Under threat of subpoena, Big Oil executives appeared before the House oversight committee on October 28 to testify about their industry’s efforts to erode the public consensus around climate change and thwart climate action. Considering 2021’s multiple, record-breaking extreme weather events, last week’s hearing was both timely and newsworthy; in a day full of breaking stories from D.C., cable TV news shows still managed to devote a modest amount of coverage to the congressional hearing on Big Oil disinformation.
A Media Matters analysis found that cable news shows covered the hearing on October 28 for 41 minutes across 15 segments. MSNBC led with 22 minutes of coverage across eight segments, followed by CNN with 13 minutes of coverage across four segments, and Fox with nearly seven minutes of coverage across two segments.
This wave of coverage bucked previous trends that found corporate TV news failing to connect important climate stories to the urgent need for political action and ignoring the fossil fuel industry’s role in driving the climate crisis.
Big Oil refused to take responsibility for its decades of climate disinformation
Based on the revelations uncovered from a June sting operation conducted by Unearthed, Greenpeace’s investigative journalism outlet, executives from Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron, and BP were called to testify before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s Subcommittee on Environment to explain their industry’s decades-long climate disinformation campaign and public shift in tactics from outright denial toward subtler forms of climate delay. In fact, in the the lead up to the hearing, a joint analysis by Heated and Earther found that oil companies increased advertising in DC-based newsletters to “give readers the false impression” that they are meaningfully addressing the climate crisis. Rather than using the opportunity to take responsibility for funding climate denial and to dial back the more egregious aspects of their social media greenwashing campaigns, the Big Oil executives chose a strategy of obfuscation.
According to The Intercept: “It was a comfortable Zoom-style presentation of obfuscation the oil industry had been waiting and training to deliver, slipping and sliding around each question, and avoiding any major controversy that might make national news and encourage negative public opinion or strong government action.”
Cable news segments about the Big Oil hearing showed improvement from previous climate coverage
Thursday’s coverage was presaged by May 26-June 1 coverage of a Dutch court ruling that found Shell must cut its emissions by 45% by 2030 relative to 2019 levels, among other climate-related stories. Cable news outlets too often fail to incorporate these important news stories into their ongoing framing of the climate crisis, particularly the need to hold Big Oil accountable. Cable news coverage of the spending bills’ negotiations, which largely failed to contextualize the need for urgent climate action and failed to cover how Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-WV) deep ties to the fossil fuel industry could inform his efforts to weaken climate provisions, also illustrates this trend.
Coverage of the Big Oil congressional hearing provided the briefest glimpse of what accountability journalism could look like if cable news shows began seriously interrogating how the fossil fuel industry knowingly drove climate change, engaged in a campaign to hide this fact, and is currently funding sophisticated greenwashing campaigns to fool the public about its paltry efforts to mitigate the climate crisis.
The single best segment about the hearing aired on CNN’s New Day. Aired before the hearing began, the segment devoted almost five minutes to Big Oil’s billion-dollar climate disinformation campaign designed to erode public acceptance of climate science and stall any climate action that could impact its bottom line. Not only did the segment provide viewers with the background necessary to engage with the hearing, but it set a high bar that no other cable show was able to reach.
The hearing’s Republican opposition was sponsored by Fox News
Although Fox News aired only two segments about the hearing on October 28, its fingerprints were evident in the Republicans’ chosen witness, laid-off Keystone XL pipeline worker Neal Crabtree, and their lines of questioning.
After President Joe Biden issued an executive order in January halting the construction of the Keystone pipeline, Crabtree quickly became a featured guest on Fox News and given free rein to rail against the administration’s energy policies. He has appeared on Fox News at least seven times this year.
When afforded the opportunity to speak during the hearing, Crabtree reiterated many of the same points he’d made repeatedly on Fox News. Highlighting the unseriousness of the Republican Party’s efforts to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for climate change, GOP committee members nudged him back onto script attacking the Biden administration the moment Crabtree deviated from his well-honed talking points.
The inclusion of a frequent Fox guest as a GOP witness in last week’s Big Oil hearing reflects the symbiosis between the Republican Party and Fox News as both entities continue to advocate for climate inaction, disparage any policy designed to stave off the worst consequences of climate change, and demonize anyone fighting for a future without climate disaster and environmental degradation. Additionally, Fox News has long been a key cog in the fossil fuel industry’s disinformation network, while the Republican Party has received about 80% of the fossil fuel industry's funding to political campaigns in nearly every recent national election cycle over the past 20 years.
Poll after poll finds that the majority of Americans want the government to take climate action, but Americans rarely have the opportunity to learn from TV news about the fossil fuel industry’s role in opposing urgently needed climate policies. While the recent hearing’s modest coverage on cable gave them a glimpse behind the curtain, news outlets must commit to sustained reporting that highlights the fossil fuel industry’s role in driving the climate crisis, especially as the window for meaningful climate action is rapidly closing.
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 “oil,” “gas,” “climate,” “Exxon,” “Mobil,” “ExxonMobil,” “BP,” “Chevron,” “Shell,” “executive,” “CEO,” “Congress,” “hearing,” or "capitol hill” on October 28, 2021.
We counted segments, which we defined as instances when the hearing was the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion that also included discussion of the hearing. We defined significant discussion as two or more speakers in a multi-topic segment discussing the hearing 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.