In an August 31 speech in Pittsburgh, Joe Biden attempted to set the record straight: “I am not banning fracking. Let me say that again. I am not banning fracking, no matter how many times Donald Trump lies about me.” But Biden’s speech clarifying his position on fracking did not stop the right-wing media machine from spreading this lie -- instead, it gave it more fuel.
Biden has been clear on his fracking position: He does not support an outright ban on the practice; however, he would block new fracking permits on public lands. (The vast majority of fracking production is done on private land; the U.S. Bureau of Land Management says production on federal land accounted for less than 10% of oil and gas in 2018.)
But in the seven weeks since Biden announced his climate plan, right-wing media has perpetuated the falsehood that he would ban fracking if elected. Conservative media was quick to pounce on the chance to spread the false narrative that Biden supports a ban on fracking in the wake of Biden’s Pittsburgh speech. Right-wing media outlets latched onto previous statements Biden has made on fossil fuels -- in particular, they have zeroed in on a clip from a March Democratic presidential primary debate in which Biden stated he would not support new fracking. But his campaign retracted the statement that night and later said that he misspoke “in reference to his plan to end new drilling on federal land.” His climate plan doesn’t even mention fracking.
The Washington Post succinctly sums up the issue of how right-wing media is deliberately misinterpreting this position:
Biden described his fracking stance inaccurately. He supports a ban only on new permits for federal lands and waters. The Biden campaign quickly retracted his remarks on debate night. That seemed to reach enough reporters, and Biden’s remarks attracted scant attention in the mainstream media.
On the right, a different version of reality took hold. Biden’s videotaped remarks took on a life of their own, feeding the incorrect notion that he now supports a total ban on fracking. His position is the same as it ever was.
Despite the fact that Biden’s position on fracking is unchanged from the primary, right-wing media have seized on this mishap to promote the false view that Biden is a flip-flopper on fracking.
Both Republican Party Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and the Trump campaign claimed that Biden’s supposed fracking ban would destroy jobs and ruin American energy independence. The GOP’s Steve Guest responded with a video mashup of Biden’s past fracking statements. Right-wing media fell in lockstep with the messages from GOP operatives; The Federalist’s Sean Davis, Breitbart’s Joel Pollack, and The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro erroneously suggested that Biden would ban fracking. Right-wing outlets The Washington Times and The Daily Caller also lambasted Biden for his comment in Pittsburgh, calling back to previous statements.
Fox News has dominated the fracking narrative among cable TV programs
On cable TV, Fox News is dominating discussion of fracking -- a similar pattern to cable news coverage of the Green New Deal (on numerous occasions in 2019, Fox aired more segments on the plan than CNN and MSNBC combined). In the month after Biden released his $2 trillion climate plan, Fox aired more segments on this proposal than CNN and MSNBC combined. In fact, a review by Media Matters found that Fox has pushed the narrative that Joe Biden or his administration would ban fracking 69 times out of 95 total segments on the issue since July 14. In comparison, only 11 segments on MSNBC and 6 segments on CNN have discussed Biden’s position on fracking.
Now, the discussion is largely about whether Biden wants to ban the practice or how his position would affect his electability in swing states and not at all about any of the climate impacts or local environmental threats associated with fossil fuel extraction, or how local voters actually feel about fracking. And like with the Green New Deal, CNN and MSNBC have rarely discussed fracking, allowing Fox to shape the narrative around the issue in the presidential election.
Nine Fox shows challenged Biden’s fracking comments in Pittsburgh
After Biden stated in his Pittsburgh speech that he would not ban fracking, nine Fox shows airing on August 31 and September 1 suggested that his position on fracking was still unclear or claimed that he would still ban fracking despite his statement. The Daily Briefing with Dana Perino, Bill Hemmer Reports, Your World with Neil Cavuto, The Five, Special Report with Bret Baier, Hannity, Fox News @ Night, Fox & Friends First, and Fox & Friends all touched on Biden’s fracking comments and the importance of the issue to Pennsylvania, covering the story across 18 segments -- including 15 segments mischaracterizing his position.
