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Andrea Austria / Media Matters

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Lessons from one month of national TV news coverage of Trump’s $1 billion Big Oil scandal

Corporate broadcast networks barely covered the story, while Fox News defended Trump and fossil fuels

On May 9, The Washington Post published an exclusive story about an April dinner at Mar-a-Lago in which Donald Trump promised to reverse President Joe Biden's actions on climate change as he asked oil executives to raise $1 billion for his presidential campaign.

In the first four days of TV news coverage after the story broke, only MSNBC covered Trump’s proposition to Big Oil, airing 48 minutes of coverage; since May 12, all national TV news networks except NBC have aired at least some coverage of the story, bringing the total to 1 hour and 28 minutes.

  • MSNBC has led overall coverage, airing 1 hour and 11 minutes on the story from May 9 through June 9. Among other cable news outlets, CNN aired 9 minutes, followed by Fox News with 3 minutes of coverage.
  • Corporate broadcast TV news aired a mere 4 minutes of combined coverage — CBS aired 3 minutes, while ABC aired the remaining 1 minute. NBC failed to cover the story at all during the studied period.

While the volume of coverage of Trump’s Big Oil scandal has varied across networks, some clear lessons have emerged.

  • This story -- which did not get enough attention -- offers TV news audiences one of the clearest views of what is at stake in Trump’s approach to the climate crisis

  • Coverage of Trump’s proposition to Big Oil repeatedly framed the story around the stark differences between Trump and Biden on climate and energy policy. 

    During the June 5 edition of The Lead with Jake Tapper, CNN chief climate correspondent Bill Weir concluded a segment on record-shattering extreme weather and efforts to transition away from fossil fuels by noting how the continued progress toward a clean energy economy hangs in the balance.

    “The next big test for this progress, of course, is the U.S. election has big climate implications,” Weir said. “Donald Trump has been meeting with oil and gas executives in recent weeks trying to get their support, promising them so much in another term if given the chance. In the meantime, this heat dome parked over the Southwest, Jake, it is a silent killer.”

    During the June 4 edition of All In with Chris Hayes, the MSNBC host used data about the current clean energy boom to reemphasize the point.

    “We have seen the most seismic transformation in our production of energy since the dawn of the industrial revolution, when we started using fossil fuels at scale,” Hayes said.

    “In fact, according to another estimate, global carbon emissions may have peaked last year,” he later added. “Now, at least here at home, the question is whether or not this transformation — which is really, finally, belatedly, way too late, actually happening — whether it is continued or it is destroyed by Donald Trump and the fossil fuel executives from whom he is soliciting $1 billion.”

    During the May 28 edition of CNN News Central, CNN political commentator Paul Begala argued that Trump’s proposition to Big Oil could have more real-world impact than the details associated with his recent New York hush money trial

    “I don't really care if Trump was in bed with a porn star,” the longtime Democratic adviser said. “I care that he was in bed with Big Oil executives and promised to close down all of our environmental protections for a billion dollars in campaign contributions. Because when Donald Trump gets in bed with Big Oil, you're the one who is going to get screwed — that's what the Democrats should be saying.”

    CNN anchor Abby Phillip argued on May 21 that it's imperative for media not to lose focus of what Trump has said he would do during a second term while scrutinizing every detail of his hush money trial:

    “Now virtually every word uttered in that courtroom, every movement by the judge, the jury, the defendant, scrutinized, dissected — but outside of the courtroom, Trump has given the country plenty of new evidence about what he plans to do if he captures the Oval Office,” Phillip said, citing “a billion-dollar quid pro quo offered up to oil executives that's now under investigation by House Democrats” among other recent headlines about the former president’s scandals and policy proposals.

  • Video file

    Citation From the May 21, edition of CNN's NewsNight With Abby Phillip

  • During a June 5 interview with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who is leading the Senate probe into Trump’s Big Oil quid pro quo “deal,” CNN’s Nicole Wallace stated: “It’s a story that didn’t get enough attention. We were covering the trial of Donald Trump here in New York, but it is his pledge at a fundraiser to oil execs to give him … ‘$1 billion dollars to return me to the White House.’ In return, he vowed to reverse dozens of President Biden’s rules and policies and stop new ones from being enacted.”

  • Fox News defends Trump and Big Oil

  • Fox News barely covered the story — and the little coverage the network did afford to news around Trump’s quid pro quo proposal to oil executives was in the service of defending both Trump and Big Oil. 

    On May 24, Fox & Friends hosted the American Petroleum Institute’s Mike Sommers, the president and CEO of Big Oil’s lobbying arm, to discuss Senate Democrats’ investigation into the $1 billion quid pro quo offer at Mar-a-Lago. Fox host Carley Shimkus characterized the meeting between oil and executives as politics as usual before handing it off to Sommers, who downplayed the significance of Trump’s proposition as a normal way for presidents to “be engaging with industry leaders.”

