Since last year, Fox News has been trying to pin the blame of rising fuel costs on President Joe Biden through its relentless coverage. The April 6 congressional hearing — by the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee — on the oil industry’s role in driving record high gas prices and earning record profits posed a threat to that right-wing media narrative.
In response, Fox News programs devoted 49 minutes of coverage to the hearing, much of which 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, effectively letting Fox shape the narrative around this moment and failing to use it as a catalyst to inform viewers on the myriad factors that are driving the price at the pump.
Fox leveraged the Big Oil hearing to defend the industry and redirect blame at Biden
On April 6, nearly every hour on Fox News — from 4 a.m. to 7 p.m. EDT — featured coverage of the congressional hearing on the oil industry and gas prices. The vast majority of this coverage ran cover for the industry while shoring up one of the network’s most dominant narratives around gas prices — that Biden is to blame.
The claim is false; presidents and their policies have little effect on the price at the pump in the short term and even less impact on how gas is priced in the global market. It also ignores the fact that prices have been rebounding since economies across the globe began reopening from the COVID-19 lockdowns last year. But that hasn’t stopped Fox News from repeatedly tethering gas price hikes to Biden’s policies.
Fox’s coverage of the hearing started with the network’s early morning program, Fox & Friends First. Fox Business correspondent Cheryl Casone reported on the hearing and cited “misguided policies from the administration” as the key drivers of inflation and high energy cost. Other segments throughout the day highlighted industry talking points, including the claim that “rhetoric from the Biden administration” has had a “chilling effect” on oil production. Anchor Martha MacCullum began her coverage of the Big Oil hearing on The Story with Martha MacCullum by highlighting the findings of a recent Fox poll (a self-fulfilling prophecy) that “Republicans and 68% of registered voters say that the Biden administration is to blame for high prices at the pump.”
In defense of oil companies, Fox host and guests, which included oil industry executives, suggested they were a scapegoat for Biden’s failed policies. Appearing on America’s Newsroom, American Petroleum Institute CEO Mike Sommers said:
“We all know that the real reason for high prices are a consequence of low production because of some of these Biden administration policies, but also some other factors that are going on throughout the world. So — but this is a typical blame game we see all the time on Capitol Hill. It is pretty outrageous, though, that they're hauling American executives that supply 11 million American jobs up before Congress to blame them for something that they themselves can be blamed for.”
Similarly, Dan Eberhart, another oil industry CEO, appeared on America Reports and called the hearing a “big show trial.”
Earlier in the program congressional correspondent Chad Pergram began his report by saying: “Democrats who control the House, Senate, and White House are struggling to address the price surge, so they need a scapegoat. Oil companies. Attacking big business is good politics for the Democratic base. They tried to focus on profits and turned on the witnesses.”
In reality, the industry’s record profits and related decisions to not increase production at a time consumers are hurting from high energy costs seems to expose something wrong, if not unjust, that should be examined by policymakers.
Some segments went so far as to defend Big Oil’s record profits, including by highlighting the losses the industry faced during the early phases of the pandemic when gas demand plummeted due to nationwide stay-at-home ordinances. Anchor Sandra Smith on America Reports listed all the major oil companies’ losses and profits over the past two years, saying that it was important context to understand the profit loss in 2020 as the companies are being “demonized” for profiting in 2021.
Notably, while oil industry profits did dip during the pandemic, CEO salaries did not. According to an analysis by BailoutWatch, reported by Gizmodo, oil executives' salaries remained intact in 2020 as the industry was laying off workers while receiving federal handouts:
“The analysis finds that at a dozen oil companies—including big names like Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Phillips 66—CEO pay in 2020 was more than 100 times that of the median worker’s pay. All of those companies laid people off last year, including the nine companies that collectively got $4.8 billion in federal bailout money.”
