On February 3, a train operated by Norfolk Southern that was carrying toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. As a result, hazardous chemicals were released into the air, land, and water, causing considerable concern about the health impacts on local and regional residents. For more than a week, national TV news networks, including Fox News, failed to provide viewers with important critical context about the rail industry’s efforts to weaken safety regulations. However, beginning on February 13, the tenor of Fox’s coverage shifted dramatically toward furthering the network’s ongoing war against climate action, pushing racial grievance narratives, and attacking the Biden administration.
Fox News’ coverage of the Ohio train derailment was scant until it could be used to distract its audience from salient concerns
Overall, national TV news coverage of the East Palestine train derailment was sparse, shallow, and decontextualized. Fox News, in particular, covered the tragedy for only 15 minutes from Saturday, February 4, through Sunday, February 12, with its last segment airing on February 7. This past weekend, the story went viral on social media, with right-wing influencers garnering millions of views and thousands of likes and retweets on Twitter. Influencer takes on the accident and Fox’s prime-time block eventually taking it up on February 13 likely pushed the network to ramp up its coverage and seemingly informed some of its more vile narratives.
From February 13 through February 15, a three-day period, Fox aired nearly 6 hours of coverage about the derailment.
The network piggybacked on good-faith concerns about the catastrophe to pursue its divisive and corrosive agenda. Its coverage largely ignored how 40 years of government deregulation, advanced by neoliberals and conservatives bound to corporate interests, shaped the circumstances of the East Palestine tragedy. Most recently, the Biden administration failed to revive an Obama administration safety rule that the Trump administration later repealed entirely. According to The Lever:
Though the Obama administration did originally enact a rule requiring those better brakes on some trains, its regulators sided with lobbyists and ignored the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) request that the safety rules apply to rail cars carrying the kinds of dangerous, flammable chemicals onboard the Ohio train. Under the rules weakened by both the Obama and Trump administration’s decisions, that train was not being regulated as a “high-hazard flammable train.”
Rail regulators in Buttigieg’s Transportation Department have not proposed strengthening the safety rules in question, even amidst these warnings that upgraded braking systems could have prevented recent accidents, or reduced the ensuing damage.
Fox focused its delayed coverage on attacking the Biden administration, mocking climate action, and pushing racial grievance narratives
Fox’s coverage largely bypassed salient concerns about the negligence and malfeasance of both multiple presidential administrations and the railroad industry and used the incident as a cudgel to attack the Biden administration, mock climate action, and push racial grievance narratives.
Fox’s attacks on the Biden administration have run the gamut from demanding Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg take more direct action to claiming that President Joe Biden is “okay with cancerous chemicals in our rivers” to advocating for more pipelines, which would be doubling down on the dangerous infrastructure that has already harmed many vulnerable communities. During the February 15 episode of America’s Newsroom, in response to a question about the federal response in East Palestine, Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) claimed that pipelines are “much safer than trucks or trains.” Fox host Tucker Carlson blamed the Biden administration for canceling a planned pipeline during the February 15 episode of Tucker Carlson Tonight.
Fox also used the derailment as an opportunity to deride climate action and climate activists. During the February 14 episode of Fox & Friends, anti-ESG activist Vivek Ramaswamy claimed that climate change was not a threat to communities like East Palestine before continuing, “One of the problems with the focus of our leaders even as it relates to environmental issues is if it does not relate to their narrative of existential risks from climate change or diversity in workforces for that matter, it doesn't get the level of attention that it needs.” Referencing the Ohio train derailment, Fox News host Sean Hannity asserted that he didn’t “hear anything from the new-green-deal climate-alarmist cult about what is an environmental disaster by every measure” during the February 14 episode of Hannity.