Special Report with Bret Baier aired a supercut of some of Biden’s previous statements on fracking and fossil fuel use, with anchor Bret Baier noting that the Biden campaign “says that he is not against -- he is against fracking on federal lands, not private lands. They have a nuanced thing. But his answers in the past have been murky at best.”
Former Trump White House press secretary Sarah Sanders attacked Biden for his fracking position on Hannity, stating:
SARAH SANDERS (FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR): I'm not sure if he has any idea probably even what fracking is. … The bottom line is Joe Biden is wholly owned by the radical left. If he somehow manages to win, we can certainly count on the fact he will destroy everything that President Trump has done by making us energy independent, taking us backwards, killing millions of jobs, making us dependent on the Middle East for our energy once again. Why would anybody want that? The truth is they don’t and he knows it, particularly in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia. It’s why he’s backtracking and trying to salvage the numbers that continue to tank.
Sanders’ comment was repeated on the September 1 edition of Fox & Friends First.
Fox & Friends also devoted several segments to Biden’s fracking comments. Co-host Jedediah Bila claimed to be “seeing a lot of hypocrisy emerge from Democrats these days,” and pointed to his fracking comments as an example. The show also interviewed Donald Trump Jr., who complained Biden said one thing about banning fracking during the debates, but then supposedly walked that back while campaigning in Pennsylvania. The Daily Wire’s Shapiro also attacked Biden over his comments, stating that “ he shifts his position” on issues like fracking “as soon as he wants to win Pennsylvania” -- despite the fact that he has not changed his position.
BEN SHAPIRO (FOUNDER, THE DAILY WIRE): You can’t believe Joe Biden whatever he says because he shifts his position depending on how convenient it is. The fact is that he has taken the position “no fracking at all” and then “no new fracking meaning no new permits for fracking,” which effectively would mean the end of fracking in fairly short order. And then he's taking the position that he is perfectly fine with fracking and that fracking is basically kind of OK as soon as he wants to win Pennsylvania.
Five MSNBC shows and two CNN shows mentioned Biden's remarks, though only one segment from each network really addressed the claims in-depth and offered good pushback.
Four MSNBC shows -- The Last Word With Lawrence O'Donnell, The 11th Hour With Brian Williams, MSNBC Live With Stephanie Ruhle, and Andrea Mitchell Reports -- had mentions of Biden and fracking, and mentions typically came in the context of Trump’s lies on Biden. On September 1, Morning Joe had a good segment that pushed back on the right-wing media mischaracterization of Biden’s position on fracking.
CNN’s first mention of fracking came shortly after Biden’s speech on the August 31 edition of CNN Newsroom, and it came in the context of Biden pushing back on Trump’s lies. The network’s other mention came during the September 1 edition of The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer. The segment was a good debunk on some of right-wing media’s mischaracterizations of Biden’s fracking comments and his position on the issue:
In Fox’s myopic coverage, real and substantive issues on fracking are often ignored
The prevailing cable news narrative on fracking has been dictated by Fox -- the network is painting Biden as flip-flopping on the issue and claiming that any kind of fracking ban would be disastrous to the economy and American energy independence. (These right-wing media claims about the impact of potential fracking bans dovetail conveniently with industry-backed studies with highly inflated numbers.)
Real issues with fracking are almost entirely ignored in Fox’s extreme and shallow coverage and lost in CNN and MSNBC’s relative silence on the issue. For example, numerous polls in Pennsylvania showing strong voter support for pro-climate policies, indicating that fracking isn’t as popular as many right-wing outlets are claiming it is. Fracking is also suffering financially, and there are well-documented environmental and climate issues associated with fracking.
Unfortunately, all of these issues take a backburner in cable news coverage compared to Fox’s complete misrepresentation of Biden’s views on fracking. CNN and MSNBC must do a better job of helping to push back on these right-wing media lies.
To analyze cable network coverage of Joe Biden’s position on fracking, Media Matters searched the SnapStream video database service for the terms “frack” along with “Biden” on all original programming for CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC shows from July 14 to September 1, 2020. We coded for whether segments asserted that Biden supports a ban on fracking and whether Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris’ stance on fracking was discussed.