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While ABC, CBS, and NBC again dropped the ball, local TV news programs in California brought up climate change numerous times during wildfire reporting
This month’s catastrophic California wildfires garnered significant media coverage, with major national news programs on ABC, CBS, and NBC airing more than 100 segments about the unfolding disasters. But Media Matters found that just 3.7 percent of those segments mentioned the link between climate change and worsening wildfires. That's a minuscule improvement over their coverage of Western wildfires this summer, when the networks incorporated climate change into less than 2 percent of their segments.
On the local level, TV news programs on California stations included discussion of climate change in numerous segments about the ongoing wildfires. News shows on major TV network affiliates in the state’s three largest media markets aired 44 episodes that addressed how climate change exacerbates wildfires.
Climate change is a critical factor contributing to the growing severity of wildfires in the United States, according to researchers. Scientists have documented an increase in both the number of large fires and the total area burned per year in the U.S. Fifteen of the 20 largest wildfires in California’s history have occurred since 2000, as rising temperatures in the West have lengthened wildfire season by several months. Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist and dean of the University of Michigan’s environmental school, told The Associated Press that the increasing severity of fires is “much less due to bad management and is instead the result of our baking of our forests, woodlands and grasslands with ever-worsening climate change.”
The three national broadcast TV networks -- ABC, CBS, and NBC -- aired 107 segments about the California wildfires on their major morning and evening news programs from November 8 to 13. Only four of these, or 3.7 percent, included discussion of climate change. NBC aired two of the segments that mentioned climate change, while ABC and CBS aired one each.
Both of NBC’s climate change mentions came from weather anchor Al Roker on the November 12 episode of Today. During the show’s 7 a.m. hour, Roker discussed the factors that have made the fires so bad: “July was the hottest month ever recorded in California. That hot weather dries out the vegetation. They’ve had no rain to speak of really in the last three months. Parched conditions. And this is all due to climate change.” He noted that the annual number of large fires in the state has more than tripled since 1970, and that there have been six times as many acres burned per year on average since then. He made many of the same points in a later segment during the same episode. Here's the first segment:
CBS’ climate change mention came on the November 11 episode of CBS This Morning, during a segment by WCBS New York weather anchor Lonnie Quinn. He said researchers believe that “both forest management and the changing climate play a role” in worsening wildfires. “California’s temperatures have increased 2 to even 3 degrees over the last century," he explained. "Making matters worse, there was a five-year drought from 2011 to 2016. That drought killed more than 129 million trees. That's just fuel for the current fires that are out there."
ABC's coverage was the weakest, seeming to downplay the effect of climate change on the wildfires. On the November 10 episode of ABC’s Good Morning America, anchor Eva Pilgrim said to ABC senior meteorologist Rob Marciano, “It seems like these fires are getting worse and worse every year. Is this climate change? What’s the deal with all this?” Marciano responded, “This summer we saw excessive heat waves and drought in some cases, you can link a little bit of that to climate change. But this is a Santa Ana season, so this is not unusual to get winds blowing flames like this, and this is a dry season as well.”
Even this fleeting mention of climate change is a slight improvement for ABC, which rarely brings up climate change at all in its coverage of extreme weather. During this past summer's dramatic wildfire season, ABC's coverage didn't mention climate change a single time, and the network made no mention of climate change earlier this year in its coverage of both a deadly heat wave and Hurricane Florence.
CBS and NBC also did poorly when it came to incorporating climate change into their reporting on this summer’s wildfires in the Western U.S., even though they didn't completely strike out like ABC. From June 21 to September 21, the main morning and evening news programs on ABC, CBS, and NBC aired a combined 471 segments discussing the wildfires, and only nine of them, or 1.9 percent, mentioned climate change -- six on CBS and three on NBC.
Media Matters also analyzed news coverage of the wildfires on local affiliates of ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox in the three largest California media markets: Los Angeles, San Francisco-San Jose-Oakland, and Sacramento-Stockton-Modesto. From November 8 to 13, we found 44 news show episodes that mentioned climate change in relation to the wildfires -- 16 in Los Angeles, and 14 each in the Sacramento and San Francisco areas. Over half of these episodes featured a clip of California Gov. Jerry Brown blaming climate change for the destructiveness of the wildfires during a November 11 press conference.
One example of such coverage came from Los Angeles’ KTTV Fox 11 noon news program on November 12. The segment was wholly focused on Brown's comments about climate change and wildfires:
A more muddled example aired on Sacramento’s KXTV ABC 10 Morning Blend show. The segment discussed a tweet from President Donald Trump that blamed the fires on poor forest management. The hosts noted Brown's comments about climate change, then invited viewers to take a poll and vote for either forest management or climate change as the bigger contributor to the fires. Most of the poll takers selected forest management:
Both of these segments would have been better if they had informed viewers of what scientists and other experts actually say: Climate change is a significant contributor, and, in the case of the current fires, forest management is not.
Still, it's notable that many local news stations made a point of discussing climate change in the context of the fires. Local stations have a greater responsibility than national ones to report on the immediate dangers that wildfires pose to their community members, including evacuation orders and specific details about how fires spread. And yet this month in California, many local programs still found time to report on how climate change worsens wildfires. There's no excuse for national networks not to do the same.
Media Matters searched Nexis and iQ Media for broadcast network TV news segments that covered wildfires using the search terms wildfire(s), forest fire(s), or fire(s), and then we searched within those segments for mentions of climate change or global warming. Our analysis covered morning news shows (ABC's Good Morning America, CBS This Morning, and NBC's Today) and nightly news shows (ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and NBC Nightly News) from November 8-13. For local California coverage, we searched IQ Media for news shows between 4 a.m. and midnight on affiliates of ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox in the media markets of Los Angeles, San Francisco-San Jose-Oakland, and Sacramento-Stockton-Modesto.
Only one of 12 editorials mentioned climate change in relation to Proposition 112. In light of the recent U.N. climate report, that’s very worrying
Proposition 112 in Colorado would require new oil and gas wells to be farther away from occupied buildings, which would seriously limit fracking in the state. Media Matters analyzed 12 Colorado newspaper editorials expressing a position on Proposition 112, and only one of them mentioned climate change.
Proposition 112 would require that new oil and gas development projects, including fracking, be at least 2,500 feet away from occupied buildings and "vulnerable areas,” including schools, hospitals, parks, lakes, and rivers. The current minimum setback distance for wells is 500 feet. The initiative would not affect federal lands or Colorado's 55,000 currently active wells.
Colorado Rising, the main advocacy group supporting this initiative, points to a growing body of research showing serious health and safety effects related to fracking, especially when residents live within a half-mile of wells. Protect Colorado, the chief opposition group, contends that the initiative would effectively ban new oil and gas development in the state, costing thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in economic benefits.
Spending on this initiative is incredibly lopsided. Opponents have raised over $31 million, most of it from oil and gas companies including Anadarko, Noble Energy, and PDC Energy. The Koch brothers' network is pitching in too; the Colorado chapter of the Koch-backed group Americans for Prosperity recently formed an issue committee to fight Proposition 112. On the other side, supporters of the initiative have raised only about $1.6 million, with the biggest donor being the Food and Water Watch Action Fund.
Much of the debate around Proposition 112 has involved the health impacts of fracking and the economic influence of the oil and gas industry, but climate change is another critical issue. A scientific study in 2015 found that half of the world's gas reserves and a third of oil reserves need to stay in the ground if we are to prevent the average global temperature from rising 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. More recently, a major report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that 2 degrees of warming is too much and humanity would suffer greatly if the average temperature rises more than 1.5 degrees, further underlining the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground.
Media Matters analyzed 12 newspaper editorials that took a position on Proposition 112, including the largest newspapers by circulation in Colorado. Only one of them made note of climate change.
On September 29, Boulder’s Daily Camera published an editorial that placed Proposition 112 into the broader context of the climate crisis:
In the bigger picture, Proposition 112 comes before voters amid ubiquitous signs of a climate change emergency. The last four years saw the hottest January-June periods ever recorded on Earth. Scientists have tied climate change to a greater number of large wildfires in the West and bigger and stronger hurricanes, among other environmental disasters. This week it was reported that the climate change-denying Trump administration itself assumes global temperatures will rise an apocalyptic 7 degrees by 2100. Job losses are always lamentable, but the transition toward green energy sources is a practical and moral imperative, and Proposition 112 would play a role in achieving such progress.
Only two of the 12 editorials endorsed Proposition 112 -- those in the Daily Camera and The Aspen Times. The overwhelming newspaper editorial opposition to Proposition 112 does not reflect recent public polling in the state, which found that 52 percent of Colorado voters supported Proposition 112.
