning, afternoon, and evening news programs on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC from October 12-16. We also analyzed the five major Sunday morning political shows: ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, CBS’ Face the Nation, CNN’s State of the Union, Fox Broadcasting Co.’s Fox News Sunday, and NBC’s Meet the Press that aired on October 18.

  • Key findings

    • Cable news outlets CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC aired a combined 264 segments about Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings from October 12 through October 16.
    • Only 13 out of 264 segments, or 5%, mentioned Barrett’s views on climate change or how she would likely affect environmental regulation, while only 17, or 6%, mentioned the dark money interests funding her confirmation effort.
    • MSNBC outpaced the other networks in climate mentions with six, followed by CNN with four and Fox with three. MSNBC also had far more mentions of Barrett's dark money funders with 11, compared to five for Fox and only one for CNN. 
    • Fox far outpaced the other networks in total segments aired about Barrett’s nomination with 136, while MSNBC aired 67 and CNN aired 61.
    • The five major Sunday morning political shows only aired two segments about Barrett’s nomination during this time frame, with Fox News Sunday and State of the Union airing one each. Neither segment mentioned climate change or dark money.
  • Barrett’s confirmation should be covered as a decisive blow to climate action and accountability for generations to come

  • In early October, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a petition from the fossil fuel industry designed to stop cities and states across the country from holding those companies responsible for knowingly driving the climate crisis and obscuring the harm their products cause from the public. This petition is part of the fossil fuel industry’s strategy to have this, and similar cases, heard in federal court, where it expects to receive more favorable rulings than in state courts.  

    With this in mind, Barrett’s position on climate change and support for her confirmation from dark money groups tied to the fossil fuel industry are not objects of mere curiosity -- they are vital to understanding how she will rule on cases like these. Cable news shows should have treated it as such during her Senate confirmation hearings.

    Yet, despite several days of hearings and hours of coverage, cable news networks such as CNN and MSNBC have struggled to consistently and clearly articulate the harm a corporate-friendly justice like Barrett will have on decisions ranging from climate action and environmental regulation to workplace rights. Meanwhile, Fox News outpaces its mainstream rivals in coverage and leads the right-wing media vanguard pushing for Barrett’s confirmation because of her reliably reactionary views on these important issues -- and climate denial is chief among them.

  • Despite being timely and relevant, cable news shows largely ignored Barrett’s shocking climate denial and what it will mean for climate and environmental regulation

  • Barrett’s incredible run of climate denial during her Senate confirmation hearings began, inexplicably, with a question from Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) on October 13, near the end of the first day of questioning. Kennedy is awash in oil and gas money and has spouted lukewarm denial in the past, so it was surprising to hear him raise the issue of climate change. It was even more surprising to hear her evasive answers, especially considering California's wildfire season had recently set a record of 4 million acres burned and Hurricane Delta had just ravaged western Louisiana -- only six weeks after Hurricane Laura obliterated the same area.

  • SEN. JOHN KENNEDY (R-LA): How about climate change? I mentioned climate change. Have you read about that?

    JUDGE AMY CONEY BARRETT: I’ve read about climate change.

    KENNEDY: And you have some opinions on climate change that you’ve thought about?

    BARRETT: You know, I’m certainly not a scientist.

    KENNEDY: I’m not saying you are.

    BARRETT: I mean, I’ve read things about climate change. I would not say that I have firm views on it.

  • Barrett was asked about climate change again during the second round of questioning on October 14. First, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) asked if she believed that “human beings cause global warming.” Barrett said that she was not “competent to opine on what causes global warming or not.” When Blumenthal followed up by, again, asking for her opinion on the issue, Barrett gave what is widely considered by many to be a “disqualifyinganswer on this existential issue:

  • JUDGE AMY CONEY BARRETT: I don’t think that my views on global warming or climate change are relevant to the job I would do as a judge, nor do I feel like I have views that are informed enough, and I haven’t studied scientific data. I’m not really in a position to offer any kind of informed opinion on what I think causes global warming.

