Cable news coverage of the Supreme Court’s West Virginia v. EPA ruling was a mixed bag
Media Matters / Andrea Austria

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Cable news coverage of the Supreme Court’s West Virginia v. EPA ruling was a mixed bag

Coverage dropped significantly after day one and failed to apply an environmental justice lens to the story or explore the fossil fuel industry’s role in the decision

The Supreme Court’s recent decision in West Virginia v. EPA, which severely curtailed the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases, was widely covered across the three major cable news networks. On June 30, the day the decision was announced, original programming on CNN covered the ruling for approximately 62 minutes across 21 segments, while MSNBC covered it for approximately 47 minutes across 20 segments. Fox News, which predictably celebrated the decision, covered it for 37 minutes across 16 segments. 

With only 10 segments mentioning the fossil fuel industry — 8 mentions on MSNBC and 2 on CNN — cable news outlets missed a key opportunity to mention how the fossil fuel industry helped shape the ruling or stands to benefit from it. They also failed to frame the decision via an environmental justice lens with only 1 MSNBC segment mentioning how the decision would impact socially marginalized communities.

Despite this, CNN’s and MSNBC’s coverage during the first 24 hours after the decision was announced was broadly substantive, focusing on the high-level details of the ruling and explaining how it will limit the ability of the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases from power plants. The better segments, some of which we highlight below, went a little deeper by detailing the fossil fuel industry’s role in shepherding the ruling, explaining how the decision would hinder the EPA’s ability to take ambitious climate action, and/or featuring a climate scientist or activist.

Unfortunately, the quantity of coverage dropped significantly over the next few days. By scaling back coverage, the networks’ limited their ability to dig deeper into key elements of the story such as who the decision could affect — primarily minority and low-income communities and who the decision benefits — the fossil fuel industry and its political allies. 

  • How cable news covered the West Virginia v. EPA ruling the day it was announced

  • On June 30, original programming on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News devoted approximately 125 minutes across 57 segments to the Supreme Court’s ruling in West Virginia v. EPA. CNN led with 62 minutes across 21 segments, followed by MSNBC with 47 minutes across 20 segments, and Fox with 37 minutes across 16 segments.

    MSNBC’s June 30 coverage of the decision was by far the standout in terms of substance. The network hosted a mix of scientists, activists, and politicians well-versed on how the ruling would impact the government’s ability to meaningfully address climate change, how the decision could pave the way for more harmful climate consequences, and why the fossil fuel industry must be held accountable. One notable segment aired during the MSNBC’s José Díaz-Balart Reports, which featured climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, who stated unequivocally what the stakes are for climate action, noting, “If we don't fix climate change, it will fix us.”

  • Video file

    Citation From the June 30, 2022, episode of MSNBC's José Díaz-Balart Reports

  • Another notable segment aired during MSNBC Prime, which hosted journalist and long-time climate activist Bill McKibben. During his appearance, McKibben discussed the urgent need for climate action and launched into an explicit critique of how the Supreme Court is “playing these kind of ideological games on behalf of the vested interests that want to delay our energy transition for a couple of decades.” He continued, “All they are doing is carrying water for the fossil fuel industry. They’ve gotten their money's worth ever since Citizens United, what they’re poured into this system, the return on investment has been staggering.”

  • Video file

    Citation From the June 30, 2022, episode of MSNBC Prime

  • CNN did an adequate job of explaining the ruling and hinting at the larger ramifications for climate action. There were a few standout segments. For example, during a segment that aired on CNN’s At This Hour With Kate Bolduan, correspondent Rene Marsh did a good job presenting the decision in the context of current climate-fueled extreme weather events. Later that day, CNN’s The Lead With Jake Tapper invited White House national climate adviser Gina McCarthy, where she discussed how the decision was another signal that the country needed to rapidly transition toward clean energy to stave off the worst consequences of climate change.

  • Video file

    Citation From the June 30, 2022, episode of CNN's The Lead With Jake Tapper

  • Fox News hosts and guests predictably celebrated the ruling and downplayed the threat from climate change, echoing other right-wing media figures and fossil fuel shills who celebrated on social media. One of the more egregious segments featured Fox Business’ Larry Kudlow, who appeared on America’s Newsroom and falsely claimed that the Supreme Court’s decision was good because the United States already has the “lowest carbon emissions and cleanest water of any of the major countries.” Later in the episode, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who helped lead the attack on the Clean Power Plan, cheered the victory against “unelected bureaucrats.”

  • Cable news coverage dropped significantly from day two onward

  • On July 1, cable news shows aired 64 minutes of coverage, representing a 49% decrease from day one. From July 1-4, cable news networks aired a total of 123 minutes of coverage, or approximately 31 minutes per day, across 35 segments. MSNBC led with 51 minutes across 13 segments, followed by Fox News with 45 minutes across 16 segments, and CNN with 27 minutes across 6 segments. On July 4, only MSNBC covered the ruling, airing a single segment that ran for 90 seconds.

    Despite the drop in quantity, there were a few notable segments. For example, on July 1, CNN’s New Day hosted journalist David Wallace-Wells, who has written extensively about climate change, to discuss the ruling and its ramifications. And on July 2, CNN Newsroom Live hosted Kristina Dahl, principal climate scientist for the Climate & Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. During the nearly six-minute interview, Dahl discussed what tools exist for climate action in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling and the dangers of our continued and deepened reliance on fossil fuels.