The 10 editorials that opposed Proposition 112 and failed to mention climate change were published in these papers:
Some of these editorials parroted industry talking points. For example, both The Pueblo Chieftain and Steamboat Pilot & Today argued that if Proposition 112 passed, over 147,500 jobs could be lost by 2030, and the state could lose more than $1 billion in tax revenue. These numbers are trumpeted by the opposition campaign and come from a report by the Common Sense Policy Roundtable (CSPR), a right-leaning, free-market think tank whose founders are tied to the oil and gas industry. In 2015, CSPR was found to have been working on behalf of Koch-backed groups and the fracking industry, and selectively editing studies in ways that would help promote fracking in Colorado.
Of the 10 editorials that recommended a "no" vote on Proposition 112, four of them completely neglected to mention the health effects of fracking, which has been the main issue driving the "yes" campaign -- those in the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, The Pueblo Chieftain, and The Durango Herald.
Media Matters also reviewed the Canon City Daily Record, the Lakewood Sentinel, the Longmont Times-Call, the Loveland Reporter-Herald, the Telluride Daily Planet, and the Vail Daily, but the editorial boards at these papers do not appear to have taken a position on Proposition 112.
If Proposition 112 is approved, it could have major implications not just for the oil and gas industry in Colorado but around the country, as industry executives are “fearful that it could encourage similar measures across the nation,” The New York Times recently reported. Ballot measures in Arizona, Nevada, Washington, and other states could have serious repercussions for fossil fuel companies and greenhouse gas emissions as well.
In light of the recent U.N climate report and worsening weather disasters around the U.S., it’s worrying that an overwhelming majority of Colorado newspapers ignored climate change as they weighed in on an energy-related ballot initiative. They appear to have decided that short-term economic gains and industry support are more important than the long-term health of both Coloradans and the planet.
The Daily Caller and Wash. Free Beacon push industry talking points on Proposition 127, which would require 50 percent renewable energy in Arizona by 2030
National right-wing media outlets The Daily Caller and Washington Free Beacon have together published two dozen articles criticizing Proposition 127, a clean energy ballot initiative in Arizona. Most of the pieces condemn the chief funder of the "yes" campaign, Tom Steyer, while failing to even mention the chief funder of the "no" campaign, the electric utility company Pinnacle West. Key figures in the opposition campaign have promoted the Daily Caller and Free Beacon articles on social media.
The proposed constitutional amendment would mandate that electric utilities in Arizona generate 50 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2030. Nuclear power would not count toward the target, nor would hydropower generated from facilities built before 1997. The 50 percent target would be a sizeable increase over Arizona’s current renewable portfolio standard, which requires 15 percent of electricity to come from renewables by 2025.
The utility industry has spent heavily to try to defeat Proposition 127. Arizonans for Affordable Electricity is the main PAC opposing the initiative -- and all of its funding comes from Pinnacle West, the parent company of Arizona Public Service (APS), the largest electric utility in Arizona. Pinnacle West has steered more than $30 million to the PAC. Other utility interests are fighting the initiative too. The parent company of Tucson Electric Power has spent $50,000 on its own effort to oppose Proposition 127, and rural electric cooperatives have spent $417,000 on their own campaign.
The PAC promoting Proposition 127, Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona, has raised less money, but still a substantial amount: $23.6 million. Nearly all of that has come from NextGen Climate Action, a PAC founded and supported by billionaire activist Tom Steyer. The League of Conservation Voters and Sierra Club have contributed some money as well.
The fight over Proposition 127 has now become the most expensive ballot initiative battle in state history.
Proposition 127 has generated a fair deal of media coverage at the national level. Both Bloomberg and The New Yorker recently reported in-depth on the ballot initiative fight, and The Atlantic included Proposition 127 in an article about out-of-state billionaires spending to support ballot initiatives.
However, most of the national media attention has been coming from The Daily Caller and the Washington Free Beacon -- right-wing outlets based in Washington, D.C. They have produced a steady stream of articles that are highly critical of the initiative, and often leave out key details regarding the funding and tactics of Arizonans for Affordable Electricity.
Since March, these outlets have produced a combined 24 articles that criticized the ballot initiative -- 15 by The Daily Caller, nine by the Washington Free Beacon. Twenty-three of them made reference to Steyer in their headlines, and the only one that didn't still named Steyer in its first paragraph. But while the articles foregrounded the primary funder of the "yes" campaign, nearly all of them failed to mention that the main PAC behind the "no" campaign is being funded entirely by the parent company of APS. For example, a Daily Caller article from July was headlined “Tom Steyer One Step Closer to Dictating Arizona's Energy Industry.” It included a lengthy quote from Matthew Benson, spokesman for Arizonans for Affordable Electricity, but the story made no mention of the PAC's funding sources, and it failed to mention APS’ own near complete control of Arizona’s energy industry.
Another problematic example was a March 21 article in the Washington Free Beacon that carried the headline “Some Arizona Democrats Rebel Against Tom Steyer-Led Renewable Push.” The article pulled quotes from an Arizona Republic op-ed co-authored by Democratic state Sen. Robert Meza that urged voters to reject the ballot initiative. But the article failed to note that Pinnacle West has donated thousands of dollars to Meza over the course of his career, which makes the company Meza’s biggest donor, according to the watchdog group Energy and Policy Institute. Also, according to the institute, “Meza has received thousands of dollars in personal income for work he’s done for a number of groups that also receive major funding from APS.”
Additionally, many of the articles painted Steyer as a carpetbagger from California aiming to interfere in Arizona’s affairs, but they failed to note that dozens of Arizona-based groups have endorsed Proposition 127.
The campaign opposing the ballot initiative has seized on the articles in The Daily Caller and Washington Free Beacon and amplified them via social media. The official Twitter account of Arizonans for Affordable Energy sent at least three tweets that linked to articles in these outlets. A member of APS’ government affairs team tweeted out two of the articles -- one about Proposition 127, and another about a similar Steyer-backed initiative in Michigan. Vince Leach, a Republican state representative in Arizona, tweeted a Daily Caller article about how the initiative campaign is bankrolled by Steyer. Earlier this year, Leach worked with APS to draft a bill that would nullify the effects of the ballot initiative should it pass; the bill was signed into law in March. Leach has also received campaign contributions from APS as well as from Veridus, a PR and lobbying firm that is leading APS’ campaign against Proposition 127.
The Daily Caller and Washington Free Beacon are not the only right-leaning national media outlets opposed to the renewable energy ballot initiative. On October 19, the notoriously conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board came out against the initiative. Its editorial cited research claiming that Proposition 127 would kill jobs and cut billions of dollars off of Arizona’s GDP over the coming decades. The editorial did not, however, note that the research it cited was financed entirely by APS. The research was also based on the assumption that Palo Verde, the nation’s largest nuclear plant, would be forced to close down should the initiative pass. But other research found that Palo Verde could be expected to remain open, and a former Republican head of Arizona's energy regulatory agency called the idea that Proposition 127 would force Palo Verde to close “utterly ridiculous and perhaps the greatest of all the lies that A.P.S. has told during this process.”
The Washington Examiner, another conservative news publication based in Washington, D.C., also published an op-ed in September opposing the initiative. And the Heartland Institute, a fossil-fuel-funded climate-denial group, ran an anti-Proposition 127 blog post in September.
A recent report by the Arizona Advocacy Network, a progressive organization that works on civic engagement and clean elections, outlined ways that APS and its parent company have used their massive financial power to sway legislators and regulators. "As of July 2018 Pinnacle West’s PAC donated $860,000 (2018 election cycle) to legislators and groups that are fighting clean energy in Arizona," the report notes. And in 2014 and 2016, Pinnacle West spent $7 million to elect friendly candidates to the Arizona Corporation Commission, which regulates utilities. APS is also reported to influence campaigns through the spending of dark money, which it doesn't have to report publicly.
Proposition 127 is currently trailing in polls, so APS may get what it wants yet again. According to a poll conducted by Suffolk University in early October, nearly 47 percent of voters said they would vote no on Proposition 127, while less than 34 percent would vote yes. About one-fifth of voters were undecided.
A Nevada newspaper owned by Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson published an editorial endorsing an Adelson-funded ballot initiative campaign -- and failed to disclose the connection.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal ran an editorial on October 18 officially endorsing Nevada’s Energy Choice Initiative, or Question 3, a ballot initiative that would end utility NV Energy’s monopoly on electricity generation in Nevada and open up the state’s electricity market to competition. The editorial board failed to mention that the newspaper is owned by casino magnate and GOP campaign contributor Adelson, whose company, Las Vegas Sands Corp., has contributed millions of dollars to the PAC supporting Question 3.
The Review-Journal endorsement of Question 3 argued that it would benefit Nevada’s consumers. But the editorial did not disclose that the newspaper is owned by Adelson, Question 3's biggest backer.
