Molly Butler / Media Matters

Research/Study Research/Study

Cable news overwhelmingly adopts conservative, pro-Big Oil framing of Biden's debate comments about transitioning away from oil

Only 10% of segments on Biden's comments about necessary transition from oil actually mentioned the climate implications

  • Since the final presidential debate on October 22, right-wing media led by Fox News have been heavily pushing the false narrative that Democratic nominee Joe Biden will ban fracking and that his climate plan will kill the oil and gas industry.

    Unfortunately, cable networks CNN and MSNBC largely opted to echo this message rather than cover the real objectives of Biden’s plan or unpack the various lies President Donald Trump told during the climate portion of last week’s debate.

    During the climate section of the final debate, Biden had responded to Trump's question about whether he would “close down the oil industry,” saying that he “would transition from the oil industry ... because it has to be replaced by renewable energy over time.” Media Matters analyzed cable news coverage on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC of Joe Biden’s debate statements about his climate plan, beginning immediately after the debate ended on October 22 through October 26.

  • Key findings

    • A vast majority of the cable news discussion of Biden’s oil transition comments -- 138 segments out of 147 total segments (94%) -- ran with the conservative, pro-industry framing and the negative implications for the oil and gas industry.
    • Fox News ran with this pro-Big Oil framing in a whopping 100% of its 92 segments on the topic, double the combined number of times CNN and MSNBC used this framing. Over 90% of CNN’s segments ran with this framing (29 out of 32 segments), and 74% of MSNBC’s segments (17 out of 23 segments) ran with this framing.
    • Climate change was mentioned very rarely in discussion of Biden’s comments -- in only 30 segments across all three cable news networks -- and out of those, the climate implications of Biden’s oil transition comments were mentioned in only 14 segments.
    • Of the 14 segments that discussed the climate implications, eight appeared alongside the conservative frame, while only six segments rejected the conservative frame while covering Biden’s comments.
    • CNN mentioned the climate implications of Biden’s comments seven times, MSNBC five times, and Fox News mentioned them only twice.
  • The prevalent takeaway from the climate portion of the final presidential debate was dictated by the right-wing media

  • During the climate portion of the October 22 debate, Trump interrupted moderator Kristen Welker to ask if Biden, as part of his response to the climate crisis, would “close down the oil industry.” Key members of the Republican Party and the right-wing media immediately seized upon the exchange that followed and amplified it. The discussion, together with Biden’s clarification once again that he does not support a ban on fracking, became the second most talked about debate story on social media from October 22-23, according to Axios.

  • Video file

    Citation From the final presidential debate on October 22, 2020

    KRISTEN WELKER (MODERATOR): OK, I have one final question --

    DONALD TRUMP: Would he close down the oil industry? Would you close down the oil industry?

    JOE BIDEN: By the way, I would transition from the oil industry. Yes. 

    WELKER: Why would you do that?

    BIDEN: Because the oil industry pollutes significantly. Here’s the deal --

    TRUMP: Oh, I see. That’s a big statement.

    BIDEN: Well, if you let me finish the statement -- because it has to be replaced by renewable energy over time. Over time. And I’d stop giving to the oil industry -- I’d stop giving them federal subsidies. You won't give federal subsidies to the gas and -- excuse me, to solar and wind. Why are we giving it to the oil industry?


    TRUMP: That’s maybe the biggest statement. In terms of business, that's the biggest statement. Because basically what he’s saying is he’s going to destroy the oil industry. Will you remember that Texas? Will you remember that Pennsylvania? Oklahoma? Ohio?

  • Right-wing media wasted no time in turning the exchange into a pro-Trump narrative. Within moments of the debate exchange, major conservative outlets began hitting the comments hard, accusing Biden of hypocrisy and claiming that his plan would destroy the U.S. economy and eliminate millions of jobs, that his comment was a huge gaffe, and that he will ultimately lose the election because of them. The next day, one GOP strategist writing for the Wall Street Journal called it a “huge opening” for Trump who also brought it up while campaigning in Pennsylvania and in a tweet on October 26 falsely accusing Biden of wanting to “ABOLISH the entire U.S. Oil Industry.”

    Even major newspapers chased the right-wing media storyline. In her HEATED newsletter, climate journalist Emily Atkin analyzed 30 mainstream news articles about the debate’s climate change exchange and found that “while they all discussed the economic consequences of climate policy, only five discussed the cost of doing nothing.” Ultimately, Atkin wrote, the vast majority of these news articles focused “solely on Trump’s attacks on Biden’s climate plan, and ignore the fact that Trump doesn’t have a climate plan at all.”