The most odious narrative pushed by Fox asserted that the East Palestine disaster had not received much attention because the area is mostly white and rural. During the February 13 episode of his show, Carlson hinted at the idea of anti-white bias when he stated, “What we can tell you: The Biden administration doesn't seem too concerned about it. … Donald Trump got over 71% of the vote in the county in the last presidential election. That’s not exactly the Democratic Party’s core demographic.” During the February 14 episode of The Five, co-host Greg Gutfeld used the train derailment to bemoan “wokeism.”
These dog whistles eventually became more explicit appeals to white grievance politics. During the February 14 episode of Jesse Watters Primetime, host Jesse Watters questioned Environmental Protection Agency Director Michael Regan’s knowledge “about the environment,” asking, “Is this his idea of fighting environmental racism? Spilling toxic chemicals on poor white people in Ohio?” On the February 14 episode of Tucker Carlson Tonight, Carlson asserted that if the derailment had occurred in “the favored cities of Philadelphia and Detroit" there would have been a more robust federal response. “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.”
Fox News is unwilling and unable to hold powerful corporations and industries accountable. As a poor substitute, the network pushes divisive, racial grievance narratives that erode consensus around good governance instead of building it. Chris Hayes explained the hows and whys of this tactic in detail during the February 14 episode of his MSNBC show All In.
Fox News feints toward white working class concerns while carrying water for the industries poisoning these communities’ air, land, and water
Fox News has a history of weaponizing climate and environmental disasters. Whether it's wildfires, tornadoes, heat waves, or hurricanes, the network will take nearly any opportunity to downplay, distract, or discredit climate science and the need for urgent climate action. It also picks and chooses which environmental disasters are worthy of coverage. Although the derailment story’s amplification by conservative influencers likely contributed to the network’s decision to ramp up its coverage, Fox felt no similar urgency to cover the ongoing water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi.
The truth that Fox News is desperate to hide from its viewers is that industrial explosions, leaks, and spills have caused disproportionate harm to low-income communities and communities of color across the country. Not only do more than 25 million people live within a mile of a crude-by-rail route, but a study produced by the organizations Coming Clean, The Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform, and the Campaign for Healthier Solutions also found:
People living nearest to these high-risk chemical facilities (known as the fenceline areas or zones), and the businesses, schools, and hospitals in these areas, are especially at risk from disasters. They are at greatest risk of immediate death or injury, are likely to be exposed to the highest level of toxic chemicals released, and have the least amount of time to evacuate or otherwise protect themselves.
Fox News has repeatedly mocked the climate and environmental justice demands of vulnerable communities and even celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision in West Virginia v. EPA, which severely curtailed the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gasses and could potentially erode protections for marginalized people.
Fox News’ performative outrage at the foreseeable and preventable derailment in Ohio, which could cause dramatic environmental harms throughout the region, belies the network’s lack of interest in holding the industries polluting the air, land, and water of communities such as East Palestine accountable. It has repeatedly carried water for the fossil fuel industry, which is primarily driving the climate crisis, demanded an increase in dangerous fossil fuel infrastructure, and supported calls to deregulate hazardous industries that have harmed the health and wellbeing of communities across the country.
East Palestine is an environmental catastrophe, and many public and corporate officials are culpable. But Fox News has no interest in genuinely demanding accountability from the powerful interests that prioritize profit over the safety and well-being of everyone else. Instead, Fox will continue to wield this tragedy to advance its harmful political goals until it is no longer useful to the network’s deranged politics. Even as the fossil fuel industry degrades the air, land, and water of millions of Americans of all races every day, you'll never hear Fox mount a substantive critique of its actions.
Despite the network’s pitiful attempts at division, climate and environmental activists want a healthy and thriving environment for everyone. As former EPA senior adviser for environmental justice and community revitalization Mustafa Santiago Ali told ABC News Live, “We’ve got to do a better job of helping people to understand what’s literally moving through their backyard, in many instances, through their communities, because we’re creating these ‘sacrifice zones’ with these vulnerable communities. So we know who the communities are, and the reason that they get often ignored -- it’s because they are lower-wealth white communities, or Black and Brown and Indigenous communities, and the rural communities in many instances.”