Amid the ongoing war in Ukraine and the world’s response to Russian aggression, energy prices have been understandably top-of-mind for both news media and the general public. Gas prices reached another record high on May 10, setting off a new round of cable news coverage that coincided with President Joe Biden’s speech on the same day about his administration’s attempts to arrest inflation.
Although cable news shows covering these stories performed an adequate job of explaining how the price consumers pay at the pump is determined by a range of different factors in a globalized market, they also allowed the fossil fuel industry to escape accountability for its role in raising prices, despite the fact that oil companies are intentionally restraining oil production in order to return record profits for shareholders.
Cable news rarely connected record fossil fuel industry profits to record gas prices
CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC aired a combined 48 segments about record gas prices on May 10, with CNN (23) and Fox (19) airing the majority. Although MSNBC had the fewest segments (6), anchor Katy Tur was the only person across all 48 cable news segments who connected record gas costs with record fossil fuel industry profits.
On the May 10 episode of Katy Tur Reports, she asked Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm about “price gouging” by the fossil fuel industry, saying: “The president said he'll focus on oil companies taking advantage of the situation. The CEO of a major oil company said they saw record prices. Do you see price gouging as part of the problem here?”
This basic context should be part of the broader cable news coverage of gas prices.
Other cable news segments on May 10 took pains to emphasize how the war in Ukraine, European Union sanctions on Russian oil, demand rebound since 2021, and yearly summer trends have contributed to the steep rise in gas prices and could lead to future, record increases.
However, cable news analysis that day almost entirely left out a key driver of high energy prices: the fossil fuel industry.
Although the specific role the industry played in driving the most recent record gas prices is still being puzzled out by economists, Big Oil has been credibly accused by environmental activists of profiteering from economic instability caused by the war in Ukraine. In fact, multiple outlets published stories about record oil company profits just a few days ahead of the breaking news about record gas prices on May 10, including this from Fortune:
Although Shell posted the highest profits, other major oil companies also announced major gains.
BP announced it hit $6.2 billion in first quarter earnings, up from the $4.1 billion reported last quarter. French oil major TotalEnergies also reported a $9 billion profit in the first quarter, up 32% from the last quarter of 2021. U.S.-based Chevron reported $6.3 billion in earnings, up from $5.1 billion last quarter.
A Time magazine article published May 11 was even more stark in describing how oil companies plan to use their windfall profits to line their own pockets, instead of making investments to ease the pain at the pump:
For the most part, major oil companies aren’t going to pour these billions of dollars into climate-mitigation investments like carbon capture technologies. Nor have they signaled any immediate intention to bolster oil production, despite calls from heads of state to do so. Their inaction has spurred U.S. and European countries, which are under pressure to keep fuel affordable, to release oil reserves and replace Russian crude oil and liquid natural gas from other sources. Despite those government efforts, oil prices have stayed above $100 per barrel, sustaining an influx of money to fossil fuel companies that are passing it on to stockholders and investors in the form of increased dividends and share buyback initiatives that drive up companies’ share values.
One analysis from the Wall Street Journal found that the nine largest U.S. oil producers spent 54% more in share repurchases and dividends in the first quarter than they invested in new oil developments. Similarly, a recent report covering the 20 largest U.S. oil companies published by the environmentalist organization Friends Of The Earth and consumer watchdog organizations Public Citizen and BailoutWatch, tallied $56 billion in new share buyback authorizations in the roughly seven months since last October, compared with $11 billion announced in the nine months before that.
Not only is the fossil fuel industry dragging its feet on actions that could potentially alleviate high energy costs for American consumers, but it also continues to profit from the global instability caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In fact, the industry has a long and sordid history of exacerbating geopolitical conflicts for its own profit.
Journalistic accountability demands that Big Oil’s role in this crisis is included in every segment about rising gas prices or increased energy costs – particularly as right-wing media outlets such as Fox News continue running cover for the oil industry while placing blame for high gas prices almost solely on the Biden administration.
Fox is dedicated to carrying the fossil fuel industry’s water, CNN and MSNBC must do better
Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Fox News has absolved Big Oil of any responsibility for energy price increases while desperately trying to blame the Biden administration. This included Fox figures mentioning the canceled Keystone pipeline approximately 141 times in segments about the Ukraine crisis from February 22-28, and mentioning “energy independence” or “energy security” – industry talking points to promote more domestic drilling for oil and gas – at least 632 times from February 24 through April 24.
In reality, the factors determining what consumers pay for gas prices are very complicated, and generally, presidents and their related policies have little effect on the price at the pump and little influence over the complex economics of energy markets, absent leading a rapid transition to a clean energy economy. But this hasn’t stopped Fox News from using the situation in Ukraine to bash the Biden administration’s energy policy.
After Biden’s March 8 announcement that the United States was banning Russian fossil fuel imports, Fox News hosts and guests blamed him for instituting the same policy that they had previously demanded – all while praising oil and gas companies as “the greatest industry around the world,” deflecting Biden’s criticism of them as “unpatriotic,” and arguing they are “basically our national defense.”
Meanwhile CNN and MSNBC’s recent coverage has largely failed to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for exploiting global conflicts and ramping up fuel prices amid their own record profits.
Their last opportunity came during the April 6 House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing on the fossil industry’s role in driving record high gas prices. Fox News programs devoted 49 minutes of coverage to the hearing, much of which defended Big Oil and blamed the Biden administration, while CNN and MSNBC covered the hearings for only 10 minutes and 4 minutes, respectively. This disparity in coverage effectively allowed Fox to again shape the narrative around climate and energy on cable news. Instead of CNN and MSNBC viewers learning about the myriad factors driving gas prices, including Big Oil profiteering, they were told little, if anything, about the role the fossil fuel industry plays in driving the price at the pump.
Cable news shows must begin holding the fossil fuel industry accountable
Despite the fossil fuel industry’s billion-dollar campaign to erode the public consensus on climate change and its exploitation of the current Russian invasion of Ukraine to agitate for deepened reliance on its products, public polling shows that more than two-thirds of U.S. adults support “developing alternative energy, including wind and solar, over increasing production of fossil fuels like oil, coal and natural gas.” In addition, poll after poll finds that the majority of Americans want the government to take climate action – but they rarely have the opportunity to learn from TV news about the fossil fuel industry’s role in opposing urgently needed climate and environmental policies.
Reporting on consumers facing record-high prices at the gas pump while oil companies enjoy record-high profits presents just one such opportunity for cable news outlets to inform their audiences about these connections and their links to the climate crisis.
Fox News is a key cog in the fossil fuel industry’s disinformation network, so the conservative network will never cover this reality. But CNN and MSNBC can no longer afford to miss key opportunities to bring accountability to the fossil fuel industry, especially as the public demands answers and the window for meaningful climate action rapidly closes.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for any of the terms “gas,” “fuel,” “pump,” “diesel,” “record,” “price,” “soar,” or “high” on May 10, 2022.
We counted segments, which we defined as instances when record gas prices were the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion that also included discussion of record gas prices. We defined significant discussion as two or more speakers in a multi-topic segment discussing record gas prices with one another. We also counted headline reports, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host read news highlights covering a range of topics. Within those segments, we then determined whether any speaker also mentioned record fossil fuel industry profits.
We did not include teasers for segments about record gas prices coming up later in the broadcast or passing mentions, which we defined as instances when a single speaker spoke without another engaging with the comment.