Throughout the day on October 26, news shows across cable TV networks CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC widely discussed the fracking portion of the October 25 Pennsylvania Senate debate between Democratic candidate John Fetterman and Republican candidate Mehmet Oz. In that debate, both Oz and Fetterman were asked about their “shifting positions on the issue of fracking.”
Directing the first question to Oz, debate moderator Lisa Sylvester brought up a 2014 column where he wrote that fracking should be banned until its environmental effects were studied. Oz did not address this 2014 column; he instead stated, “I strongly support fracking, drilling, the piping of that natural gas,” before falsely claiming that Fetterman wants to “ban fracking on public lands.” Then, Sylvester asked Fetterman about a 2018 interview where he said, “I don’t support fracking at all.” Like Oz, Fetterman did not address this and instead stated, “I absolutely support fracking.” Sylvestor pressed Fetterman further on the 2018 interview, and Fetterman again reiterated his support for fracking.
Even though both candidates were asked this question about their previous fracking views, and both candidates responded by affirming their current support for fracking, cable news shows focused almost entirely on Fetterman’s response.
A Media Matters review found that CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC aired 66 segments on the fracking portion of the Pennsylvania Senate debate between 9 p.m. on October 25 and midnight on October 26. Of these segments:
- 61 mentioned Fetterman’s response to the moderator’s fracking question or noted his views on fracking in general. Of these 61 mentions, 29 aired on Fox News, 24 on CNN, and 8 on MSNBC.
- Only 4 mentioned that Oz was asked the same fracking question as well. Of these 4 mentions, 2 aired on MSNBC, while CNN and Fox News each made one mention.
- A clip of Fetterman’s exchange with the moderator on fracking was played 48 times, while Oz’s exchange was not played at all.
Fetterman’s fracking comments were heavily scrutinized on Fox News and CNN, with CNN even adopting some Fox-like framing
Fox News aired 32 segments on the Pennsylvania Senate debate that included a discussion of the fracking portion of the debate. Of these 32 segments, 29 mentioned Fetterman’s response or his general views on fracking, while only 1 mentioned Oz and fracking. Additionally, while Fox aired a clip of Fetterman’s fracking exchange 24 times, the network did not air a single clip of Oz’s exchange.
As is typical on Fox, there were numerous instances of speakers lying about Fetterman’s fracking position. On the October 26 edition of Fox & Friends First, co-host Todd Piro quipped that Fetterman will “get into office and he’s going to do exactly what Joe Biden wants, which is eliminate all natural gas and energy.” Later that morning on Fox & Friends, co-host Ainsley Earhardt incorrectly called fracking “the majority of their economy in Pennsylvania.” That afternoon, on The Story, a Pennsylvania resident stated of Fetterman, “He's anti-fracking. And last night he said he's for fracking, which doesn't make any sense.” Later that night on Hannity, Sean Hannity stated, “John Fetterman is a radical Green New Deal socialist Democrat, and he's never supported fracking.”
In contrast to its treatment of Fetterman, Fox News brought up Oz’s position on fracking just once. On the October 26 edition of America’s Newsroom, James Freeman of The Wall Street Journal stated, “Now to be fair, Dr. Oz was never a big fan of fracking until recently, either. But I think with Fetterman you saw there this kind of just denial and then no explanation on what’s changed. And it goes to a credibility issue, you know. Do people think he will allow energy production or not?”
It bears repeating that Oz did not explain his previous position on fracking during the debate. Additionally, Fetterman has been an unabashed supporter of fracking in recent years, with numerous major media outlets confirming this fact. Finally, in Fetterman's 2018 interview that was referenced by the moderator, Fetterman affirmed his position that he doesn’t personally support fracking but wants to keep wells open near where he lives because he is “pro-union.”
CNN was similar to Fox in its scrutiny of, and focus on, Fetterman’s fracking comments. The network aired 25 segments on the Senate debate that included a discussion of the fracking portion. Of these, 24 mentioned Fetterman’s response or general position on fracking, while only 1 mentioned Oz’s position on fracking. Additionally, while CNN aired a clip of Fetterman’s fracking exchange 18 times, the network did not air a clip of Oz’s exchange.
Given CNN’s lack of focus on Oz’s comments, there are numerous examples of some stunning hypocrisy in how CNN talked about Fetterman’s fracking comments — like what one would expect from watching Fox News.
Immediately after the debate, on the October 25 edition of CNN Tonight, CNN political commentator Alyssa Farah Griffin stated, “He was asked a very direct question about his position on fracking. He could not explain why he fundamentally 180 changed his position on it. And the voters deserve to know that.” Following this, co-host Laura Coates played a clip of Fetterman’s fracking exchange during the debate, stating to Farah Griffin that it “really is suggestive and illustrative of the point that you are making.”
