Cable news coverage of the recent congressional negotiations over the Biden administration’s infrastructure bill and reconciliation package has missed an important focus. Instead of covering it as a climate story -- as some networks briefly did in the wake of Hurricane Ida -- cable news shows have focused on the internecine fighting among the ostensibly different ideological wings of the Democratic Party.
Specifically, networks have spotlighted the power of two Democrats in the negotiation process: Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ). While cable news shows have focused on the key role played by these senators — who hold tremendous sway over not just whether the bills will pass, but also what the final climate and energy provisions of the plan will entail — they have largely ignored Manchin’s deep ties to the fossil fuel industry, despite numerous print and online stories on the topic. In fact, for three weeks this fall, only five cable news segments on the infrastructure bill and the reconciliation process included substantive discussion of Manchin’s fossil fuel connections.
Cable news barely noticed a New York Times story about the deep fossil fuel ties of the budget bill’s key climate architect and holdout
According to the New York Times story about Manchin’s fossil fuel ties published on September 19:
As chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Mr. Manchin holds the pen and the gavel of the congressional panel, with the authority to shape Mr. Biden’s ambitions.
But Mr. Manchin is also closely associated with the fossil fuel industry. His beloved West Virginia is second in coal and seventh in natural gas production among the 50 states. In the current election cycle, Mr. Manchin has received more campaign donations from the oil, coal and gas industries than any other senator, according to data compiled by OpenSecrets, a research organization that tracks political spending.
He profits personally from polluting industries: He owns stock valued at between $1 million and $5 million in Enersystems Inc., a coal brokerage firm which he founded in 1988. He gave control of the firm to his son, Joseph, after he was elected West Virginia secretary of state in 2000. Last year, Mr. Manchin made $491,949 in dividends from his Enersystems stock, according to his Senate financial disclosure report.
Much of The New York Times story consisted of amalgamated information about Manchin that was already public. A September 3 article published by The Intercept goes into great detail about how Manchin has profited from a “network of coal companies with grim records of pollution, safety violations, and death.” In June and July, news outlets including NPR, HuffPost, and the U.K.’s Channel 4 reported on an investigation conducted by Greenpeace that captured an ExxonMobil lobbyist admitting the industry was working weekly with Manchin to stall or thwart policies that would harm the oil company’s bottom line. Notably, ExxonMobil has also funded a social media campaign to lobby against certain provisions of the bill, with Facebook ads characterizing it as an effort to raise taxes.
Regarding the international stakes of Manchin’s foot-dragging and intransigence, Mark Hertsgaard wrote in The Guardian
The White House is not selling it this way, but the huge budget bill now under feverish negotiations on Capitol Hill is as much as anything a climate bill. The clean electricity performance program and other measures in this budget reconciliation bill are the core of Biden’s plan to slash US climate pollution in half by 2030, a reduction science says is necessary to limit global temperature rise to 1.5C and avoid cataclysmic climate change.
Apparently keen to delay a vote on the bill – but not on the bipartisan infrastructure bill containing billions in subsidies for climate harming programs like making hydrogen from methane – Manchin asked on CNN, “What is the urgency?” of passing the larger bill. Like ExxonMobil, the senator appears to have jettisoned outright climate denial in favor of its more presentable, but no less lethal, cousin: climate delay.
Soon Biden will join other world leaders at the Cop26 UN climate summit in Glasgow, described as a “now or never” moment for efforts to preserve a livable planet. Biden and his international climate envoy, John Kerry, have been leaning on other nations, especially China, to step up their commitments. But Biden can only press that case successfully in Glasgow if Congress passes the budget bill, and with its climate provisions intact.
Hertsgaard went on to echo calls from climate activists that Manchin should step aside from negotiating the climate portions of the budget bill in light of his multiple conflicts of interests. As if to underscore the high stakes of having Manchin shape the climate provisions in the package, Politico reported this week that Manchin’s demands to include gas and coal in the clean electricity performance program are being considered by those eager to move the budget bill forward. Including them would further erode an already moderate bill and make it much harder to achieve the urgent action needed to stave off the worst climate consequences.
Little of this information regarding Manchin’s conflict of interests made it into cable news coverage of the spending bill negotiations.
From September 19 to October 10, out of the hundreds of segments that Media Matters looked at about the infrastructure bill and the reconciliation process, only five included substantive discussion of how Manchin’s fossil fuel connections could be influencing his negotiating position. MSNBC led with four segments, followed by CNN with one.
The most notable segment aired during the October 9 episode of MSNBC’s Ayman Mohyeldin Reports. The host detailed the climate benefits of the budget bill, Manchin’s long history of opposition to climate legislation, the amount of campaign money he has received from the fossil fuel industry, and the money he makes from the coal company he founded.
Aside from Mohyeldin’s thorough dissection and a few other scattered mentions, accountability journalism about Manchin’s numerous conflicts of interest has not been incorporated into cable news coverage of the budget bill negotiations.
Cable news missed another key opportunity to connect climate inaction to fossil fuel-backed politicians
For decades, the fossil fuel industry has waged a billion-dollar campaign to erode the public consensus on climate change, fool the public about the industry’s commitment to addressing the climate crisis, and thwart any climate action that could impact its bottom line by aggressively lobbying and filling the coffers of key decision-makers. We are now enduring the material ramifications of this effort. In 2021 alone, we have witnessed blistering heat waves that killed nearly 800 people in the U.S. and Canada, destructive wildfires, droughts that triggered the first ever water shortage in the country’s largest reservoir, and Hurricane Ida, which pummeled the South and unleashed “catastrophic” rains across the Northeast and mid-Atlantic region.
Poll after poll finds that the majority of Americans want the government to take climate action, but Americans rarely have the opportunity to learn about the fossil fuel industry’s role in stopping or weakening urgently needed climate policies from TV news.
Cable news coverage of the spending negotiations is indicative of this unfortunate trend. Not only does cable news’ focus on political infighting do a disservice to the millions of people who have been, and will continue to be, harmed by extreme climate events; it also gives a pass to the Republican Party, which is nearly unified in its opposition to climate action and received about 80% of fossil fuel industry funding in nearly every election over the past 20 years.
Although the already pared down reconciliation bill might be the last chance at passing meaningful climate policy at the federal level -- especially as the window for climate action is rapidly closing -- cable news rarely applied this framing during the study period. In fact, cable news shows tend to silo climate change away from political action, with the implication that climate policies only matter relative to the fortunes of one political party or the other.
Looking at 2021’s multiple record-breaking heat waves, the seemingly never-ending wildfire season, and the recent devastating hurricane season, the stakes are too high for cable news to keep missing these opportunities. Instead of airing hours of horse race coverage, cable news shows should try connecting political action and inaction to its material impacts on the American people. As the negotiations on the spending bills continue, this would necessarily mean reporting that the politicians who are standing in the way of climate action are doing so on behalf of the fossil fuel industry. The public deserves to know who is standing in the way of the climate action they want, and why.
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 “climate,” “warming,” “infrastructure,” “reconciliation,” “budget,” “spending,” “stimulus,” "3.5 trillion” “oil,” “gas,” “gasoline,” “coal,” “fuel,” “fossil,” or “Manchin” from September 19 through October 10, 2021.
We counted segments, which we defined as instances when the infrastructure or reconciliation legislation was the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion of the bills that also included discussion of Sen. Joe Manchin and fossil fuels. We defined significant discussion as two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussing either piece of legislation with one another.
We did not count headline reports, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host read news highlights covering a range of topics; passing mentions, which we defined as instances when a single speaker spoke without another engaging with the comment; or teasers, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host promoted a segment scheduled to air later in the broadcast.