Gas prices broke another record last Tuesday after the European Union announced a phaseout on the importation of Russian crude oil. Energy prices have been understandably top-of-mind for both news media and the general public, but cable news discussions about rising fuel prices have often lacked nuance and failed to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable. On Tuesday, May 31, CNN and MSNBC did a decent job explaining how the EU’s decision drove the most recent surge in energy costs during segments about the new record-breaking gas prices. Fox excluded this context, instead blaming the Biden administration for the record fuel prices, continuing its unrelenting narrative that pins the current energy crisis on the Biden administration, while absolving the fossil fuel industry from any wrongdoing, despite its anti-consumerist practices.
The EU embargo on Russian oil drove up energy prices after Memorial Day
Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the factors determining what consumers pay for gas prices were very complicated. The war has added new geopolitical inputs that have increased the complexity of energy markets. Most recently, the European Union announced on May 30 that it will phase out its use of Russian oil (although it carved out a temporary exemption for Russian pipeline deliveries).
Regarding how this would affect American gas prices, the Washington Post notes:
Brent crude, the global benchmark, swelled above $120 a barrel before pulling back after the European Union levied its most significant economic penalty yet in response to Moscow’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Meanwhile, the U.S. average for a gallon of gasoline hit a record $4.62 on Tuesday, AAA data show; that’s 52 percent higher than last year and an inflationary pressure point that can quickly choke consumer spending and flatten economic growth.
The fact that gas prices increased as a result of the EU’s decision to cut its Russian oil imports by around 90% should have been mentioned in the vast majority of May 31 cable news segments about the record high gas prices. None of the cable networks met this mark, but at least some of CNN’s and MSNBC’s segments mentioned the Russian oil ban. On Fox, nearly every segment about gas prices blamed the Biden administration and ignored how the EU’s action led to the latest price spike.
The EU’s decision to ban Russian oil spiked gas prices, but Fox still blamed the Biden administration
CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC aired a combined 49 segments about record gas prices on May 31, with Fox airing 22, CNN airing 20, and MSNBC airing 7. CNN linked record gas prices to the EU’s ban on Russian oil in 4 segments, or 20%, while MSNBC made the connection in 2 segments, or 29%. Fox refused to acknowledge the connection in any of their segments, and 20 of them, or 91%, blamed the Biden administration for the record high prices.
This coverage tracks with how the cable news networks have reported on energy since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. Although CNN and MSNBC have adequately explained that the global market plays a key role in determining how much U.S. consumers pay at the pump, the networks have also allowed the fossil fuel industry to dodge accountability for its role in keeping prices elevated. (Oil companies are intentionally restraining oil production in order to return higher profits for shareholders.)
One notable exception was the May 31 episode of CNN Newsroom With Alisyn Camerota and Victor Blackwell, which featured former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, who explained that “big corporations are taking advantage of inflation as a cover to increase their profits.”
Meanwhile, Fox’s coverage ignored the EU ban on Russian oil and continued advancing the narrative that the Biden administration is solely to blame. During the May 31 episode of Fox & Friends, host Steve Doocy ended a segment about record gas prices, saying, “You know the administration wants gas at $15 a gallon so people drive less and save the planet.”
On the May 31 episode of America Reports, Fox Business correspondent Jackie DeAngelis said, “This administration loves to attack Big Oil,” and heralded the fossil fuel industry’s patriotism because it was producing oil it didn’t have to produce for “the American people.”
This has been a continuation of Fox’s push to absolve Big Oil of any responsibility for increasing energy costs while desperately trying to tie energy prices to the Biden administration. The network has even claimed that President Joe Biden is “celebrating” high gas prices. Fox figures mentioned the canceled Keystone XL pipeline approximately 141 times in segments about the Ukraine crisis from February 22 to 28, and mentioned “energy independence” or “energy security” – industry talking points to promote more domestic drilling – a whopping 632 times from February 24 through April 24.
Additionally, Fox News devoted 49 minutes of coverage to the April 6 congressional hearing on the oil industry’s role in driving record high gas prices. Much of Fox’s reporting defended Big Oil and insisted that Biden’s policies are responsible for high gas prices. In comparison, CNN and MSNBC covered the hearings for only 10 minutes and 4 minutes, respectively.
As cable news networks dither, the window for meaningful climate action is rapidly closing
Even though CNN and MSNBC were able to incorporate the news about the EU’s ban on Russian oil into some of their segments about record gas prices, the networks are still failing to inform their viewers about the fossil fuel industry’s role in driving up energy prices and thwarting an urgently needed transition away from its products to stave off the worst consequences of climate change. In fact, many news organizations are falling victim to a deliberate tactic deployed by the industry in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to a study published by InfluenceMap and as reported by The Intercept:
The facts don’t matter if you’re the first one to frame a story and you repeat it often enough. A new report out this week shows that consistent messaging, coordinated messengers, and a massive advertising blitz combined to deliver major policy wins to the fossil fuel industry as early as two weeks from the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The fossil fuel industry has been credibly accused by environmental activists of profiteering from the economic instability caused by the war in Ukraine, obfuscating its refusal to produce more oil and gas, padding its record 2021 profits through anti-consumerist practices, and moving to deepen the world’s reliance on its products. However, cable news networks rarely hold the industry accountable for profiteering, driving the climate crisis, polluting the environment, or exacerbating geopolitical conflicts.
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. CNN and MSNBC can no longer afford to miss key opportunities to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable, especially as the public demands answers and the window for meaningful climate action rapidly closes.
Fox’s drumbeat of record gas coverage, again, belied reality
Fox, on the other hand, steadfastly carries the industry’s water while pushing a ridiculous caricature of the Biden administration’s energy policy that is far out of step with Biden’s actions. First, presidents and their policies have little effect on the price at the pump and little influence over energy markets. Secondly, Biden has pivoted away from aggressive actions to reduce carbon emissions and toward the fossil fuel industry’s demands for a regulatory environment that favors increased production of oil and gas. According to AP:
The focus on high gas prices and increased oil flow is a far cry from Biden’s pledge to wean Americans off oil and other fossil fuels and cut planet-warming emissions in half by 2030.
Still, it reflects political realities.
Biden’s $2 trillion social and environmental policy bill, which includes about $550 billion for climate change efforts, has been stalled for months in the evenly divided Senate. It remains unclear when or if the bill will come up for a vote or what would be included in it.
Biden’s hourlong speech Tuesday night touched only lightly on climate and offered no new policy initiatives to address global warming.
The omission was especially notable coming days after a new U.N. report warned that climate change is about to get significantly worse and will likely make the world sicker, hungrier, poorer, gloomier and far more dangerous.
If other countries echo the United States’ actions, it could spark a race to the bottom that could lock in the world’s ongoing dependency on fossil fuels for years to come, despite the urgent need to decarbonize.
Clearly, Fox is uninterested in sharing this dire reality with its viewers, and content to repeat and amplify the same debunked talking points that do nothing but advance the status quo to the benefit of the fossil fuel industry and its political allies.
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 31, 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. Within those segments, we then determined whether any speaker also mentioned the European ban on importations of Russian oil and/or assigned blame for record gas prices to the Biden administration.
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. We also did not count headline reports, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host read news highlights covering a range of topics.