Last week’s first presidential debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden was raucous but largely covered predictable topics, with one exception: Fox News anchor and debate moderator Chris Wallace asked about climate change. The issue was not on the advance list of debate topics and marked the first time since 2008 that climate change was discussed in a presidential debate.
However, Fox News quickly seized on the climate discussion to repeat baseless attacks against the Democratic nominee -- beginning immediately after the first presidential debate on September 29 through October 6, Fox pushed false narratives about Biden’s support for the Green New Deal at least 48 times.
The series of questions and exchanges related to the climate crisis, which lasted nearly 11 minutes, touched on Trump’s rejection of climate science and his administration's rollback of environmental protections, as well as the potential cost of Biden’s climate plan.
On Fox News though, it was the Green New Deal that dominated most discussion about the climate section of the debate -- an issue that was pressed by Trump, not Wallace. In the debate, Biden declared that he didn’t support the Green New Deal and instead favors his own climate plan; in one of his many interruptions, Trump remarked that Biden “just lost the radical left” with that statement. (Trump also falsely claimed that the Green New Deal will cost $100 trillion, a lie that was not pushed back by Wallace.)
In commentary immediately following the debate and in the week since, Fox News heavily pushed Trump’s false narrative that Biden had flip-flopped on his Green New Deal support, and the network also echoed Trump’s claim that this would drive a wedge between progressives and the Biden campaign. In the end, both of these narratives are false. The hyper-focus on the Green New Deal exchange shows how far Fox will go to carry Trump’s water and how much the network doesn’t want to talk about the reality of the climate crisis. Moreover, this coverage represents a whipsaw of the network's characterization of Biden from supposedly being a radical socialist to suggesting he is too moderate for progressives.
Biden never flip-flopped on the Green New Deal, but the facts haven’t stopped Fox from pushing this false narrative
Biden has never outright supported or endorsed the Green New Deal throughout his presidential campaign.
Although his website acknowledges that “the Green New Deal is a crucial framework for meeting the climate challenges we face,” that is the only mention of the proposal in Biden’s climate plan, which lays out a separate path for the U.S. to achieve “a 100% clean energy economy and net-zero emissions no later than 2050.” However, this one mention is also being treated as some sort of “gotcha” moment following last week’s debate among Trump surrogates and right-wing media, including Trump campaign adviser Mercedes Schlapp, Fox contributor Guy Benson, and Breitbart. And on cable, Fox News is leading the charge to push this line of attack against the Biden campaign.
A Media Matters analysis found that beginning immediately after the first presidential debate on September 29 through October 6, Fox News pushed the false narrative that Biden flip-flopped on his Green New Deal support 27 times.
On the September 29 edition of Hannity, which aired live from the debate hall in Cleveland, Ohio, Schlapp called Biden’s debate performance “weak” and claimed, “He continued to not give direct answers on questions like … ‘What is your stance on a Green New Deal,’ which it seems like he flip-flopped on that as well."
The next morning on Fox & Friends, Lara Trump claimed that Biden “flip-flopped on the Green New Deal.” Later that morning on America’s Newsroom, The Wall Street Journal’s James Freeman stated that Biden “seemed confused about whether he was for the Green New Deal or against it.”
Later that night on Fox News @ Night, White House Deputy Communications Director Brian Morgenstern stated that Biden “did not back away effectively from the Green New Deal, which his website still endorses.” Bill Hemmer Reports on October 6 also referenced Biden’s website mentioning the Green New Deal, despite Biden repeatedly saying it’s not part of his climate plan.
Like it has done with misleading coverage and false claims about Biden’s position on fracking, Fox is now pushing this false narrative that Biden is a flip-flopper on the Green New Deal. It’s just not true. But it is seemingly a precondition for pushing the notion that Biden’s failure to fully endorse the Green New Deal during the presidential debate was a breaking point for progressives and Green New Deal activists.
It’s misleading to claim that Biden’s Green New Deal answer will drive a wedge between moderates and progressives
While there is criticism from the left of Biden being too moderate as a candidate, it’s unlikely that his Green New Deal comments in the first presidential debate made any of his progressive supporters jump ship. Despite not endorsing the Green New Deal -- which progressives and left-leaning members of the climate community have known throughout his entire candidacy -- the Democratic nominee clearly articulated the his own proposed climate plan.