  • Near the end of the hearing, Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) discussed climate change impacts in California, the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks, and the importance of seminal cases such as Massachusetts v. EPA to environmental regulations in a preamble to her questions for Barrett. After asking Barrett if COVID-19 is infectious and if smoking causes cancer, Harris asked if she believed “that climate change is happening and it’s threatening the air we breathe and the water we drink?” Barrett’s answer was, again, evasive and suggestive of climate denial, and, again, considered disqualifying:

  • JUDGE AMY CONEY BARRETT: Senator, again, I was wondering where you were going with that. You have asked me a series of questions that are completely uncontroversial, like whether COVID-19 is infectious, whether smoking causes cancer, and then trying to analogize that to eliciting an opinion from me that is on a very contentious matter of public debate. And I will not do that. I will not express a view on a matter of public policy, especially one that is politically controversial, because that’s inconsistent with the judicial role, as I have explained.

  • News outlets were quick to note the significance of these exchanges, with The New York Times quoting experts such as Ann Carlson, a faculty director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA School of Law, who told the paper that Barrett’s response to Kennedy “‘seems like a pretty strong signal to those in the know that she is skeptical of regulating greenhouse gases.’” 

    This analysis rarely made it into cable news coverage. 

    Only 13 out of 264 cable news segments about Barrett’s nomination mentioned her views on climate change or how her tenure would affect environmental regulations. MSNBC led with six mentions, followed by CNN with four, and Fox with three. None of these mentions provided substantive contextualization of how Barrett’s climate denial will shape her jurisprudence on climate and environmental cases.

  • Cable news shows rarely contextualized Barrett’s dark money funding during their coverage of her confirmation hearings

  • Nonpartisan watchdog group Accountable.US released an analysis of Barrett's judicial record that found she has sided with corporations 76% of the time, while investigative journalism website Sludge has detailed how Barrett’s nomination battle is being funded by a right-wing swamp of “finance executives, industrial magnates, and right-wing megadonors,” including organizations funded by the fossil fuel-tied Koch network

    Under the Trump administration, Big Polluters and other corporate interests have successfully pursued a deregulatory agenda that has allowed them to continue poisoning the air, land, and water for millions of people, including the most vulnerable communities. Even if Trump loses the upcoming election, these companies still want carte blanche to continue increasing their profits at the expense of the planet while ducking accountability for their actions -- which is why they are fighting tooth and nail to seat pro-corporate judges like Barrett.  

    In this vein, Sen. Whitehouse used a 2019 Washington Post story and other sources to detail how dark money groups allied with the Federalist Society and the Judicial Crisis Network have funded a long-term right-wing effort to elevate conservative jurists to the Supreme Court. During the hearings on October 13, he noted:

  • SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (D-RI): This more and more looks like it's not three schemes, but it's one scheme with the same funders selecting judges, funding campaigns for the judges, and then showing up in court in these orchestrated amicus flotillas to tell the judges what to do. Something is not right around the Court. And dark money has a lot to do with it. Special interests have a lot to do with it.

  • Cable news shows could have used Whitehouse’s presentation and its independent background reporting to explore the story of how a conservative justice like Barrett, backed by millions in dark money, is being elevated to the Supreme Court to rule on behalf of corporate interests. But this never became part of the broader cable news coverage of Barrett’s confirmation hearings, with only 17 out of 264 cable news segments mentioning the dark money interests funding her nomination -- just 6%.

    Of those 17 mentions, there were a few notable segments. CNN’s The Situation Room hosted Sen. Whitehouse to discuss his presentation, while MSNBC contributor and former Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) praised Whitehouse’s presentation during the October 13 episode of MSNBC’s The Reid Out. MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell Reports hosted Whitehouse on October 14 to discuss how dark money influences the Supreme Court. 

    The most substantive segment was aired during the October 15 episode of MSNBC Live with Katy Tur. Not only did anchor Katy Tur highlight Whitehouse’s dark money presentation, but she also hosted a guest, The Daily Beast’s Jay Michaelson, who has written extensively about the role dark money plays in elevating right-wing Supreme Court nominees.

