Large swaths of the West Coast had to catch fire, with orange and red skies and hazardous, smoke-filled air, for most of the major Sunday morning political shows to air their first substantive mentions of climate change in 2020. And although most of the Sunday show hosts gave their guests some space to discuss how climate change is driving record-breaking extreme weather events like the ongoing wildfires, there was little discussion of how and why public officials have failed to lead on this issue and what solutions exist to stave off even worse consequences.
Yesterday, four out of the five major Sunday shows included substantive mentions of climate change, all of which came during discussions of the raging wildfires in the American West. ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos, CBS' Face the Nation, CNN's State of the Union, and NBC's Meet the Press each aired at least one segment about the wildfires raging along the West Coast, and each segment had at least one mention of climate change. This Week and Face the Nation are the only two shows that included some discussion about how COVID-19 is complicating wildfire evacuation and relief efforts.
Fox Broadcasting Co.’s Fox News Sunday was the only Sunday morning political show to not report on the wildfires.
But a closer look at the segments reveals that the climate discussion around the wildfires was driven by the guests, who were responding to the hosts’ narrow, sometimes conservatively framed, questions. Instead of engaging their guests in discussions that recognized climate change as a political challenge with political solutions, three of the four hosts found it easier to chase the red herring of forest management that President Donald Trump routinely throws out to chum the waters of climate misinformation. Nevertheless, viewers were still able to see some substantive discussions about how climate change is amplifying the intensity of the largest wildfire in California's history and the active fires burning in Oregon and Washington, thanks to the guests.
How the Sunday morning political shows covered the West Coast wildfires
ABC's This Week
This Week host George Stephanopoulos interviewed Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee about the wildfires raging across their states. The wide-ranging and substantive climate discussion was driven by the guests, as Stephanopoulos never explicitly raised the issue of climate change, although he did note that Trump had pulled the United States out of the Paris accords. During the interview, Stephanopoulos cut to a clip of Trump discussing forest management and asked a vague question about combatting “a lot of disinformation out there on social media,” which may have been an allusion to a barrage of false stories spread by right-wing Trump supporters claiming that “antifascist political activists have intentionally set the blazes.” But viewers had no way to definitively determine what disinformation Stephanopoulos was referring to.
CBS' Face the Nation
Face the Nation aired two segments about the wildfires. The first was an interview with Oregon Gov. Kate Brown. Although host Margaret Brennan made a passing reference in the lead-in to the segment to underserved communities being hit the hardest by the wildfires, during the interview, she engaged in some deeply unfortunate equivocation about the role climate change played in fueling the wildfires. Responding to Brown’s clarion call to tackle the challenges of the climate crisis, Brennan asked the following question:
MARGARET BRENNAN (HOST): Governor, I understand that’s your conviction. I know a former Oregon lawmaker has written an op-ed in The Washington Post, though, saying you can't blame climate change; instead it is a failure of your state to prepare and that warnings were issued regarding mismanagement of Oregon’s forests. What is your response to that?
The show’s second segment was a news package about how COVID-19 has complicated logistical responses to the wildfires.
NBC's Meet the Press
Introducing a segment about the wildfires, Meet the Press host Chuck Todd engaged in fatalist commentary about the climate crisis and the possibility of climate action -- comments that belied his position as a journalist who has the privileged opportunity to demand answers and accountability from some of the most powerful people in the country.
CHUCK TODD (HOST): Whole towns have been wiped out by these fires, which have consumed areas the size of some of our smaller states. And the tragedy has renewed warnings that unless we take serious steps to control climate change and, now, scenes like these will become more and more common, perhaps maybe it is too late -- that this is the new normal.
CNN's State of the Union
During interviews with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, State of the Union host Jake Tapper mentioned climate a few times. During one of the stronger segments from yesterday’s shows, Tapper noted to Garcetti that California Gov. Gavin Newsom said his state is “‘facing a climate emergency.’” Unfortunately, Tapper also raised Trump’s false solution of forest clearing and framed one proposed response to the climate crisis, a fracking ban, through the narrow lens of horse race politics.
Instead of pressing Navarro on the Trump administration’s unprecedented assault on climate and environmental regulations, Tapper questioned him on his beliefs about climate change, which is a less useful approach from a public policy perspective. After allowing Navarro to pivot twice, he allowed the conversation to move on from climate and wildfires to other issues.
Fox Broadcasting Co.’s Fox News Sunday
Fox News Sunday was the only Sunday morning political show to not cover the wildfires, much less climate change. This is a particularly bad omen, as host Chris Wallace will moderate the first general election debate on September 29 between former Vice President Joe Biden and President Trump. Wallace moderated a general election debate in 2016 and didn’t ask a single climate-related question despite the urging of environmental groups, lawmakers, and media outlets.
Why forest management is a false solution to the climate crisis
As illustrated above, hosts on This Week, Face the Nation, and State of the Union asked guests to respond to Trump’s claim that the catastrophic fires in California are due to forest mismanagement.
While fuel reduction is important, Trump’s go-to-line on California’s wildfires intentionally deflects from the role of climate change, is misleading, and oversimplifies the cause of the fires, particularly the inconvenient fact that the majority of these fires are not happening in the forest; they have ignited in areas known as the “wildland-urban interface.”
Undeterred by experts and facts, Trump continues to peddle forest mismanagement as the sole cause of the West Coast’s catastrophic wildfires, which empowers right-wing media outlets to echo and amplify his denialism and allows corporate TV news to again center Trump during discussions that should be about the actions his administration has taken to exacerbate the accelerating climate crisis.
Maybe if the Sunday morning political shows occasionally featured scientists, activists, or climate journalists who work on these issues daily, they would be less prone to amplifying falsehoods that detract and distract from viable solutions.
How Sunday shows should cover the climate crisis
Sunday morning political shows have consistently failed to substantively report on how climate change is driving increasingly destructive extreme weather events and how public policy -- including the Trump administration’s ongoing assault on environmental protections -- is exacerbating climate impacts, especially among the most socially marginalized communities.
Yesterday, although at least some of the shows cleared the very low bar of simply connecting the science of climate change to this year’s destructive wildfires, they failed to inform their viewers about the global, national, regional, and even local approaches to mitigating the climate crisis and the specific climate plans that exist to address a rapidly escalating climate crisis.
If this really is our “new normal,” as Meet the Press host Chuck Todd intimated yesterday, Sunday morning hosts have a much bigger role to play than wringing their hands and making somber pronouncements.
With a combined audience of more than 10 million viewers, Sunday morning political shows play a crucial role in determining which issues and whose voices are included in the national dialogue. So it’s incumbent on them to hold public officials accountable for climate inaction, increase the quantity and quality of their climate journalism, and discuss climate policy in a way that empowers viewers to take action.
Media Matters searched the Snapstream database for transcripts for the five 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 -- for the terms “wildfire” or “fire” on September 13, 2020.
We reviewed each transcript or video for discussion about climate change or COVID-19.
We included segments when the wildfires were the stated topic of discussion or when we found “significant discussion” of wildfires in segments about other topics. We defined significant discussion as discussion of the wildfires between two or more persons.