The Review-Journal now has this editorial pinned to the top of its Twitter feed:
“Ending the NV Energy stranglehold on the retail market would empower consumers and providers by promoting competition and choice. Vote “yes” on Question 3.”https://t.co/O8mA4byhke
— Las Vegas RJ (@reviewjournal) October 18, 2018
Additionally, the Review-Journal sent the editorial out as a “Breaking News” alert to its readers:
Sheldon Adelson's newspaper sent out a "Breaking News" alert to its readers this morning that the newspaper he owns is endorsing a ballot initiative he funded. I kid you not. Breaking. News. pic.twitter.com/uZOPRAwbCS
— Jon Ralston (@RalstonReports) October 18, 2018
The editorial board’s position should not come as a surprise, as the paper has given favorable treatment to Adelson ever since he bought it.
Adelson purchased the Review-Journal, the largest newspaper in Nevada, in December 2015 for $140 million. Soon after he bought the paper, Politico reported that “stories involving new owner Sheldon Adelson are being reviewed, changed or killed almost daily.” When Adelson lost an attempt to have a judge removed from a lawsuit against Las Vegas Sands, the paper's leaders told its journalists that they must monitor the judge, and when the journalists protested, they were told that the directive came from above, according to The New York Times. Adelson is also a major supporter of President Donald Trump, and the Review-Journal was one of the first major newspapers to endorse him for president in 2016.
Utility NV Energy currently serves about 90 percent of Nevada with electricity. According to Ballotpedia, Question 3 would require the state legislature to pass laws establishing “an open, competitive retail electric energy market”; prohibit the state from granting electrical-generation monopolies; and declare that a person or entity in Nevada has a “right to choose the provider of its electric utility service.”
The issue of competitive markets arose in 2014 when data company Switch and several other large companies, including Las Vegas Sands, explored opportunities to stop buying electricity from NV Energy and instead purchase it on the open market. Switch was allowed to leave NV Energy’s monopoly in 2016 after agreeing to pay a $27 million exit fee determined by the Nevada Public Utilities Commission. Las Vegas Sands refused to pay a similar $24 million exit fee, and so remained a customer of NV Energy. Both companies helped form the Energy Choice Initiative campaign in 2016, leading to Question 3 first appearing on the ballot and passing with over 72 percent of the vote. Because Nevada law stipulates that constitutional amendments need to be approved in successive even-numbered election years, Question 3 is appearing on the ballot again in 2018.
This year, Las Vegas Sands and Switch have both bankrolled the Energy Choice Initiative. As of October 12, the Yes on 3 campaign had raised more than $32.9 million, with Las Vegas Sands donating over $20 million and Switch giving close to $11 million. On the opposing side, NV Energy has largely bankrolled the No on 3 campaign, donating about $63 million in 2018. NV Energy is a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway Energy, which is controlled by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway.
Las Vegas Sands and the Yes on 3 campaign argue that Question 3 would expand Nevada’s clean energy options. However, in a July 2018 report examining the potential impacts of Question 3, the nonprofit Guinn Center found, “There is no correlation between restructuring electricity markets and increased renewables. And Question 3 does not explicitly require that more renewables are integrated onto the grid.” The study concluded, “The type of retail market model in a given state matters less than policy choices, such as a state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS).”
When there was an effort last year to increase Nevada's RPS, Las Vegas Sands opposed it. The company testified in opposition to AB 206, a Nevada bill that would have made the state's RPS more ambitious by requiring utilities to produce 50 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2030 and 80 percent by 2040. The bill was ultimately vetoed by Gov. Brian Sandoval (R).
Nevada voters will decide on Question 3 on November 6.
After new U.N. IPCC climate report comes out, only 22 of the top 50 U.S. newspapers' homepages made note of it
A United Nations scientific panel released a major new climate change report on the night of October 7, warning of dire consequences if world governments don’t take unprecedented and dramatic steps in the next decade to rein in greenhouse gas emissions. The next morning, the majority of top U.S. newspapers failed to mention the report on their homepages.
At 9 p.m. EDT on October 7, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its long-awaited special report about what will happen if the average global temperature rises more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and what would be required to prevent such a rise. The average temperature has already risen 1 degree C worldwide, and we will see dramatic and deadly impacts if it rises 2 degrees or more, which is now considered extremely likely. The IPCC report was requested by world leaders as part of the 2015 Paris climate agreement. The report emphasizes the need for unprecedented action in the coming years to prevent the worst effects of climate change, and warns of the dire impacts if humanity fails to take that action.
Between 9 a.m. and noon EDT on October 8, Media Matters analyzed the homepages of the top 50 U.S. newspapers as ranked by average Sunday circulation. Twenty-eight of the papers did not mention the report on their homepages at all:
Of the above newspapers, 10 serve cities that are listed among the "25 U.S. Cities Most Affected by Climate Change" in a 2015 weather.com report: Baltimore, Buffalo, Columbus, Denver, Louisville, Newark, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Portland, and St. Paul.
Other major newspapers in cities heavily affected by climate change also failed to highlight the IPCC report. The Las Vegas Review-Journal, the largest newspaper in Nevada, did not note the report on its homepage. Las Vegas is ranked third in the weather.com list. The Miami Herald also did not mention the IPCC report on its homepage, though it did link to an article about how the risk of sea-level rise threatens real estate prices. Miami will be particularly affected by sea-level rise; a study published last year in the journal Nature concluded that rising seas as a result of climate change could cause more than 2.5 million Miami residents to flee the city.
These are the papers that linked from their homepages to articles about the IPCC report:
A few of the newspapers featured the IPCC report prominently on their homepages, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune, but most of homepage mentions of the report were just headlines. Here's how the Star Tribune featured the report:
Methodology: Media Matters searched for the terms “climate change,” “global warming,” “IPCC,” “report,” and “scientist” on the homepages of the top 50 highest-circulation U.S. newspapers between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m. EST on October 8. The list of newspapers was taken from the recent Pew Research Center report State of the News Media.
Major broadcast networks mentioned climate change in just 2 percent of wildfire reports, ignoring science that links climate change to more intense fires
As wildfires raged in the Western U.S. this summer, the major broadcast TV networks largely failed to explain how climate change influences such fires, mentioning climate change in less than 2 percent of their reports on the fires. Media Matters analysis of coverage on the networks’ morning and evening news shows found that ABC made no mention at all of climate change during its 172 segments reporting on wildfires, while CBS brought up climate change in only six of its 183 segments that mentioned wildfires, and NBC discussed climate change in only three of its 116 wildfire segments.
Wildfires have ravaged huge swaths of the Western U.S. this year. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, fires had burned over 7.7 million acres of land as of September 28 -- nearly 1.8 million acres more than the 10-year year-to-date average from 2008-2017. The most destructive wildfires blazed in California, and they were some of the worst on record. The Ranch Fire, part of the massive Mendocino Complex, in August became the largest single fire in California history, while the Carr Fire was one of the deadliest, killing seven people. Five of the 10 most destructive fires in the state’s history happened in just the last three years. The 2018 wildfire season is still ongoing, with blazes active in 12 states.
Destructive wildfires have not been limited to the U.S. -- they also burned through parts of Europe this summer. In Greece, nearly 100 people were killed by wildfires outside of Athens. In Sweden, scorching temperatures contributed to over 50 fires, including some inside the Arctic Circle, and forced evacuations. As of late July, the number of European fires in 2018 was up 40 percent on average.
Numerous scientific studies have found that human-caused climate change has exacerbated both the frequency and duration of wildfires. Other variables affected by climate change, such as extreme heat and drought, are also increasing the risk for longer and more intense wildfires. “To dismiss the role of climate change on these fires is simply incorrect,” Michael F. Wehner, a senior staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, told The New York Times. And Noah Diffenbaugh, a professor of Earth system science at Stanford University, told The Independent in July that the longer fire season in California is related to climate change:
What we’re seeing over the last few years in terms of the wildfire season in California … [is] very consistent with the historical trends in terms of increasing temperatures, increasing dryness, and increasing wildfire risk. They’re also very consistent with what we can expect in the future as global warming continues.
California’s recent Climate Change Assessment estimated that the average acreage burned across the state annually will rise by 77 percent by the end of the century. Some firefighters, including the director of California's firefighting department, have also pointed to climate change as a factor making the blazes worse.
The broadcast networks devoted a lot of coverage to wildfires this summer, but very little of it discussed climate change. A Media Matters analysis of the ABC, CBS, and NBC morning and evening news shows over the summer, from June 21 to September 21, showed that out of 471 segments discussing the wildfires, only nine of them, or 1.9 percent, mentioned climate change.
ABC completely ignored climate change during its wildfire coverage. ABC aired a total of 172 segments that discussed wildfires on its morning and evening news shows this summer, including 89 news reports or in-depth segments, 57 weather reports, and 26 news headline rundowns -- and not one of them mentioned climate change. That makes ABC the worst-performing network at incorporating climate change into its reporting on the fires, which is in line with the network's recent history. In June, ABC was the only major broadcast network to make no mention of climate change in relation to the deadly heat wave that affected much of the U.S. And in August, ABC was the only major network that did not mention climate change during its coverage of Hurricane Florence, just as it failed to mention climate change during coverage of Hurricane Harvey last year.