  • Video file

    Citation From the October 15, 2020, episode of MSNBC's MSNBC Live with Katy Tur

  • Fox’s shows also discussed corporate influence on the Supreme Court confirmation process a few times, referencing it in just five of the network’s 136 segments on Barrett’s nomination. But instead of lamenting how monied right-wing interests scheme to place reactionary jurists on federal courts, they downplayed the significance of dark money or accused Democrats of using the same tactics. 

    One of the most egregious examples occurred during the October 14 episode of Fox & Friends, when the show hosted representatives from the Federalist Society and Judicial Crisis Network, two of the dark money groups named by Whitehouse during his presentation. Rather than substantively responding to the reporting buttressing his claims, they accused Whitehouse of trying to “bully and smear” conservative groups and claimed he was being a “conspiracy theorist” and a hypocrite when it comes to dark money.

  • Video file

    Citation From the October 14, 2020, edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends

  • As Barrett’s confirmation process continues, it’s not too late for cable news to fully contextualize her record

  • Although cable news shows largely ignored the obvious opportunities to explore how Barrett’s funding and climate denial places her in lockstep with a broad right-wing agenda that is focused on obstructing climate action and defanging environmental protections, it is not too late for them to incorporate the dire threat she poses to climate and environmental regulation.

    Cable news shows should mirror the reporting of environmental-focused news outlets such as E&E News, DeSmog Blog, and Grist as well as national outlets including The New York Times and The Washington Post that wrote clearly about how Barrett’s climate denial would make her a solid vote to thwart climate action and environmental protections. This includes reporting on how a conservative-majority Supreme Court potentially would “lock in opposition to expansive readings of the Clean Air Act that encompass greenhouse gas emissions or trigger a reexamination of the landmark 2007 climate case Massachusetts v. EPA,” upholding President Trump’s brazen Big Polluter agenda long after he has vacated the Oval Office.

    Barrett is a dangerous pick to the Supreme Court because she will sit on the court for decades during a time that demands swift and ambitious changes, many of which would be detrimental to the corporate and polluter interests backing her nomination. But cable news shows covering her Senate confirmation hearings largely failed to contextualize how and why pro-corporate candidates like Barrett and other conservative jurists receive so much dark money from some of the country’s worst industries and corporations. As investigative journalist David Sirota wrote for The Guardian ahead of the nomination hearings, these groups “have been wildly successful in stacking the court” in their favor under Chief Justice John Roberts:

  • While Roberts’ break with conservatives on a few cases have led liberals to see him as a sensible moderate, he has presided over a radical court that has helped transform the economy. The court has limited unions’ political power, reduced workers’ bargaining rights, blocked class-action lawsuits against corporate wrongdoers, strengthened fossil fuel companies’ power and emboldened big money interests to buy elections. Even rulings that don’t seem to revolve around corporate power have ended up setting precedents that help strengthen commercial interests power over American society.

    Now comes Barrett – a nominee whose confirmation battle appears to be following the same playbook. So far, the fight is focusing on religion and social issues – but not also on how she could lock in an anti-worker corporate-friendly majority.

  • Despite a Democratic member boycott of the vote, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee violated Senate rules to unanimously advance Barrett's nomination on October 22; a full Senate vote on her confirmation could come as early as October 26.

    There is no question that if the Senate confirms Barrett, the Supreme Court’s conservative faction will have the votes to advance a pro-corporate, anti-environmental agenda for decades to come, which is why Trump, Senate Republicans, and their financial backers in the fossil fuel industry are so keen to push her nomination through so late in the election season. As the nomination process barrels toward its conclusion, news media must cover how Barrett’s potential confirmation is a sure bet to overturn a host of decisions that have made America a safer, more egalitarian, and more equitable society, while advancing the agendas of the country's most harmful corporate interests.

  • Methodology

  • Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for original, weekday programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC from 6 a.m. to midnight from October 12 through October 16, 2020.

    Media Matters also searched transcripts for the five Sunday morning news shows: ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos, CBS' Face the Nation, CNN’s State of the Union, Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday, and NBC's Meet the Press on October 18.

    We counted segments, which we defined as instances when Amy Coney Barrett was the stated topic of discussion, or when we found “significant discussion” of her nomination in segments about other topics. We then reviewed each segment for whether or not any speaker mentioned climate change, the environment, or who is funding her nomination.