Fox News dominated cable news coverage of the CNN climate forum
Ceci Freed / Media Matters

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Fox News dominated cable news coverage of the CNN climate forum

Following the playbook from its Green New Deal coverage, Fox’s segments were rife with mockery and misinformation

On September 5 and 6, Fox News aired 46 segments on the CNN climate forum -- more than triple the number aired by the combination of CNN and MSNBC, which ran five and eight segments, respectively. Fox News is following the same playbook as it did in its Green New Deal coverage: avoid having good faith discussions about climate change by mocking or downplaying the issue.

  • Toplines

    • In the two days after CNN’s September 4 climate forum, Fox News ran 46 segments during its 5 a.m. to midnight programming. MSNBC ran eight, and CNN ran only five.
    • Of Fox’s segments, 48% either downplayed or outright denied climate change, 61% framed discussion of climate solutions as some sort of Democratic extremism, while 57% mentioned meat or straws.
    • Fox’s coverage here is similar to its Green New Deal coverage from February: The network ran 41 segments in the first two days after the release of the proposal, and the segments were similarly rife with mockery and commentary meant to paint Democrats as extremists.
  • Fox News aired 46 segments
  • The forum was generally well-received by climate experts

  • CNN’s marathon forum on climate change on September 4 was the most comprehensive discussion of climate policies in television history. Over seven hours, 10 Democratic presidential candidates laid out their visions for how to tackle the climate crisis. Reactions to the forum from climate and media experts were generally positive -- climate scientist Michael Mann called it “a full evening of informed, detailed climate change conversation,” while Time magazine climate reporter Justin Worland noted that it “feels remarkable to see 7 hours of largely substantive talk on CNN where science is taken as a given and candidates face good questions about solutions.”

    While the forum was the most comprehensive climate discussion ever on cable television, CNN did make some errors. As with previous Democratic debate questions on the topic, the climate forum’s moderators sometimes adopted lazy and conservative framing. This was noted by New York Times climate reporter Kendra Pierre-Louis:

  • Fox News dominated the post-forum discussion

  • From September 5 to September 6, Fox News aired a total of 46 segments on the climate forum during its 5 a.m. to midnight programming. Thirty-one of these segments aired on September 5, the day after the climate forum. In fact, Fox aired its 13th segment -- which is the total number of segments that CNN and MSNBC aired combined on the climate forum -- before the end of The Daily Briefing with Dana Perino, which airs at 2 p.m. On Fox, 29 segments -- over 60% -- ran on prime-time shows. Tucker Carlson Tonight aired the most segments, with nine. America’s Newsroom ran the second most segments (six). The only Fox program during this time period to not air a segment about the climate forum was Your World with Neil Cavuto.

    CNN gave perfunctory treatment to its own climate forum, airing only five segments about the event on its 5 a.m. to midnight shows on September 5 and 6. All of CNN’s segments came during the daytime hours of September 5; three of these segments aired on New Day, while one segment each aired on At This Hour and Inside Politics.

    MSNBC aired eight total segments discussing the climate forum on September 5 and 6, with four airing each day. MSNBC Live with Stephanie Ruhle was the only show to air a segment on both days. The MSNBC prime-time shows to air a segment were MTP Daily, All In with Chris Hayes, and 11th Hour with Brian Williams.

  • Fox’s segments about the climate forum downplayed the climate crisis, framed potential solutions around personal sacrifice, and painted every Democratic participant as an extremist

  • Fox downplayed climate change, talked about meat and straws, and painted Democrats as extremists
  • Nearly half of Fox’s segments downplayed or outright denied climate science

    Twenty-two of Fox’s 46 climate forum segments -- or 48% -- downplayed or denied the issue of climate change. Some of these segments invoked the usual suspects: On September 5, Marc Morano went on Fox & Friends to deny the fact that there’s a climate emergency at all. Later that morning, Fox’s newest favorite misinformer, Mandy Gunasekara, claimed on America’s Newsroom that climate change “is not a crisis or threat to humanity despite what the Democrats were saying last night.” Sean Hannity later went on a nearly 11 1/2-minute rant about the “flawed science” and “politically motivated outrage” regarding climate change. Coverage of the climate forum was so important that Fox brought in notorious climate denier Patrick Michaels to downplay issues in climate science on Laura Ingraham’s September 5 show. (This was a rare Fox News appearance for Michaels, whose climate denial shop at the Koch-backed Cato Institute was recently shut down.)

    The fact that nearly half of Fox’s segments on the climate forum featured climate denial comes as no surprise. Just last month, a report by Public Citizen found that 86% of climate change segments in the first half of 2019 were “dismissive of the climate crisis.”

    Over 60% of Fox’s segments painted Democrats as crazy or extremists

    Of Fox’s 46 climate forum segments, 28 invoked the idea that Democratic candidates’ plans to deal with climate change were crazy, extreme, or tantamount to socialism. On the September 5 episode of America’s Newsroom, Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel’s comments were a perfect example of this framing:

  • RONNA MCDANIEL (RNC CHAIR): I think we saw the Democrat Party lurch even further toward socialism. I mean, their answer to everything is more government control. We want to control what you eat. We want to control whether you can fly. We want to control how you eat, what utensils you use. Everything is more government control and limiting freedoms. And they also want to limit the economy of the United States of America.