    “Let’s be clear: The president of the United States should be meeting with executives in the oil and gas industry and executives from every industry,” Sommers said. “This is something the president should do, they should be engaging with industry leaders, and that’s exactly what President Trump did. He met with the oil and gas industry, laid out his agenda — his agenda for American energy independence, and asked for our support.”

  • Video file

    Citation From the May 24, 2024, edition of Fox & Friends

  • On the May 24 edition of Hannity, Fox Business correspondent Lauren Simonetti suggested that “every single American” would financially benefit from Trump’s promise to Big Oil to “give me a billion dollars and I’ll give you basically favorable energy policies,” claiming that “many Democratic lawmakers are upset with that, and they want a probe … because ‘drill, baby, drill’ is such a foreign concept to them. This could actually bring down the cost of everything for consumers and for businesses.” 

    For years, promoting fossil fuel extraction has been a regular part of Fox News coverage around major climate stories, even going so far as defending Big Oil’s record-breaking profits while U.S. consumers were experiencing record-high gas prices. Fox News has also repeatedly and falsely suggested that Trump’s policies made the U.S. “energy independent.”

  • Aside from MSNBC, national TV news missed clear opportunities to hold Big Oil accountable

  • Fossil fuel accountability is still not an integral part of climate change coverage — but even in cases when oil corporations are a central character in a story, national TV news often misses the opportunity to scrutinize Big Oil. In April 2022, for example, CNN and MSNBC covered a congressional hearing on the oil industry’s role in driving record-high gas prices while earning record profits for only 10 minutes and 4 minutes, respectively. By comparison, Fox News programs devoted 49 minutes to the hearing, and much of the network’s coverage defended Big Oil and insisted that Biden’s policies were really responsible for high gas prices.

    On May 26, 2021, Big Oil companies experienced a historic “very bad day” that signaled a win for climate action after a Dutch court ruled that Shell must cut its emissions by 45% by 2030; two activist investors won seats on Exxon’s board with the goal of steering the oil giant to a cleaner energy future; and a majority of Chevron shareholders voted in favor of a resolution to curtail that company’s emissions. Broadcast and cable news channels aired just 14 segments in total on the news that climate writer Bill McKibben called “an utterly crushing day for Big Oil.”

    The scarce TV coverage of Trump’s scandalous Big Oil proposition, with the exception of MSNBC, represents another missed opportunity for news networks to illustrate what good accountability coverage could look like. Notably, MSNBC’s coverage allowed the opportunity for guests to make salient points about Big Oil alongside the focus on Trump’s brazen quid pro quo offer.

    For example, Noah Bookbinder, president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, turned his attention to the hypocrisy of the oil industry during the May 11 edition of Velshi.

    “These are the same executives who, in the wake of January 6, said, ‘We’re not going to support people who undermined our democracy,’” Bookbinder noted. “And there they are, these couple of years later, meeting with Donald Trump, courting his support, hearing his offer — his demands — that they give a billion dollars to his campaign.”

    McKibben also argued on May 11 that Big Oil companies face an “existential moment” and can maintain their standing “only by political gamesmanship” because clean energy is increasingly competitive, “and it's the future that scares the hell out of Exxon and Chevron.”

    “Last year they made, respectively, $36 billion and $21 billion,” he continued. “So, a billion off that wouldn’t be much. They are going to do that to make sure that Donald Trump is there to help them out.”

    On the May 19 edition of Velshi, Whitehouse talked broadly about efforts to hold Big Oil accountable.

    “We had a hearing, Congressman Raskin and I, just the other day where the woman who led the prosecution team that won the Department of Justice victory against Big Tobacco for its campaign of lies and fraud and deceit said, yes, obviously you should bring a case just like that against the fossil fuel industry for its campaign of fraud and lies and deceit,” the senator explained. “So you have the quid pro quo, you’ve got the tobacco model, you’ve got the cooked up, pre-prepared executive orders being groomed for the Trump administration, and I think it all adds up to something that justifies at least a little due diligence out of the Department of Justice.”

  • Methodology

  • Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC, as well as all original episodes of ABC’s Good Morning America, World News Tonight, and This Week; CBS’ Mornings, Evening News, and Face the Nation; and NBC’s Today, Nightly News, and Meet the Press for any of the terms “Trump,” “former president,” or “Mar-a-Lago” within close proximity of any of the terms “oil,” “donor,” “executive,” “billion,” “industry,” “fossil,” or “fuel,” or any variations of either of the terms “environment” or “CEO” from May 9, 2024, when The Washington Post broke the story on Trump’s request to oil executives, through June 9, 2024.

    We timed segments, which we defined as instances when Trump's promise to oil executives to loosen Biden administration environmental regulations in return for $1 billion in campaign donations was the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion of Trump's quid pro quo proposal. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed Trump’s quid pro quo offer with one another.

    We also timed mentions, which we defined as instances when a speaker in a segment on another topic mentioned Trump’s quid pro quo proposal without another speaker engaging with the comment, and teasers, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host promoted a segment about Trump’s quid pro quo offer scheduled to air later in the broadcast.

    We rounded all times to the nearest minute.