Right-wing media weaponize the East Palestine train derailment to claim white conservatives are being persecuted
Right-wing media have used the recent train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, to baselessly claim that the government’s response and lack of substantial media coverage are because the afflicted county is primarily white and conservative. Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk even went as far to say that this incident is proof that there is a “war on white people.”
On February 3, 2023, a train carrying chemicals and other hazardous materials derailed — and subsequently caught fire — in East Palestine, Ohio. Fearful of a potentially dangerous explosion resulting from “unstable” substances, many residents were instructed to evacuate and schools were temporarily closed while “authorities performed a controlled release of the toxic materials from five train car tankers on Feb. 6, and the contents were diverted to a trench and burned off.” Residents were allowed to return on February 8, and on February 12, the Environmental Protection Agency said it did not detect harmful substances at “levels of concern.” Despite being told they are safe, some residents have reported feeling sick since the incident.
Thus far, national television coverage of this story has been minimal and lacking in important context about the rail industry’s campaign to loosen the regulations that govern the transportation of hazardous materials. Though right-wing media have suggested that this is because East Palestine residents are white Trump supporters, this inadequate coverage reflects a pattern Media Matters has consistently documented: The media’s coverage of environmental and public health crises — particularly when they affect communities of color — is frequently poor both in quantity and quality.
There are legitimate health and environmental concerns that still need to be addressed in East Palestine. However, right-wing media’s claim that the government's poor response is because residents are white conservatives is unsupported and nonsensical. In fact, mounting evidence suggests that white people receive more aid from the federal government than people of color following disasters. Additionally, right-wing figures responding to the derailment in Ohio have conveniently neglected to mention the communities of color, such as in Flint, Michigan, that have been consistently failed by the government during their public health crises.
In recent years, right-wing media figures have increasingly pushed the white nationalist talking point that there is a “war on white people” (while simultaneously waging a seemingly successful war on efforts to introduce diverse curricula in schools). Now, some in the right-wing media are exploiting the potential environmental and public health crisis in East Palestine to push the baseless narrative that white Republicans are being personally targeted.
- Fox News host Jesse Watters said that the disaster was an intentional attempt by the administrator of the EPA to fight racism by “spilling toxic chemicals on poor white people in Ohio.”
- On his podcast, Charlie Kirk said, “Not a single member of the Biden regime would dare to go to this portion of Ohio and breathe in the air because they know it's dangerous. They know that it is actively poisoning the citizens of eastern Ohio.” Kirk called the train derailment a part of a “war on white people” and claimed if it happened in “densely populated Black neighborhoods, this would be the No. 1 news story. It would be Flint water crisis 2.0. There would be clamoring and activism and talks for reparations.”
- On his February 13 prime-time show covering the derailment, Fox host Tucker Carlson complained that the EPA was “passing out cash in the name of remediating environmental racism” rather than protecting the water supply and said the Biden administration is not concerned about residents drinking contaminated water because Donald Trump received “over 71% of the vote in the county.” In a subsequent interview, Carlson asked Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH) if the reason there was no “urgency” from the federal government was “because these are not their voters.”
- In his opening monologue the next day, Carlson said, “East Palestine is overwhelmingly white and it’s politically conservative. … That shouldn't be relevant but as you're about to hear, it very much is.” He later said, “Imagine if this happened in, well, the favored cities of Philadelphia and Detroit … in both cases, had it affected the rich or the favored poor, it would be the lead of every news channel in the world. But it happened to the poor, benighted town of East Palestine, Ohio, whose people are forgotten and, in the view of the people who lead this country, forgettable.”
- On The Five, Fox host Greg Gutfeld blamed “wokeism” for the Ohio train disaster, saying, “If you want to talk about a toxic spill, look at wokeism and what politics is doing to every part of life. I mean, it's injecting race into everything, including our buildings and our infrastructure.”
- Turning Point USA’s Benny Johnson claimed that “every single news camera on planet Earth” would cover a hypothetical environmental disaster in California, but there is “zero coverage” of the derailment because East Palestine is “inside a red state” and supported Trump.
- On Fox News’ Outnumbered, Fox contributor Sean Duffy suggested that the Biden administration told East Palestine residents it was safe to return home because “70% of them voted for Donald Trump.” Fellow Fox contributor Lisa Boothe agreed with Duffy and questioned that “if this was happening in Ukraine, … would the media care more, instead of a Trump county?” Boothe also launched a baseless conspiracy theory that train derailment is somehow connected to the multiple flying objects that have been shot down by the U.S. government, a power outage on Capitol Hill, a social media outage, and the recent grounding of planes by the FAA. Boothe said: “I don't know, It just seems to be a lot of things coinciding at the exact same time for it to just be a coincidence.”
- On Fox & Friends, co-host Brian Kilmeade criticized the federal government’s response and speculated it could be driven by politics, saying, “You just hope this has nothing to do with the fact that Ohio is a red state.”
On his show, MSNBC host Chris Hayes highlighted that the right-wing response to this crisis follows a familiar pattern: “Whenever there is a problem or crisis, folks on the right have got someone or some group that is out to get you — and maybe it's the openly gay secretary of transportation or a fictional cabal of woke elites conspiring against white people.”