    Republicans care about the environment. I'm from Michigan. We care about our Great Lakes, the president cares about things of that nature. But the extreme measures the Democrats are going to -- the radical Green New Deal, a $93 trillion boondoggle that they can't pay for that will absolutely destroy our economy and bankrupt families across this country, is just not the answer. So we're ready to have this debate, but limiting red meat and saying you can't have air travel and we're going to get rid of cows and you can't have cheeseburgers is not the answer. Having the government take over every aspect of our lives is not what the American people are going to sign up for.

  • The $93 trillion cost estimate for the Green New Deal is a completely bogus figure and based on a deeply flawed analysis, but that didn’t prevent McDaniel from to repeating it.

    Other examples abound. On September 5, Tucker Carlson brought on the Heartland Institute’s Justin Haskins, who stated, “This is not about climate change, it's not about environmentalism, it's never been about that. It's about force, control, and manipulation.” (The argument that climate solutions will lead to socialism is a favorite of Haskins, who has repeated it on Fox numerous times this year.)

    On September 5, Laura Ingraham devoted her opening monologue to describing the Democrats at the climate forum as “dictators in training.”

    On the September 6 episode of Fox & Friends, former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders stated, “The things that are coming out of Democrats’ mouths these days, I can't even process it they're so stupid. They want to take our country back so far.”

    Roughly 57% of Fox’s segments mentioned giving up meat or straws in relation to the climate forum

    While the issues of sacrificing meat and straws did indeed come up in the climate forum, candidate Elizabeth Warren shot down that line of questioning:

  • SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA): This is exactly what the fossil fuel industry hopes we’re all talking about. That is what they want us to talk about. They want to be able to stir up a lot of controversy around your light bulbs, around your straws, and around your cheeseburgers, when 70% of the pollution, of the carbon we're throwing into the air, comes from three industries.

  • This didn’t stop Fox from bringing up those issues -- 26 of Fox’s 46 climate segments specifically mentioned meat or straws, and three segments actually referred to a “war on meat.” Fox opinion hosts particularly ran with it: Carlson made it a key feature of his opening monologue on September 5, while Ingraham brought the meat and straws issue to its logical endpoint on September 6:

  • CNN deserves blame here for asking these questions in the first place. The personal sacrifice framing is one of the right’s favorite talking points when it comes to climate change, and Fox seizes on this argument whenever it pops up.

  • Similar to the Green New Deal, Fox News is shaping the overall climate discussion on cable news

  • If Fox’s intense focus on the climate forum sounds familiar, that’s because it is -- Fox followed a similar strategy when discussing the Green New Deal. In the two days after that proposal was released on February 7, Fox News aired 41 segments about it on its 5 a.m. to midnight programming.

    Fox was also well ahead of its cable news counterparts in discussing that proposal: Media Matters looked at prime-time cable news coverage of the Green New Deal from February 7-11 and found that Fox aired more than triple the amount of segments of CNN and MSNBC combined. Another Media Matters study from the last week of March found that Fox again led its counterparts in discussing the Green New Deal.

    Not only did Fox’s coverage of the climate forum continue the network’s trend of outcovering CNN and MSNBC on major climate issues, but Fox has also continued to recycle the same attacks it used against other proposed climate solutions. Fox’s Green New Deal coverage was riddled with misinformation, including climate denial, a focus on issues of personal sacrifice such as getting rid of airplanes and cows, and it painted the plan as nothing more than a socialist takeover of America. These same trends were exhibited in its coverage of the climate forum.

    The problem with Fox’s sustained and hyperbolic coverage of the Green New Deal compared to segments on other networks was that it allowed Fox figures to shape the narrative. Progressive think tank Data for Progress confirmed this fact in an April study, and co-founder Sean McElwee further explained the issue in a New York Times op-ed:

  • Though many components of the Green New Deal are popular, the Republican propaganda machine has already reshaped the narrative, and it has done so with virtually no coordinated pushback from progressives, or certainly nowhere near enough, a worrying pattern.

  • We are already starting to see this impact with discussion of the climate forum. One of MSNBC’s eight segments on the forum, which occurred on The 11th Hour with Brian Williams on September 6, honed in on the same narrative of climate solutions requiring personal sacrifice used by Fox News. Host Brian Williams referred to the debate as “an ad for the Republicans to come at the Democrats this way: They're coming for your light bulbs, your straws, your cheeseburgers, any other red meat you've got around the house, your guns, certainly, and the keys to your Ford F-150.” This line of framing will not help tackle the real issues behind solving the climate crisis, and it plays right into Fox’s hands.

  • The climate forums on CNN and MSNBC are great, but the coverage can’t stop there

  • It’s fantastic that CNN held a climate forum, and MSNBC’s upcoming climate forum will again provide opportunities for sustained coverage and climate issues getting more airtime. But the coverage cannot stop there: CNN and MSNBC need to step up their climate reporting to avoid repeating the same mistakes that allowed Fox News to shape debate around the Green New Deal.

    Climate change is not a minor issue -- it’s part of our daily lives, and it should be incorporated into every story. Let’s hope the crisis gets the attention it truly deserves.

  • Methodology

  • Media Matters conducted searches in Nexis, iQ media, and SnapStream databases for mentions of “climate” in programs that aired on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC between 5 a.m. and midnight from September 5-6. We then searched within those transcripts for discussions about the climate forum. We counted any segments that were devoted to the climate forum or made substantial mention of it. We did not count teasers, passing mentions, or rebroadcasts.

    Charts by Ceci Freed of Media Matters.