CNN and MSNBC missed an opportunity to hold Big Oil accountable
CNN and MSNBC dedicated only 10 minutes and 4 minutes, respectively, to covering the April 6 hearing — even as the issue of high gas prices remains a mainstay of cable news. One segment on CNN accounted for nearly all of CNN’s coverage — an over 7-minute joint interview on CNN Newsroom with Ana Cabrera with Robert Reich, a public policy professor and former labor secretary, and Daniel Raimi, energy analyst with Resources for the Future.
The segment served, in part, as an example of how CNN and MSNBC could have used the hearing to more robustly cut through reductive and agenda-driven industry and right-wing media talking points to provide a more holistic understanding of why gas prices are high and what tools are available to help alleviate cost to consumers.
The majority of MSNBC’s 4 minutes of hearing coverage was aired in the closing moments of The 11th Hour with Stephanie Ruhle. Host Stephanie Ruhle first laid out the contrasting positions by Democrats and Republicans overseeing the hearing and then told her viewers:
“This might be a good time to let you know that members of this very subcommittee received a whopping $383,000 from Big Oil. And according to the FEC, 97% of that money went to Republicans. So, what did the oil executives have to say about the high prices Americans are paying at the pump? They said it's not their fault.”
While good, both segments only scratched the surface of the information (on gas prices) and accountability (of the oil industry).
In fact, in October, CNN and MSNBC managed to devote a modest amount of coverage to a congressional hearing on Big Oil disinformation, providing a glimmer of what accountability journalism could look like if cable news shows began seriously interrogating the fossil fuel industry. But the sparse coverage of this latest hearing represents a failure on part of the networks to both build on that accountability and, particularly in this moment, provide necessary context around high prices.
Fox News is shaping discussion around climate and energy issues
The April 6 hearing is not the first time Fox News has dominated coverage of key climate and energy actions or newsworthy moments. After the Green New Deal was introduced in 2019, Fox News relentlessly attacked the climate and justice actions and hammered the same messaging — tethering the proposal to radical socialism, climate alarmism, and economic devastation, while vilifying those who champion it. In comparison, other TV news networks made only a cursory attempt to articulate what the Green New Deal is and what it would accomplish. As a result, for Fox viewers, the Green New Deal has become synonymous with extreme socialism manifested by a fake climate crisis.
In the month following candidate Joe Biden unveiling his climate agenda in July 2019, Fox News aired 7 times the number of segments CNN aired and more than 4 times the segments aired on MSNBC. In fact, the network’s coverage of energy and climate issues in the fall months of the 2020 presidential campaign played a role shaping the related presidential debate questions.
After Biden took office on January 27, 2021, Fox spent approximately 1 hour and 50 minutes that day discussing Biden’s day one executive orders (including canceling the Keystone XL pipeline). CNN spent nearly half as much time, at approximately 53 minutes, MSNBC spent 1 hour and 24 minutes discussing the topics. While this data may not be as striking, it doesn’t include the amount of time Fox spent covering, for example, the canceled Keystone XL pipeline long after the other networks had moved on. Even now, Fox News has still repeatedly invoked the scrapped pipeline as one of the reasons contributing to the current energy crisis, even though the pipeline would not have had an impact on gas prices.
It is troubling to see CNN and MSNBC repeatedly yield coverage of major climate and energy stories to Fox News, and it’s time for the networks to step up.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original programming on cable news networks CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News Channel for the names of the major oil industry companies and the terms “oil” or “gas” or “company” or “pump” within close proximity to any of the terms “profit,” “price,” “cost,” “gouge,” or “swindle” on April 6 from 4 a.m. to midnight EDT.
We timed segments, which we defined as instances when the hearing was the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion of the hearing. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed the hearing with one another. We also included headline reports, which we defined as instances when an anchor, host, or correspondent read a short news report about the hearing in rapid succession with several unrelated stories.
Additionally we included passing mentions, which we defined as instances when a single speaker discussed the hearing without another speaker engaging with the comment, and teasers, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host promoted a segment about the hearing scheduled to air later in the broadcast.
We rounded all times to the nearest minute.