  • Video file

    Citation From the July 2, 2022, episode of CNN Newsroom Live

  • MSNBC’s Zerlina featured youth climate activist Jamie Margolin to discuss the decision on July 2, while Velshi hosted McKibben on July 3 for a nearly six-minute discussion about West Virginia v. EPA and what he sees as the way forward.

    Fox News continued its drumbeat of gloating with some truly inane segments. One of the worst segments was a discussion between Fox and Friends Weekend hosts on July 2 where a conversation about West Virginia v. EPA degenerated into a conversation about how climate  activism was linked to globalism, “Chinese capitalism,” and social credit scores (a system implemented in China which ranks citizens based on certain behaviors).

  • Cable news shows missed a key opportunity to apply an environmental justice lens to the West Virginia v. EPA ruling

  • Cable news outlets missed a key opportunity to apply an environmental justice frame to the decision, especially considering the harm the fossil fuel industry causes to the air, land, and water of vulnerable communities. The June 30 episode of MSNBC’s Hallie Jackson Reports was the only cable news show to mention how the decision would harm socially marginalized communities.

    When it was announced in 2015, the Clean Power Plan, which was at the center of the case, was lauded and improved by environmental justice advocates who vigorously defended the policy from fossil fuel shills and front groups. At the time, the fossil fuel industry and its allies claimed that the Clean Power Plan would harm vulnerable communities, a contention belied by data that found that people of color in the United States are exposed to more air pollution than white people, with Black people exposed the most. Other studies have documented the outsized and negative health effects of air pollution on minority and low-income communities. As such, the Supreme Court’s ruling will have major ramifications for vulnerable communities, a fact that rarely made it into coverage. Environmental justice advocate Mustafa Santiago Ali succinctly outlined the stakes for the most vulnerable during the July 5 episode of PBS NewsHour.

  • Citation From the July 5, 2022, episode of PBS NewsHour

  • However, even if the courts will not hold polluting industries accountable or consider the environmental justice consequences of the decision, news media must do both. Although they failed to do either in the immediate aftermath of the West Virginia v. EPA ruling, they must do a much better job going forward.

  • Cable news must not silo or ignore the decision going forward

  • The fossil fuel industry, which is waging a decadeslong campaign against climate action, will not rest until the government’s ability to regulate its industry is completely decimated. As The New York Times noted before West Virginia v. EPA was announced:

  • The case, West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency, is the product of a coordinated, multiyear strategy by Republican attorneys general, conservative legal activists and their funders, several with ties to the oil and coal industries, to use the judicial system to rewrite environmental law, weakening the executive branch’s ability to tackle global warming.

    Coming up through the federal courts are more climate cases, some featuring novel legal arguments, each carefully selected for its potential to block the government’s ability to regulate industries and businesses that produce greenhouse gases.

    “It’s a pincer move,” said Lisa Graves, executive director of the progressive watchdog group True North Research and a former senior Justice Department official. “They are teeing up the attorneys to bring the litigation before the same judges that they handpicked.”

  • This is not a one-day story; it is a story about how the fossil fuel industry and its media and political backers have used the judicial system to successfully constrain already limited policy options necessary to enact urgently needed climate proposals, even as the climate crisis accelerates and the window for meaningful action rapidly closes. In telling this story, consistency and contextualization are key, but, unfortunately, that’s what was largely missing from the cable news coverage.

    Going forward, this story cannot be forgotten or siloed away from broader coverage of climate change and environmental justice. In the weeks ahead, national TV news networks must integrate the decision into its reporting on climate change and begin holding the fossil fuel industry and its allies accountable. They must also be clear about how the decision hobbles the EPA’s ability to combat climate changes, while reporting on what paths remain for federal action. And they must continue to amplify the voices of climate experts and advocates who can clearly articulate the stakes of inaction and the solutions that still exist to mitigate the worst consequences of global warming.

    Poll after poll finds that the majority of Americans want the government to take climate action. And a recent poll conducted by progressive think tank and polling firm Data for Progress found that “63 percent of likely voters are concerned about the Supreme Court removing environmental protections established under the Clean Air Act.” The story about how the fossil fuel industry is doubling down on producing a harmful product in the face of the existential crisis of climate change is a worthy one. But many viewers will hear it only if cable news shows tell the story with the substance, consistency, and urgency it demands.

  • Methodology

  • Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for the term “court” within close proximity of any of the terms “EPA,” “greenhouse,” or “carbon” or any variation of either of the terms “environment” or “emission” from June 30, 2022, through July 4, 2022.

    We timed segments, which we defined as instances when the West Virginia v. EPA decision was the stated topic of discussion or when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed the decision with one another.

    We then determined whether any speaker in the identified segments also mentioned the fossil fuel industry or any of the demographic or socioeconomic terms “White,” “Black,” “African American,” “American Indian,” “Alaska Native,” “Latino,” “Hispanic,” “Indigenous,” “low income,” “poor,” or “immigrant.”

    We did not include teasers, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host promoted a segment about the decision scheduled to air later in the broadcast, or passing mentions, which we defined as instances when a single speaker mentioned the decision without another engaging with the comment. We also did not include headline reports, which we defined as instances when an anchor, host, or correspondent read news highlights covering a range of topics. We rounded all times to the nearest minute.