During the “Reality Check” segment on the October 26 edition of New Day, John Avlon brought up Fetterman’s comments and stated, “Now, it's fine for Fetterman to change his mind. But it is false to say that he has always supported fracking, as the moderator pointed out. Because as recently as 2018, Fetterman was saying the opposite, as first unearthed by CNN's K-File.” Later that morning on CNN Newsroom, host Erica Hill asked guest Ed Rendell, “Let's start with fracking here. That answer on fracking, it is getting a lot of attention. Number one, because of the stark change in position — it’s a 180 there. Also just because of the answer itself. Talk to us about the policy there. How and what -- what does he need to say to clarify that answer today?”
Meanwhile, Oz’s fracking comments were only brought up once. On the October 26 edition of New Day, Julia Terruso of the Philadelphia Inquirer noted, “I think an interesting part of that exchange is both Oz and Fetterman were actually presented with a more anti-fracking stance and their more pro-fracking stance now. And I think you just saw the two of them — Oz, who has much more TV experience and is much more comfortable in that environment, answers it better. Fetterman obviously struggling to answer, you know, the seeming change of position on fracking.”
Again, Oz gave a nonanswer to his changing position on fracking. Oz’s own “seeming change of position on fracking” was not addressed at all on CNN.
MSNBC did not talk about the fracking exchange as much as CNN and Fox News did. The network aired 9 segments on the Senate debate that included a discussion of the fracking portion of the debate. Of those, 8 mentioned Fetterman’s response, and 2 mentioned Oz’s. Additionally, while MSNBC aired a clip of Fetterman’s fracking exchange 6 times, the network did not air a clip of Oz’s exchange.
Both of the segments that referenced Oz’s comments did a much better job of contextualizing the fracking exchange than CNN and Fox did. On the October 26 edition of Jose Diaz-Balart Reports, Julia Terruso stated, “Fracking is a big issue in Pennsylvania, and I think that's why you're seeing both of those candidates, who disagree on so much, trying to drive home that they are -- they're pro-fracking.” On MSNBC Reports, MSNBC anchor Andrea Mitchell noted that “both candidates had actually flipped on their support for fracking. It wasn't clear that that came out in the way that the debate was handled.”
Substantive discussions of fracking did not occur on cable news
Along with giving equal weight to Oz’s nonanswer, any good discussion of fracking on these networks would have considered a multitude of other issues. For example, as stated earlier, Fetterman has made clear his support for fracking in recent years. When he did express opposition to fracking prior to 2018, he also noted his support for union fracking jobs and for reviewing the environmental impacts of fracking. None of the networks mentioned these details. It instead took Pennsylvania’s largest newspaper, The Philadelphia Inquirer, to provide the necessary nuance to Fetterman’s fracking position the day after the debate.
Furthermore, focusing on the significance of a candidate's support for fracking may overstate the role that issue plays in deciding elections in Pennsylvania. A poll from September 2021 found that a majority of Pennsylvania residents would prefer to end fracking. While a more recent poll from Muhlenberg College found these numbers split, a clear majority says that fracking “poses a major risk to the state’s water resources.” (Cable TV networks also overly focused on fracking in 2020, even though it wasn't a big issue for Pennsylvania voters).
The Muhlenberg poll also finds that climate change is viewed as a serious problem among Pennsylvania voters. While Fetterman’s support for fracking is certainly problematic, he has also recently expressed support for climate policies. Oz, meanwhile, is a climate denier who recently claimed that carbon dioxide is “not the problem.”
Given the importance of climate change and Oz’s denial of it, why was this not addressed during the debate or during any subsequent discussions about the debate?
The answer is simple: TV news is style over substance. By giving outsized attention to how the campaign is going, what each candidate said, and the possible gaffes that they made, TV news outlets can turn political races into spectacles in order to help draw in more viewers. Yet “horse race” coverage can be detrimental to voters. And CNN’s coverage of the Pennsylvania Senate debate was a prime example of such coverage. The media watchdog group FAIR noted that the aforementioned CNN Tonight edition on October 25 “spent its entire panel on the debate critiquing Fetterman’s performance and questioning his mental capacities, with virtually no discussion of the two candidates’ actual policy positions and how well they align with voters’ interests.”
Voters deserve to hear a more substantive discussion about fracking and the true policy positions of Fetterman and Oz. By almost entirely linking fracking to Fetterman, cable news lets Oz’s similar changing views on the issue escape the scrutiny and accountability needed on such an important climate and environmental issue.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for the terms “hydraulic fracturing,” “oil,” “gas,” or “shale” or any variation of either of the terms “frack” or “drill” within close proximity of any of the terms “Oz,” “Fetterman,” “Pennsylvania,” “PA,” or “debate” from 9 p.m. ET October 25, 2022, through on October 26, 2022.
We counted segments, which we defined as instances when the Pennsylvania senatorial debate was the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion of the debate. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed the debate with one another.
We did not count passing mentions, which we defined as instances when a speaker in a segment on another topic mentioned the debate without another speaker engaging with the comment, or teasers, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host promoted a segment about the debate scheduled to air later in the broadcast.
We then reviewed each segment for whether any speaker mentioned John Fetterman’s or Mehmet Oz’s changing positions on fracking throughout the years. We also reviewed each segment for whether a clip of the debate’s fracking discussion was replayed.