    Major digital news headlines also reflected this right-wing framing. Immediately after the debate on October 22, Politico wrote: “Conservatives pounce on Biden’s desire to move away from oil.” On October 23, The Washington Post ran the headline asking, “How politically damaging were Biden’s comments about closing down the oil industry?” The New York Times’ climate Twitter account also joined in:

  • In perhaps the most egregious instance, The Daily Beast ran with “Biden Blows It on a Key Energy Question, and Trump Finally Strikes Oil.”

  • Cable news coverage largely echoed these conservative, pro-Big Oil takes on Biden’s climate comments

  • Biden-oil-cable-news
  • Fox News

    Hannity was the first Fox program to air following the debate on October 22, and it ran several segments that pushed these narratives, including interviews with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, who both fearmongered about a massive loss of jobs and economic downturn in response to Biden’s comments. On October 23, host Sean Hannity ranted about Biden’s comments, falsely stating that “the oil and gas industry would become a thing of the past” under a Biden administration and claiming that up to “10% of the entire U.S. workforce” would be eliminated (the entirety of the energy sector, including clean energy jobs, constitutes only 5% of the U.S. workforce). Additionally, the Fox prime-time host lied about American energy independence and claimed Biden’s climate plan would “weaken our national security.”

    On the October 24 edition of Fox & Friends Weekend, co-host Will Cain interviewed an oil worker who claimed that Biden’s transition plan “is terrible for America” while Trump “undoubtedly supports oil and gas, and he is going to fight for the oil and gas workers.” The segment failed to mention that the oil and gas industry hasn’t really done that well under Trump: Production has declined, tens of thousands of workers have been laid off, and dozens of companies have gone bankrupt. Discussing Biden’s oil transition comments on the October 26 edition of America’s Newsroom, Fox anchor Maria Bartiromo cited the oil industry’s always dubious numbers on the millions of jobs that would supposedly be affected.

    Also on October 26, Fox’s Pete Hegseth lamented on Outnumbered that “the left has converted to the religion of climate change, and because they’re so tied to radical environmentalism, they’ve rejected the working men and women in the industries that have built this country.” Hegseth also falsely stated that “the president, with his energy independence and all of the above strategy on energy, is exactly where the American people are.” (Once again, most U.S. citizens are supportive of the transition to a clean energy economy, as guest Marie Harf pointed out in her pushback to Hegseth.)

    Some segments ran with the narrative that Biden’s comments were the downfall of his campaign. On the October 23 edition of Fox & Friends, former Trump 2016 campaign staffers Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie talked about how Biden’s comment supposedly flipped the election toward Trump, with Bossie calling the comments a “game changer for us, and we're going to close this election and win Pennsylvania again like we did in 2016.” Special Report with Bret Baier echoed this framing later that evening, suggesting that the “damage was done” and that Biden was already trying to walk those comments back.

    All together, Fox News has pushed these conservative, pro-industry messages 92 times.

    CNN and MSNBC

    However, it’s not just right-wing media running with the pro-fossil fuel industry framing of Biden’s oil transition comments -- Fox’s cable counterparts CNN and MSNBC echoed the narrative as well. Over the four-day period from October 23-26, CNN pushed this Big Oil narrative 29 times, while MSNBC pushed it 17 times.

    One of the worst examples came on the October 25 edition of CNN’s New Day Weekend. The segment called Biden’s oil transition comment “an awkward moment” and claimed that he was “playing cleanup” on it. CNN correspondent Vanessa Yurkevich reported from western Pennsylvania, and she noted “natural gas is king” and interviewed a natural gas worker and a restaurant owner who has natural gas employees as customers. But the segment did not mention climate change or the environmental effects of fracking, and it did not go into further detail on the general downturn of the fracking industry right now. The segment could have come straight out of a pro-industry ad from the American Petroleum Institute.

    Another bad example came from the October 23 edition of CNN’s The Lead with Jake Tapper. Tapper fed into the right-wing narrative on “the controversy about whether or not (Biden) wants to move away from fracking,” before noting, “If it is banned, obviously that would kill tens of thousands of jobs in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas.” Conservative commentator Scott Jennings stated that “if you remember what the Obama-Biden administration did to coal, that's what they're planning to do with fracking and that's what they're planning to do to oil.” (This is false, as market forces and the rise of natural gas have been responsible for coal losing its share of energy production). To his credit, CNN’s Van Jones did push back a bit on this framing, noting that while Biden got “his words tangled up,” it was indeed cheap gas that killed coal, and explaining that Biden’s comments were really about oil subsidies.