CBS and NBC mentioned climate change in roughly 3 percent of their segments on wildfires. CBS' morning and evening news shows aired a total of 183 segments reporting on wildfires, including 84 news reports or in-depth segments, 14 weather reports, and 85 news headline rundowns. Only six of the 183, or 3.3 percent, mentioned climate change. NBC ran a total of 116 wildfire segments, of which 73 were news reports or in-depth segments, 22 were weather reports, and 21 were news headline rundowns. Only three of the 116, or 2.6 percent, included discussion of climate change.
Sunday shows on the major broadcast networks made no mention of the wildfires. Thirty-eight combined episodes of ABC's This Week, CBS' Face the Nation, and NBC's Meet the Press aired from June 21 to September 21, and not one of them mentioned the wildfires, let alone the ways that climate change influences such fires. This is sadly consistent with the Sunday shows' lack of coverage of past disasters exacerbated by climate change. Last year, the weekend after Hurricane Maria made landfall and knocked out power to 3.5 million Americans, the five major Sunday political talk shows dedicated less than one minute to coverage of the storm and its effects.
Networks' climate change mentions in wildfire coverage almost all occurred in August, more than a month after their summer coverage of wildfires began in earnest. CBS aired its first wildfire segment of the summer on June 24, but it didn't mention climate change in such a segment until August 1 -- over one month later. NBC ran its first summer wildfire segment on June 25, but didn't incorporate climate change into any such segments until July 28. By that point, the Carr Fire had already killed five people, and by August 1, 16 of the largest wildfires in California were burning an area larger than Los Angeles.
CBS' first mentions of climate change in the context of wildfires were brief and not particularly informative. The August 1 episodes of CBS This Morning and CBS Evening News featured Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman saying, “I don't care where you stand on your opinion of global warming. There's something changing, and we're seeing fires that have never happened in this area before.” Mendocino County was the site of the massive Mendocino Complex fire, which was not fully contained until September 18.
CBS’ next mentions of climate change as it relates to wildfires occured on the August 4 episodes of CBS This Morning and CBS Evening News. Both shows aired segments on a European heat wave that featured Time magazine climate reporter Justin Worland, who said, “Human fingerprints are all over this particular heat wave.” The segments reported that wildfires in Europe were being fueled by hot and dry conditions, blaming the region's “unusually hot air on warming Arctic temperatures due to greenhouse gases.”
CBS' other mentions of climate change in wildfire segments came during the August 7 episode of CBS This Morning. Reporter John Blackstone noted President Donald Trump’s inaccurate claim that wildfires were worsened by California’s water policy, and contrasted it with the view from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection that “the true problem is climate change.” Later on in the episode, anchor Gayle King pointed out that 15 of the 20 largest fires in California have happened since 2000, and noted, "State fire officials say that is a direct result of climate change."
Two of NBC’s wildfire reports that incorporated climate change featured climate scientist Michael Mann, who was interviewed for segments that aired on August 7 and August 8. On the August 7 episode of NBC Nightly News, Mann said, “You take epic drought, you combine it with high temperatures, you've got all the ingredients for unprecedented wildfires”:
PBS NewsHour incorporated climate change into 16 percent of its wildfire coverage. Public broadcaster PBS has typically produced more quality coverage of climate change than its corporate counterparts, and its reporting this summer continued that trend. Out of 25 segments about the wildfires that aired on PBS NewsHour on weekdays from June 21 through September 21, four discussed climate change. On the July 27 episode of NewsHour, Columbia University bioclimatologist Park Williams noted that forests are “where we really see a strong link between climate change and increased fire.” On August 7, correspondent Nick Schifrin said, “Hotter weather attributed to climate change drives more severe conditions that authorities say residents cannot ignore.”
And on August 6, NewsHour devoted almost six and a half minutes to discussing how climate change makes wildfires more extreme, including more than four minutes interviewing Mann on the topic. This was the most in-depth segment on climate change and wildfires on any broadcast network:
Newspapers did better than corporate broadcasters at connecting wildfires to climate change, but they still fell short, Public Citizen found. A recent report by the nonprofit group Public Citizen analyzed both newspaper and TV coverage of the wildfires during 15 days this summer, from July 23 to August 7. It found that less than 13 percent of wildfire articles in the 50 highest-circulation U.S. newspapers mentioned climate change. The New York Times, The Sacramento Bee, and the Los Angeles Times published the most articles connecting climate change and the wildfires.
A local TV network showed the right way to weave climate change into wildfire coverage. Sometimes local TV stations -- whose viewers are more likely to be immediately affected by fires -- do a better job of reporting on the climate/wildfire connection than national networks. For example, Salt Lake City’s ABC affiliate KTVX aired a segment on its August 9 Good Morning Utah show about how climate change affects the length of wildfire season:
A recent poll points to the need for more and better media coverage of climate change. A survey conducted by Quinnipiac University in mid-August found that a slim majority of American voters believed climate change was worsening the California wildfires. But that means almost half of voters didn't understand the connection -- including 71 percent of Republicans. The media can help fill that knowledge gap.
Much has already been said this year about the need for journalists to report on how climate change influences extreme weather events like wildfires. But we also need outlets to discuss responses and solutions to the climate crisis, so that Americans understand the need to mobilize as a society to fight climate change and shift quickly to clean energy.
Media Matters searched Nexis and iQ Media for broadcast network TV news segments that covered wildfires using the search terms wildfire(s) or fire(s), and then we searched within those segments for mentions of climate change or global warming or greenhouse gas(es). Our analysis covered morning news shows (ABC's Good Morning America, CBS This Morning, and NBC's Today), nightly news shows (ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and NBC Nightly News, plus weekday episodes of PBS NewsHour), and Sunday morning shows (ABC’s This Week, CBS’ Face the Nation, and NBC’s Meet the Press) from June 21 through September 21.
News headline rundowns included mentions of the wildfires within announcements of top stories of the day. Weather reports included mentions of the wildfires within a meteorologist’s report or a general discussion of weather. We did not count teasers or rebroadcasts.
ABC did not mention climate at all during Florence, while CBS, PBS, CNN, and MSNBC did worse than last year during Harvey
A Media Matters analysis of Hurricane Florence broadcast news coverage from September 7-19 found that ABC failed to air a single segment that mentioned the links between climate change and hurricanes like Florence, while NBC aired one segment and CBS aired two. PBS NewsHour also aired two. A review of weekday, prime-time coverage of Florence on the three major cable news networks found that MSNBC ran four segments that mentioned climate change in the context of hurricanes, and CNN ran two. Fox aired six segments, but these either downplayed or outright dismissed the link between climate change and hurricanes. Overall, coverage was down from a year ago: The majority of the networks mentioned the connections between hurricanes and climate change in fewer segments than they did while covering Hurricane Harvey last year.
After making landfall over North Carolina on September 14, Hurricane Florence dumped record amounts of rainfall over the region. Swansboro, N.C., had over 30 inches of rain, which broke the previous record of 24 inches set by Hurricane Floyd in 1999. South Carolina’s record for most rain in a single spot was also broken, as over 18 inches of rain fell in Marion. Additionally, Florence brought tides to record levels. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the tide gauge at Wrightsville Beach, N.C., surged to more than four feet above normal, breaking the previous record by over a foot.
At least 44 deaths have been attributed to Florence. The storm unleashed significant flooding that has affected thousands of people, with several river gauges either near or above record levels. Florence has created a massive environmental crisis as well -- hog waste and coal ash have leaked into flood waters, and Duke Energy now fears that coal ash may be leaking into the Cape Fear River, which is the source of drinking water for more than 60,000 people. And as with most hurricanes, lower-income and minority communities are suffering the brunt of its destruction.
Warming oceans, a more rapidly warming arctic, melting ice sheets are all contributing in various way to conditions like what we’re observing now. ... It’s favoring slow moving weather patterns, more intense tropical storms and heavier downpours. And they’re all more likely as we continue to warm the Earth.
Regarding heavier downpours, there is a growing body of work linking wetter storms to climate change. NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory notes, “Tropical cyclone rainfall rates will likely increase in the future due to anthropogenic warming and accompanying increase in atmospheric moisture content.” In the wake of Hurricane Harvey’s record-breaking rainfall, two studies concluded that climate change increased the amount of rainfall that Harvey dumped by estimates of 15 percent and 38 percent, respectively. Before Florence made landfall, a first of its kind pre-attribution study estimated that the storm's “rainfall will be significantly increased by over 50% in the heaviest precipitating parts of the storm.”
We do have higher sea level because of climate change. So whenever we have these types of storms, you’re probably dealing with a more significant storm surge because of that than you would perhaps 100 years ago.
Media Matters analyzed the morning, nightly, and Sunday news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC from September 7-19.