    On the October 23 edition of MTP Daily, host Chuck Todd played a clip of the Biden and Trump’s oil transition exchange along with a debate clip discussing the ongoing coronavirus pandemic before stating, “If you think this is an issues election, the oil answer may matter more” than one on coronavirus. (This statement feeds into the conservative narrative around the oil industry; in reality, it may not be playing that big part in the election.) Conservative strategist Brad Todd then stated that Biden’s policies might be too “far-left” for some voters, who “worry about the fact that transitioning away from fossil fuels in a hurry like Joe Biden and AOC want to do, that’s going to crash the economy.” Guest Maria Teresa Kumar pushed back on this framing, noting that Biden is “talking about transition in 15 years” and adding that “the oil industry itself is investing tens of billions of dollars because they know that is where their future is.”

  • The big story that emerged from the climate portion of the presidential debate should have been about climate

  • The scientific community has repeatedly warned that world governments must make drastic reductions in carbon emissions if we are going to avert the worst effects of climate change. Extreme weather, increasing methane emissions, melting Arctic ice -- all of these worrisome stories in 2020 are just a snapshot of a warming world. And the oil industry by and large is contributing to these problems.

    In that vein, moderator Kristen Welker asked Biden and Trump how they would combat climate change while supporting job growth. This question’s conservative framing of climate action as opposed to economic growth painted a false equivalence between the two candidates’ climate proposals: Biden’s own climate plan, which sets to reach net zero emissions by 2050, describes a transition from oil and explicitly mentions creating 10 million jobs as part of his $2 trillion climate plan which is supported by a large majority of voters, while Trump has no climate plan and is actively pursuing policies that are worsening climate change right now.

    The imperative to decarbonize our economy is not a radical or new idea -- in fact, transitioning away from the oil industry and toward a clean energy economy is politically popular among U.S. voters. Unfortunately, few programs on cable news framed Biden’s comments this way or refocused the story around other takeaways from the climate portion of the debate. Cable news coverage of the final presidential debate’s climate discussion featured a mere 30 references to climate change, and the climate implications of Biden’s comments received only 14 mentions. Notably, the majority of those mentions were made by guests who pivoted away from the conservative framing of the discussion.

    On the October 23 edition of CNN’s New Day, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg defended Biden’s oil transition comments, noting that many young and Midwestern voters already support the transition to renewable energy, adding that Trump “is literally incapable of even grasping the nature of the problem and therefore will never be able to serve up a solution.” Later that morning on CNN Newsroom, CNN chief climate correspondent Bill Weir produced an excellent segment on climate change and why it’s absolutely essential to transition away from the oil industry.

  • Video file

    Citation From the October 23, 2020, edition of CNN's Newsroom

  • Weir did another segment like this later in the day on CNN Newsroom, stating that “only in America is it controversial for a debate candidate to say this, while the rest of the world -- given the gigafires that won't go out or the flooding that won't stop in low-lying areas -- they're moving on because of market forces and morality.”

    In all, CNN had just seven segments that mentioned the climate implications of Biden’s oil transition comments. The other mentions came during the October 23 editions of CNN’s post-debate commentary and The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer, on CNN Newsroom Live on October 24, and in an interview with Green New Deal sponsor Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) during State of the Union on October 25.

    Another excellent example came from MSNBC and the October 23 edition of All In with Chris Hayes. After playing a clip of the oil transition exchange between Biden and Trump, host Chris Hayes noted: “We are going to transition from oil whether Joe Biden says it or not. Four years ago Trump and the Republicans thought it was their big checkmate move was defending coal. Do you notice how nobody talks about that anymore? That's because things are moving quickly away from fossil fuels.” He interviewed Charlotte Swasey, vice president of data and polling at Data for Progress, who talked about how climate change is “a popular and persuasive issue” for voters.

  • Video file

    Citation From the October 23, 2020, edition of All In with Chris Hayes

  • Another good example came from the October 23 edition of Morning Joe. In response to a question about Biden’s oil comments, former Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) steered the conversation back to Biden’s climate plan:

  • CLAIRE MCCASKILL: I think Biden will have to do more to explain the transition process but if you look at polling, Mika, I think a lot of people don't realize one of the most popular parts of Biden's platform is in fact this conversion to green energy and the jobs that it will create. This is something that's way up there on his list in terms of being popular. People know what's going on with the planet. People have now begun to realize that we are facing a crisis that's existential. So the notion that Joe Biden is being thoughtful and honest about the need to transition off and that means not leaving anyone behind.