CBS and PBS each aired fewer segments on the links between climate change and hurricanes than they did last year during coverage of Harvey. In 2017, as Hurricane Harvey menaced parts of Texas, Media Matters tracked the number of TV news segments about the hurricane that mentioned climate change. Harvey, like Florence, was the first major hurricane of the year to make landfall in the continental U.S. In comparing last year's Harvey coverage to this year's Florence coverage, we found that networks overall did a worse job of drawing links between climate change and hurricanes this year.
During its Harvey coverage, CBS aired three segments discussing the ways that climate change influences hurricanes, but it aired just two such segments during Hurricane Florence coverage. NBC was the only network that improved its coverage: Last year, it aired zero segments mentioning the climate-hurricane connection in the context of Harvey while this year it aired one during its Florence coverage. ABC failed to air any segments mentioning climate change during coverage of either Harvey or Florence. We also analyzed weekday episodes of PBS NewsHour and found that its coverage had declined: Last year, the show aired three segments about Harvey that discussed climate change. This year, it aired only two such segments about Florence.
ABC was the only network that did not mention climate change in its coverage of Florence at all. ABC's failure on this score was not surprising, as the network has a history of neglecting climate change. Earlier this year, it was the only major broadcast network to make no mention of climate change in relation to the deadly heat wave that affected much of the U.S., and it spent less time last year reporting on climate change on its nightly and Sunday shows than did CBS and NBC.
CBS aired just two segments that addressed the effects of climate change on hurricanes. Both of the segments, which ran during the September 15 episode of CBS This Morning, included strong analysis. The first mentioned Hurricane Florence in the broader context of the Global Climate Action Summit, which took place in San Francisco from September 12-14. CBS correspondent John Blackstone noted, “For activists here, Hurricane Florence provided an example of the kind of extreme weather scientists have predicted would come more often in a warming world.” The second segment immediately followed the first, and featured meteorologist Jeff Berardelli discussing how climate change can influence hurricanes:
NBC aired just one segment that reported on the links between climate change and hurricanes. In a good segment on the September 15 episode of Today, NBC correspondent Harry Smith spoke with Adam Sobel, an atmospheric science professor at Columbia University, and Rob Freudenberg, an environmental planning expert, about how climate change affects hurricanes. Sobel said, “What we know certainly about climate change and hurricanes is that because of higher sea-level rise, the risk from storm-surge flooding is going up. And we know with a high degree of confidence that rainfall from these storms is also increasing.”
PBS NewsHour aired only two segments that connected climate change to hurricanes. Both segments featured strong analysis from climate scientists. On the September 14 episode of PBS NewsHour, Columbia University climate scientist Radley Horton discussed how there is a “very clear link” between climate change and hurricanes. On the September 19 episode of PBS NewsHour, science correspondent Miles O’Brien looked at the science behind hurricanes, and featured several climate scientists. One of them was the University of Wisconsin’s James Kossin, who recently published a study about how tropical cyclones are slowing down due to anthropogenic warming.
We also analyzed prime-time, weekday shows on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News from September 7-19. CNN and MSNBC both aired fewer segments that discussed climate change in the context of hurricanes than they did during Hurricane Harvey. Fox aired the same number as last year, but its coverage was even more dismissive of climate science now than it was in 2017.
CNN aired two segments that discussed the links between climate change and hurricanes, down from five such segments that ran during Harvey coverage. Both of the climate mentions occured on September 11, when CNN commentators only briefly raised the topic during broader discussions. CNN Senior Political Analyst Ron Brownstein mentioned on The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer that hurricanes are influenced by the changing climate, while CNN Political Commentator Van Jones made a similar point on Cuomo Prime Time.
MSNBC aired four segments that discussed the links between climate change and hurricanes, down from five that ran during Harvey coverage. The September 13 episode of All In With Chris Hayes featured a substantive and informative segment with meteorologist Eric Holthaus -- the best of the prime-time cable segments we analyzed. Holthaus began the discussion by stating, “Florence is a huge hurricane. I mean, this is one of the largest hurricanes that we've ever seen in the Atlantic. And you can't really talk about this without talking about climate change.” He explained that intense rain and storm surge fueled by climate change were major components of the storm. The other MSNBC mentions of climate change occurred in the context of broader discussions: one more on the September 13 All In episode; one on the September 13 episode of Hardball with Chris Matthews; and one on the September 11 episode of The Beat with Ari Melber.
Fox News aired six segments that mentioned climate change in its Florence coverage, but all of them were dismissive of the issue. That's slightly worse than last year during Harvey, when Fox also aired six such segments, only five of which were dismissive of the links between climate change and hurricanes.
Of Fox’s six segments that mentioned climate change this year, two featured well-known climate deniers who disputed any connections between climate change and hurricanes: The September 13 episode of Hannity included commentary from meteorologist Joe Bastardi, and the September 14 episode of Tucker Carlson Tonight featured meteorologist Roy Spencer. In the other four Fox segments, hosts took aim at a Washington Post editorial that called President Trump complicit in extreme weather because his administration has been rolling back climate protections. Three of these attacks came from Sean Hannity -- on September 12, 13, and 14 -- and the fourth from Greg Gutfeld on September 12.
Media Matters ran the search terms "(Hurricane! OR Florence) AND (climate OR warming OR emission! OR carbon OR CO2 OR greenhouse gas!)" in Nexis to identify segments between September 7 and September 19 that mentioned both the hurricane and climate change. On the broadcast networks, we examined the morning, evening, and Sunday news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC, as well as weekday episodes of PBS NewsHour. For CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News, we examined the networks’ prime-time shows that air on weekdays from 5-11 p.m.
ABC, CBS, and NBC aired 127 segments on the recent heat wave and only one noted that climate change is a driver of extreme heat
Throughout the recent record-breaking heat wave that affected millions across the United States, major broadcast TV networks overwhelmingly failed to report on the links between climate change and extreme heat. Over a two-week period from late June to early July, ABC, CBS, and NBC aired a combined 127 segments or weathercasts that discussed the heat wave, but only one segment, on CBS This Morning, mentioned climate change.
From the last week of June into the second week of July, an intense heat wave moved across the U.S., going from the eastern and central parts of the country to the West Coast. A large area of high atmospheric pressure helped to create a massive and powerful heat dome, which migrated from New England to southern California. The heat wave brought record-breaking temperatures -- during its first week, 227 U.S. records were broken for highest temperature for particular days, and during the second week, at least six locations in southern California alone saw record-breaking highs. The heat wave killed at least five people in the U.S. and up to 70 people in Quebec, Canada.
There is overwhelming scientific evidence that human-induced climate change is exacerbating both the frequency and intensity of heat waves. Heat domes like the one that caused this recent heat wave are becoming more intense and more common, scientists have found. UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain, who has studied extreme weather patterns in California, said recent heat in California was unusual. “The overall trend over decades to more intense and more frequent heat waves is definitely a signal of global warming,” he told The New York Times. And according to Jeff Masters, director of meteorology for Weather Underground, this recent heat wave was “the kind of thing you expect to see on a warming planet,” making it “easier to set a heat record.”
Recent studies also reinforce this point. In March 2018, an analysis of heat wave patterns published in Nature Climate Change concluded that climate change will overtake natural variability as the main cause of heat waves in both the western U.S. and Great Lakes region by the 2030s. Nature Climate Change also published a study last summer that detailed how heat waves will occur more frequently in the future due to climate change. Camilo Mora, associate professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and lead author of the 2017 study, said, “Many people around the world are already paying the ultimate price of heat waves, and while models suggest that this is likely to continue to be bad, it could be much worse if emissions are not considerably reduced.”
Media Matters analyzed morning and nightly news coverage of the heat wave on ABC, CBS, and NBC, as well as on PBS NewsHour, over a 14-day period from June 27 through July 10, covering the entire duration of the heat wave.
Neither ABC nor NBC mentioned that climate change influences heat waves. There were 32 segments or weathercasts on ABC and 59 segments or weathercasts on NBC that discussed the heat wave. None of them mentioned the link between climate change and extremely high temperatures.
CBS aired one segment that discussed the connection between climate change and high heat. Out of 36 CBS segments that mentioned the heat wave, just one mentioned climate change. The July 3 episode of CBS This Morning featured a discussion with Lonnie Quinn, chief weathercaster for WCBS-TV in New York City, who stated that there is a “really good, strong understanding that there’s a correlation between climate change and extreme hot and extreme cold” and noted the significant increase since 1970 in the number of days above 100 degrees in Miami, FL, and Austin, TX.
PBS NewsHour aired two segments on the heat waves, one of which discussed climate change. In its July 7 NewsHour program, PBS devoted a segment to the heat wave and incorporated climate change into its reporting, noting, “Global temperatures reached extreme highs this past week, something scientists have been warning of as part of the effects of climate change.” The segment also noted that July is off to a record-breaking start in terms of high temperatures.
In 2017, news programs on ABC, CBS, and NBC severely undercovered climate change’s real-life impacts on people and climate change’s effects on extreme weather events, Media Matters found in its latest annual study of broadcast coverage. Over a two-week period during the height of hurricane season in 2017, neither ABC nor NBC aired a single segment on their morning, evening, or Sunday news shows that mentioned the link between climate change and hurricanes.
But there are positive trends in broadcast coverage. PBS continues to set the standard for quality news coverage of climate change, as it has in the past. And local meteorologists are increasingly incorporating discussions of climate change into their segments and forecasts. For example, on July 4 in Kansas City -- where there were two suspected heat-related deaths -- NBC affiliate KSHB discussed that climate change is expected to increase the number of extremely hot days in the future, using a dynamic map from climate science nonprofit Climate Central to make the point.
Media Matters searched Nexis, iQ media, and SnapStream for national news broadcasts that included a segment about the heat wave, using the search terms (heat OR "heat wave" OR "heat waves" OR heatwave OR heatwaves OR temperature OR temperatures OR hot). A second search adding the term AND (“climate change” OR “global warming”) was used to identify any segments on the heat wave that mentioned climate change. We did not count teasers or rebroadcasts. Our analysis covered early morning news shows (ABC's America This Morning, CBS Morning News, and NBC's Early Today), morning news shows (ABC's Good Morning America, CBS This Morning, and NBC's Today), and nightly news programs (ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, and PBS NewsHour) from June 27 through July 10.
Journalists have uncovered a long list of the interior secretary’s questionable actions and controversies
This post was updated on November 6, 2018, to incorporate additional news reports.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s ethically questionable behavior has triggered at least 17 government investigations into his conduct. Journalists took the lead in documenting many of Zinke's ethical lapses. The following is an overview of original reporting on scandals and controversies at the Department of Interior (DOI) under Zinke:
July 26, 2017, Anchorage Daily News: Zinke threatened to pull support for projects in Alaska after Sen. Lisa Murkowski voted “no” on Obamacare repeal. On July 26, Zinke called Alaska’s two senators, Lisa Murkowski (R) and Dan Sullivan (R), to inform them that Murkowski’s vote against repealing the Affordable Care Act jeopardized administration support for projects in Alaska, including expanding oil drilling. Sullivan called Zinke’s message “troubling,” and Murkowski told E&E News, “It was a difficult call.” The DOI’s inspector general opened an investigation into the incident, then dropped it in late August after the senators refused to discuss it with investigators. The Government Accountability Office also opened an investigation, but then dropped it in June 2018 because DOI did not cooperate, Politico reported. "Interior did not provide us with any information on the substance of the telephone calls. In light of this, we lack the requisite facts on which to base a legal opinion," Thomas Armstrong, GAO's general counsel, wrote to two House Democrats who requested the investiation last year.
September 28, 2017, Politico/Wash. Post: Zinke gave a speech to a hockey team owned by a campaign donor, then chartered a $12,000 flight home. Zinke traveled to Las Vegas on June 26 to give a motivational speech to a hockey team at the behest of team owner Bill Foley. After the speech, Zinke flew on a charter flight that cost taxpayers over $12,000 to an airport near his Montana home, aboard a plane owned by oil and gas executives. An inspector general report released on April 16, 2018, found that Zinke and his aides failed to relay important details about the trip to ethics officers, including Foley’s role as one of Zinke’s largest campaign contributors and the fact that the speech was unrelated to Zinke’s work as interior secretary. According to Politico, Foley donated $7,800 to Zinke’s 2014 congressional campaign, while employees and political action committees associated with his financial services company donated another $166,860. The inspector general also found that the $12,000 charter flight “could have been avoided.”
October 5, 2017, Politico: Zinke’s participation in a Republican fundraiser in the Virgin Islands raised ethics concerns. During what DOI labeled an official trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands, Zinke attended a fundraiser for the Virgin Islands Republican Party in March 2017. Donors paid up to $5,000 per couple for a picture with him. After concerns were raised, the Virgin Islands Republican Party reimbursed taxpayers for the trip.
November 20, 2017, Politico: Zinke’s wife used Interior staff and resources to coordinate her travel with her husband’s. Lola Zinke relied on DOI staff to ensure her travel arrangements allowed her to accompany the interior secretary during some of his official events and trips, including ones to California, Alaska, Norway, and Greenland. “While the department says Lola Zinke paid her own way, the records show Interior used staff time to coordinate some of her activities while traveling with her husband,” Politico reported. One ethics expert called that “an ethically gray area.” Some ethics watchdogs are also concerned that Lola Zinke is using her access to high-level events to further her own political career; until recently, she served as campaign chair for a Republican Senate candidate, and she worked on the Trump campaign and transition teams. The DOI’s inspector general tried to investigate whether these actions and other travel arrangements by Ryan Zinke constituted an abuse or misuse of government resources, but the investigation was stymied “by absent or incomplete documentation for several pertinent trips and a review process that failed to include proper documentation and accountability,” according to a memo released on November 15.
December 7, 2017, Politico: Zinke spent $14,000 on helicopter rides so he could attend a swearing-in and ride horses with Vice President Mike Pence. Zinke put taxpayers on the hook for a pair of helicopter trips that blurred the line between his professional and personal obligations. On June 21, he attended the swearing-in of his congressional replacement, Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-MT), then took an $8,000 helicopter ride to an emergency management exercise in West Virginia. On July 7, Zinke took a $6,250 round-trip helicopter flight from Washington, D.C., to Yorktown, VA, to guarantee he was back in time to go horseback riding with Pence and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO). The inspector general’s office declined to confirm an investigation into these specific helicopter rides, but spokesperson Nancy DiPaolo told CNN on December 8, “We are taking a comprehensive look at the secretary’s travel since he took office.”
December 29, 2017, Newsweek: Zinke spent almost $40,000 in wildfire preparedness funds for a helicopter tour of Nevada. On July 30, days after firefighters managed to largely contain the Whittier Fire in California, Zinke used nearly $40,000 from wildfire preparedness funds to pay for a helicopter tour of Nevada that did not include any visits to fire zones. DOI initially told Newsweek the tour was “in full compliance of all federal regulations.” But after Newsweek provided Interior officials with documentation showing the tour was paid for with funds “earmarked for such uses as worker pay and to purchase equipment,” DOI admitted the helicopter tour “was charged to the account in error” and said it would pay for the ride from “a more appropriate account.”
January 22, 2018, HuffPost: Zinke failed to disclose his shares in a firearms company and signed orders that could have benefitted the firearms industry. As nominee for interior secretary, Zinke neglected to inform the Office of Government Ethics that he retained 1,000 shares in PROOF Research, a rifle and weapons-parts manufacturer founded in Zinke’s hometown. Cabinet appointees are required to disclose all assets worth $1,000 or more. Although there is some dispute about the value of Zinke’s shares, HuffPost notes that Zinke’s long relationship with the company may have resulted in the company getting special access at Interior. Zinke provided consulting services to PROOF from 2011 to 2012. As interior secretary, he met with PROOF CEO Larry Murphy and a company lobbyist about a month after he was confirmed. Zinke also enacted policy changes -- such as rescinding the ban on lead ammunition and expanding hunting access at wildlife refuges -- that could benefit the firearms industry.
February 1, 2018, Politico: Interior appeared to cave to pressure from MGM to stonewall a casino proposal backed by two Native American tribes. The Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes received indications from Interior officials in May 2017 that the department would clear the way for the tribes to build a casino in Connecticut, about 12 miles from MGM Resorts International’s nearly $1 billion casino complex in Massachusetts. But MGM launched an aggressive lobbying campaign to convince Interior’s political appointees to change course, including outreach to Zinke via multiple meetings and phone calls with two Nevada Republican lawmakers closely allied with MGM. MGM lobbyists were invited by Zinke for a social visit two weeks before the agency was to decide on the tribes’ request. MGM lobbyists also met with Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, whose former firm also lobbies for MGM. Bernhardt signed an ethics agreement barring him from “participating in matters involving his former employer,” according to ThinkProgress. On September 15, DOI informed the tribes that it would delay its decision, even though federal law requires it to decide yes or no within 45 days. Records obtained by Politico show that “career staffers were circulating what they labeled ‘approval’ letters just 48 hours before their political bosses reversed course and refused to either OK or reject the tribes’ application.” The DOI’s inspector general has opened an investigation into the incident.
February 21, 2018, Mother Jones: Scientists resigned in protest after their agency violated ethical guidelines to give Zinke sensitive oil and gas research ahead of its public release. The head of the U.S. Geological Survey’s energy and minerals program, Murray Hitzman, resigned in protest on Dec. 17, 2017, after his agency bowed to pressure to provide Zinke with sensitive data about oil and gas deposits in Alaska before it was released publicly. The deputy associate director of the energy and minerals program also left the agency in part over pressure to violate ethical guidelines. Although DOI asserted its authority to see any scientific research the department produces, “numerous current and former Interior officials, however, say the department’s position raises serious ethical issues—particularly when it comes to energy and mineral assessments, which contain valuable economic data that have the potential to move markets,” Mother Jones reported. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), the ranking member of the House Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Subcommittee, asked DOI’s inspector general to investigate whether department officials committed any ethical violations in requesting the data.