  • In all, MSNBC had just five segments that mentioned the climate implications of Biden’s oil transition comments. The other mentions came during the October 23 editions of MSNBC Live with Craig Melvin and Andrea Mitchell Reports, and the October 24 edition of MSNBC Live with Kendis Gibson and Lindsey Reiser.

    Fox News mentioned the climate implications of Biden’s oil transition comments in just two segments. On the October 23 edition of The Five, co-host Juan Williams stated: “The reality is that, you know, you think about it, climate change is very real to many people. We know about the flooding, we know about the hurricanes, we know about the wildfires, the derecho in Iowa that was sinking our farms. … Overwhelmingly, Americans think we need to do more in terms of investing and transitioning to renewable energy in this country.” And faced with two pro-industry questions from anchor Chris Wallace on the October 25 edition of Fox News Sunday, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said, “Joe Biden is eager to eliminate subsidies is really what his policy is. We shouldn't be subsidizing an industry that is continuing to contribute to climate change.”

  • The media is wholly unprepared for this crucial moment in climate politics

  • Like it’s done with other climate proposals including the Green New Deal, Fox News completely dominated the discussion of Biden’s debate comments on his climate plan. Further, this overwhelming adoption of a pro-industry framing of these comments shows how awful and out of touch mainstream media often is at covering climate change.

  • This extreme pro-industry framing of what Biden said also presents a classic example of false balance. Biden’s comments are directly related to what climate scientists are calling for -- a massive decrease in global carbon emissions as we seek to avert climate catastrophe -- but only rarely in their coverage of his comments did cable news shows bring this up. On the flip side, this pro-industry framing essentially ignored that Trump has no climate plan of his own, and all this talk of economic crash and job losses omits the fact that investments in clean energy will lead to economic benefits and job gains. It also downplays the reality that we are already on the hook for about $100 trillion in economic damages because of climate change, making the cost of climate action a smart investment compared to the status quo.

    Writing about the media’s pro-industry framing from southwest Pennsylvania, Oliver Morrison from Pittsburgh’s Public Source echoes these same sentiments, noting, “The focus on fracking may not reflect the reality of voter sentiments, as the industry’s growth has slowed and voters prioritize others issues.” For one, Biden has proposed to ban fracking only on federal lands, which there is little of in Pennsylvania. Additionally, fracking’s boom in the region “has receded, and the number of jobs it brings is dwarfed by other industries and by proposals to bring clean energy into the region.” He also cites the state’s Lt. Gov. John Fetterman confusion that reporters keep bringing up fracking, stating, “It baffles me that it would be the deciding factor for any bloc of voters at this point.”

    And the actual transition away from the oil and gas industry? Most voters support that as well:

  • Most voters also support action on climate change, with 7 out of 10 favoring “strong government action to tackle climate change.” In his Message Box newsletter, Dan Pfieffer addresses these polling points and lays out why it’s good politics for Biden to be talking about oil transition:

  • A September Data for Progress poll found that 55 percent of voters support ending government subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, while only 26 percent oppose. This issue is a clear winner for Biden.

    It’s also not scandalous nor surprising that Biden said he wanted to transition away from the oil industry. His climate plan is very clear on this point and has been for months. There is nothing controversial about that position.

    Moving away from the fossil fuels that are causing climate change is the consensus position among every credible scientist in the world. The idea that it would be a scandal to Republicans and some in the media helps explain why America is lagging behind the rest of the developed world when it comes to trying to save the planet on which we live.

  • One would think that the problems we face with climate change outnumbers the problems with Biden’s comments on oil transition. Unfortunately, the media are hyping up Trump’s viewpoint and giving it outsized attention. We thought that environmental coverage may have turned a corner back in September, when 57% of cable news segments on California wildfires mentioned climate change over a five-day period. But cable news’ horse race coverage of what Biden said proved this positive change was fleeting. We are all worse off for it.


    Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC immediately following the third presidential debate on October 22 through October 26, 2020, for any of the terms “oil,” “gas,” “fossil fuel,” “fracking,” or “transition” within close proximity to the term “Biden.”

    We counted segments, which we defined as instances when Biden’s oil transition comments were the stated topic of discussion or when we found “significant discussion” of Biden’s oil transition comments in segments about other topics. We defined significant discussion as two or more speakers discussing Biden’s oil transition comments with one another.

    We then reviewed each segment for whether or not any speaker connected the oil comments to the negative implications on the oil industry or whether or not they mentioned climate change. If they mentioned climate change, we checked whether the speaker mentioned the implications of Biden’s comments for climate change.