March 9, 2018, AP: Interior planned to spend nearly $139,000 to upgrade Zinke’s office doors. Interior officials approved a contract to renovate “three sets of double doors in the secretary’s office, including two doors that open onto a corner balcony with a spectacular view of the Washington Monument and the National Mall,” The Associated Press reported. Though Zinke scoffed at questions about the excessive price of the renovations during a Senate hearing on March 13, two days later he told the House Committee on Natural Resources that he negotiated the price down to $75,000. Despite this, House Oversight Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) sent Zinke a letter on March 22 asking for a briefing “on the need to replace the doors” and asking for “details on the acquisition process, bidding and receipts,” according to Reuters.
March 11, 2018, USA Today: Zinke’s trip to Pennsylvania to announce $56 million in grants during a close campaign may have violated the Hatch Act. Toward the end of a tight campaign for Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district between Democrat Conor Lamb and Republican Rick Saccone, Zinke went to nearby East Bethlehem to announce $56 million in grants to clean up abandoned mining sites in the area. The entire event “had the feel of a hastily arranged news conference/town hall meeting/political opportunity,” according to the local Observer-Reporter. Saccone was among the politicians present, while his challenger did not attend. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel is weighing a request to investigate whether Zinke’s trip was designed to benefit Saccone politically.
March 15, 2018, AP: Zinke stacks wildlife-trade advisory board with trophy hunters. Zinke appointed trophy hunters, including some with direct ties to the Trump family, to the International Wildlife Conservation Council, an advisory board tasked with rewriting federal rules to allow the importation of body parts from slain African elephants, lions, and rhinos. The Associated Press reported, “A coalition of more than 20 environmental and animal welfare groups objected that the one-sided makeup of the council could violate the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which requires government boards to be balanced in terms of points of view and not improperly influenced by special interests.” Most board members belong to hunting clubs or the National Rifle Association (NRA), and one member co-owns a private hunting reserve with Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump. The Trump administration officially lifted a ban on importing elephant parts from Zimbabwe and Zambia on March 1.
March 21, 2018, Politico: Zinke had a security detail during his two-week vacation in Greece and Turkey. Ryan and Lola Zinke’s two-week vacation in Greece and Turkey to celebrate their 25-year wedding anniversary also included a security detail, according to records obtained by Politico. Besides these bare facts, the public still does not know important details about this arrangement including “exactly how many security personnel accompanied the couple, who paid for them, how much they cost or whether they traveled with Zinke and his wife, Lola, for the entire trip,” Politico reported.
March 26, 2018, Wash. Post: Zinke filled a new outdoor recreation advisory panel with members who could benefit from DOI decisions. At the urging of industry representatives, Zinke established the “Made in America” Outdoor Recreation Advisory Committee last November and appointed “officials representing companies with National Park Service contracts, such as those in the hospitality sector, as well as those from the manufacturing, fishing, boating and all-terrain-vehicle industries,” according to The Washington Post, which obtained records about the committee via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Two of Zinke’s nominees to the panel were flagged by Interior staffers as having potential conflicts of interest because their companies hold some of the National Park Service’s largest concessions contracts, but they were appointed anyway.
March 27, 2018, Politico: Florida’s offshore drilling exemption may have been intended to benefit Gov. Rick Scott’s Senate campaign. On January 4, 2018, Zinke announced a controversial proposal to allow offshore drilling in many new coastal areas, including off the coast of Florida. Five days later, Zinke exempted Florida from the expanded drilling plan after a supposedly spur-of-the-moment encounter in the Tallahassee airport with Florida Gov. Rick Scott. But records reviewed by Politico in March “showed that top officials from the offices of both Scott and the Interior secretary were in regular contact for several days leading up to the sudden announcement, contradicting the supposed spontaneous event that portrayed Scott as protecting Florida’s environment.” According to The Washington Post, “The whole episode seems to have been designed to demonstrate Mr. Scott’s power and influence, by having him appear to summon the interior secretary to his state and bring him to heel in an afternoon.” Scott announced his Senate candidacy on April 9, 2018. The next day, CNN reported the U.S. Office of Special Counsel is investigating whether Zinke’s Florida announcement violated the Hatch Act.
March 28, 2018, Talking Points Memo: Zinke’s mass reassignment of career Interior employees may have violated federal anti-discrimination laws. Last July, Zinke initiated the reassignment of 35 Senior Executive Service members at DOI, of which 27 were ultimately transferred. Many were told to “either accept a new placement on the other side of the country or in a role unrelated to their background, or leave the agency,” according to Talking Points Memo. The DOI’s inspector general concluded the reassignments occurred “without a written plan or clear criteria, and without consulting with the departmental leadership,” which created the perception that staff were reassigned for “political or punitive reasons.” Because a third of those reassigned are Native American, DOI may have violated federal anti-discrimination laws, as well as its own Indian Preference rules, as TPM later reported. Zinke has reportedly told senior staff that diversity is not important. After a congressional hearing in March, he was also accused of racial insensitivity for responding “Oh, konnichiwa” to Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-HI) after she shared the experience of two of her grandfathers who were held in internment camps during World War II.
April 6, 2018, Reveal: National Park Service deletes climate change from months-delayed report on sea-level rise. “National Park Service officials have deleted every mention of humans’ role in causing climate change in drafts of a long-awaited report on sea level rise and storm surge,” according to an investigation conducted by The Center for Investigative Reporting and published on its Reveal website. DOI oversees the National Park Service. Cat Hawkins, the head of the National Park Service’s climate change response program, made the deletions, in possible violation of Interior rules prohibiting political appointees from influencing scientific and scholarly activities. The report was also delayed for 10 months, which hindered park managers’ ability to access the latest research about how to mitigate the effects of extreme weather and sea-level rise on their parks. Zinke told the House Committee on Natural Resources in March, “I didn’t change a paragraph — a comma — in any document and I never would.” DOI’s inspector general is investigating the matter.
April 16, 2018, HuffPost: Oil industry rep uses perch on DOI advisory group to push “wish list” of regulatory rollbacks. Under Zinke, advisory groups at DOI have been packed with industry representatives who want looser regulations. Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance (WEA), a lobbying group that represents 300 oil and gas companies, chairs one such group, which is tasked with recommending how Zinke should manage federal lands for fossil fuel development. The group’s recommendations, which included regulatory rollbacks that had been on WEA’s wish list for years, was initially drafted by Tripp Parks, WEA’s head of government affairs. According to HuffPost, “A document obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveals that Parks created the draft recommendations one day before Sgamma circulated them to committee members overseeing the working group.” The Sierra Club’s legal director told HuffPost, “It’s a very clear instance of regulatory capture.”
June 13, 2018, Wash. Post: DOI canceled a study of the health effects of mountaintop-removal coal mining with little justification, the department’s inspector general found. After DOI last August halted a major public health study being conducted by the National Academies of Science on the impacts of surface coal mining on nearby residents, Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) sent two letters to Zinke requesting information about the stoppage. Grijalva received no answer, so he requested an investigation by the DOI’s inspector general, which then found that “Departmental officials were unable to provide specific criteria used for their determination whether to allow or cease certain grants and cooperative agreements.” Records obtained by Pacific Standard show that before DOI stopped the study, Deputy Assistant Secretary Katharine MacGregor “had no fewer than six meetings with the most powerful mining players in the country. In both April and May of 2017, she met with the National Mining Association. In March and June, meanwhile, she met with Arch Coal, a long-time practitioner of mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia.”
June 19, 2018, Politico: Zinke and the chairman of Halliburton could both benefit from a proposed real-estate deal in Montana. A foundation created by Zinke is helping to pave the way for a large commercial development that is backed by David Lesar, the chairman of energy-services giant Halliburton. According to Politico, the Great Northern Veterans Peace Park Foundation -- established by Zinke and currently run by his wife Lola -- agreed to allow 95 Karrow LLC, the Lesar-backed entity, to build a parking lot on land that had been donated to the foundation for creation of a park. The Zinkes also personally own land that's adjacent to the proposed development, potentially making that land much more valuable if the proposed development deal were to go through. The deal raises ethical concerns because Halliburton’s business could be substantially affected by decisions made by DOI. Zinke met with Lesar and the project’s other developers at Interior headquarters last year, Politico reported on June 21. Lesar and Zinke have had a relationship for years -- Lesar and his wife donated $10,400 to Zinke’s first House campaign in 2014. On June 18, DOI's deputy inspector general confirmed that her office had opened an investigation into whether Zinke violated conflict-of-interest laws.
June 26, 2018, Reuters: Zinke’s promotion of Trump's campaign slogan may have violated the Hatch Act. During a meeting of the Western Governors Association on June 26, Zinke tweeted a photo of one of his socks, which was emblazoned with Trump’s face and his campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.” Zinke deleted that tweet and then posted a follow-up tweet that crossed out “Make America Great Again” yet still showed Trump’s face -- and then he deleted that one too. Those tweets may have violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits some forms of political activity by federal employees, Reuters reported. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel announced in March that because Trump has confirmed his candidacy for reelection, federal employees are prohibited while on duty from wearing or displaying items with the phrase “Make America Great Again” or non-official pictures of Trump. On July 9, CNN reported that the Office of Special Counsel opened a case file on whether Zinke’s tweet violated the Hatch Act.
July 6, 2018, HuffPost: Former NRA lobbyist working for Zinke may have committed multiple ethics violations. Benjamin Cassidy, a former NRA lobbyist who joined the Interior Department in October 2017, may have violated ethics rules by attending at least two meetings with Zinke that involved issues Cassidy had recently lobbied on. Cassidy attended a February 2018 meeting on “international conservation,” a discussion that most likely focused on issues such as hunting and animal trophy imports. While still employed with the NRA in 2017, Cassidy lobbied Congress on legislation dealing with animal trophy imports. Cassidy, whose official title is senior deputy director for intergovernmental and external affairs, should have signed Trump’s ethics pledge that bars former lobbyists in the executive branch from participating for two years in any matters on which they lobbied in the two years before starting an administration job. Another potential ethics violation occurred in March, when Cassidy attended a pair of private receptions Interior held for members of the International Wildlife Conservation Council, which includes an NRA employee and a former NRA board member, HuffPost reported on July 16. Cassidy served as the council members’ primary contact during their visit to Washington, D.C., for the receptions. Although it is not clear if Cassidy played a role in selecting members of the council, member Cameron Hanes thanked Cassidy as well as Zinke for including him. Cassidy “appears to be in violation of the prohibition on working on matters on which you’ve lobbied,” an ethics expert told HuffPost.
July 20, 2018, CNN: Zinke kept meetings off of public calendar. Zinke's publicly released schedule omitted or obscured the details of about a dozen meetings. CNN compared email conversations between Zinke and his scheduler (made available through FOIA requests) to the calendars that the Interior Department released and found numerous discrepancies between the two. Zinke had previously undisclosed meetings with lobbyists, lawmakers, and interest groups. For example, CNN found that in May 2017, a meeting listed on his schedule with Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY) also included three executives from Delaware North, a contractor who does business with national parks. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee, called for an investigation. In September, CNN followed up on this reporting and found that nearly 50 meetings in May and June 2018 were vaguely described, making it difficult for the public to determine what he was doing and who he was meeting with. And in October, CNN reported that his calendar omissions actually dated to his very first day in office, and that some of the newly discovered omissions included meetings with representatives from energy companies whose activities DOI regulates.
July 23, 2018, Wash. Post: Zinke and aides rejected evidence that supported creation of national monuments and sought out evidence that didn't -- and then tried to conceal strategy from the public. Zinke’s team selectively tailored a review of national monuments last year to dismiss the benefits of monuments and emphasize the value of activities such as logging and energy development on public lands, according to thousands of pages of email correspondence inadvertently released by the Interior Department’s FOIA office. The DOI retracted the documents the next day and released redacted versions. In the first version, for instance, draft economic reports on monuments under scrutiny included information on the Interior Department’s “ability to estimate the value of energy and/or minerals forgone as a result of the designations,” but that information was redacted from the second batch of emails. In another instance, officials marked this statement about an Oregon national monument as eligible for redaction: “Previous timber sale planning and development in the [expansion area] can be immediately resumed.” The review came in response to an executive order from Trump last year that instructed Zinke to scrutinize 27 national monuments established over a period of 21 years. It led Trump to dramatically shrink two national monuments in Utah.
October 16, 2018, The Hill: Zinke replaces DOI deputy inspector general with Republican political operative. The Hill reported that DOI Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall was being replaced by Suzanne Israel Tufts, a political appointee at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) who had previously worked as a lawyer and liaison for the Trump campaign. Tufts will now be acting deputy inspector general. Kendall, who oversaw DOI’s watchdog investigations and audits team for 10 years, only learned that she was being replaced when a colleague showed her an email sent by HUD Secretary Ben Carson to his agency’s staffers. The move is seen as highly unusual, particularly as Zinke has been the subject of 14 government investigations into his conduct as secretary, including half a dozen that are ongoing. Michael Bromwich, a former inspector general for the DOJ, tweeted, “Politicizing the oversight function is dangerous, especially in the absence of any Congressional oversight. Changing IGs in the midst of multiple serious investigations of the agency's head should raise alarm bells everywhere.” And Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, stated, “This stinks to high heaven. Secretary Zinke and the Interior Department are awash in wave after wave of scandal and corruption, and they decide now is the perfect time to get rid of the current IG."
October 16, 2018, The Hill: DOI was reportedly poised to replace deputy inspector general with Republican political operative, then reversed course after outcry. The Hill reported on October 16 that DOI Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall was being replaced by Suzanne Israel Tufts, a political appointee at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) who had previously worked as a lawyer and liaison for the Trump campaign. Tufts would become acting deputy inspector general, according to The Hill. Kendall has overseen DOI’s watchdog investigations and audits team for 10 years, and has been running investigations into a number of Zinke's questionable activities. She first learned that she was to be replaced when a colleague showed her an email sent by HUD Secretary Ben Carson to his agency’s staffers. The reported personnel shift prompted a public outcry. Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, said, “This stinks to high heaven. Secretary Zinke and the Interior Department are awash in wave after wave of scandal and corruption, and they decide now is the perfect time to get rid of the current IG." Two days later, on October 18, DOI told CBS that the shift was not happening and reports about it were "false." On October 19, CBS reported that Tufts resigned from her position at HUD.
October 18, 2018, Wash. Post: Zinke’s travel arrangements raised red flags among DOI ethics officials. A report by DOI’s Office of Inspector General detailed how Zinke’s travel practices violated department policy. The DOI's solicitor office approved Zinke’s wife Lola to travel with him in government vehicles for free. Although DOI policy prohibited this practice, Zinke changed the policy this summer. And in order to further legitimize her taxpayer-funded travel, Zinke asked DOI staffers to research how his wife could get a volunteer job with the department. The report also found that a DOI security detail accompanied Zinke and his wife on a vacation to Turkey and Greece last year, at a cost of $25,000. Although this was determined not to be in violation of policy, the report did note the significant cost to taxpayers. An Interior spokesperson denied any wrongdoing on Zinke's part, stating that he “follows all relevant laws and regulations and that all of his travel was reviewed and approved by career ethics officials and solicitors prior to travel.”
October 30, 2018, Wash. Post: Interior watchdog refers Zinke investigation to Justice Department. DOI's acting inspector general has referred one of its probes into Zinke’s behavior to the Justice Department, and prosecutors will now determine if it warrants a criminal investigation. According to The Washington Post, individuals close to the matter did not specify which investigation was referred. The Office of Inspector General is currently conducting at least three probes into Zinke’s conduct as interior secretary, including his role in a Montana real estate deal with the Halliburton chairman and his department’s decision to block a casino proposal backed by Native American tribes. Walter Shaub, Trump's former director of the Office of Government Ethics, told Politico that this is a major development: “What I can say is, Inspectors general don’t tend to refer matters to the Department of Justice unless they think that it’s likely there’s been a criminal violation.”
October 31, 2018, HuffPost: Zinke compared Robert E. Lee to Martin Luther King Jr. Speaking in Kentucky at a ceremony designating Camp Nelson as a new national monument to black Civil War soldiers, Zinke likened Confederate General Robert E. Lee to Martin Luther King Jr. Zinke referred to the placement of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C., which is near both the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery, the site of Lee’s former plantation. Zinke said, “I like to think that Lincoln doesn’t have his back to General Lee. He’s in front of him. There’s a difference. Similar to Martin Luther King doesn’t have his back to Lincoln. He’s in front of Lincoln as we march together to form a more perfect union. That’s a great story, and so is Camp Nelson.” Local Kentucky newspaper The Jessamine Journal posted the speech on Facebook. A year previously, in an interview with Breitbart, Zinke defended Confederate monuments and said none of them would be removed from federal land.
November 5, 2018, Wash. Post: Zinke violated an ethics pledge by working on issues related to his family foundation's land holdings. In January 2017, after he was nominated to be interior secretary, Zinke pledged to step down as president of a foundation he created, the Great Northern Veterans Peace Park Foundation, and refrain from matters pertaining to it for one year. But according to The Washington Post, in August 2017 Zinke exchanged emails with a city planner in Whitefish, MT, and told him he could construct a disc-golf course on the foundation’s land. In earlier messages in the same email exchange, Zinke criticized a Politico article that linked his foundation to a property deal with the chairman of Halliburton. Additionally, his foundation’s 2018 annual report still showed that Zinke continued to serve as a foundation officer, though he later said that was in error.