The two original co-sponsors of the Green New Deal -- Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) -- both tweeted in support of Biden after his Green New Deal comments in the debate. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has also been a vocal supporter of Biden following their rivalry in the Democratic primaries, actively campaigning for the nominee despite acknowledging their differences on how to best combat climate change. Furthermore, Biden has racked up support from virtually every major climate advocacy group, including ones that were initially skeptical of his climate plans. But you wouldn’t know any of this from watching Fox.
In the same studied time period following the debate, Fox News also pushed the false narrative that Biden’s stance on the Green New Deal will drive a wedge between moderates and progressives 21 times.
Right off the bat on the September 29 edition of Hannity, Fox host Jeanine Pirro stated, “Well, I think that Joe Biden has disappointed just about everyone tonight. He's disappointed the left because he said to his vice presidential candidate and AOC, who was supposed to be in charge of the Green New Deal, that he’s got his own deal.”
On Fox News @ Night, anchor Shannon Bream opened a segment on the debate by raising “the issue over how far left Mr. Biden may or may not have gone” and claimed that he was “pressed on [the] Green New Deal.” Fox News host Steve Hilton responded that “the president has managed to push Joe Biden into denouncing left-wing positions that actually represent a real division within the Democratic Party,” noting the Green New Deal as one example and suggesting that this supposed division could “really harm him come election time.”
On the September 30 edition of Fox & Friends First, conservative talk radio host Tony Katz stated that “a massive takeaway from this debate” was partly “the story of Joe Biden saying he’s not in favor of the Green New Deal, but he said he was, … that plays miserably to the progressive base.” On The Daily Briefing with Dana Perino, anchor Dana Perino said: “Trump had less to lose than Biden. And Trump makes the point a couple of times that ‘you just lost the left because you insulted Bernie [Sanders] and you disavowed the Green New Deal.’ Do you think progressives will have noticed that?”
Later that night on Hannity, guest Katie Pavlich stated that “Biden is refusing to answer questions about very serious topics that impact the country for generations to come,” including “the Green New Deal -- he’s completely abandoned the left when it's convenient, like in the debate last night, but then today of course you see him trying to placate them so he can bring them back into the party and hopefully vote for him in November.”
Fox’s laser-focus on promoting these two misleading narratives shows how really out of touch the network is when it comes to climate politics. During the October 1 edition of America’s Newsroom, Fox contributor Marie Harf made one of the few times Biden’s record was set straight on Fox over the past week:
MARIE HARF (FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR): I think it was certainly Donald Trump's strategy to try to tie Joe Biden to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Donald Trump has flailed a little bit, quite frankly, unlike four years ago. He had a really strong, cohesive message on Hillary Clinton -- I obviously didn't agree with it, but he had his message down on who Hillary Clinton was.
Donald Trump has had difficulty doing the same thing with Joe Biden. His tactic in the debate was clearly to try to tie him to the progressive left or to try to highlight fissures within the party. But honestly, everyone I talked to in the past two days, Trace, says to me that that debate more than anything coalesced the Democratic Party. The progressive left knows who Joe Biden is, they know that he’s more of a moderate. They also know that you win national elections by bringing in moderates and swing voters. But they saw in Donald Trump a man who seemed out of control, who espouse things that are so at odds with American democracy -- I think the left actually is more fired up to vote for Joe Biden after that debate than even they were beforehand because of Donald Trump’s behavior.
TRACE GALLAGHER (ANCHOR): Well, certainly Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey, the senator and the congresswoman who supported the Green New Deal, have said they’re very happy with the Biden plan.
People plugged into these issues know that Biden has never endorsed the Green New Deal, and that while there are key disagreements between Biden and the progressive flank of the Democratic Party, most prominent progressives are working with the nominee to make his climate plan better. Fox is once again just manufacturing a controversy out of nothing.
Fox is talking out both sides of its mouth on Biden’s climate platform, but the network remains silent on Trump’s inaction and denial
Fox has essentially been lying and promoting misleading narratives about the Green New Deal ever since it was introduced in early 2019. Two separate studies from Media Matters in February and April of last year show that Fox News dominated the cable news discussion about the Green New Deal, often with misinformation and climate denial.
This May, Fox News created an entirely new false narrative claiming the Green New Deal was part of the original stimulus package. The network also falsely linked the plan to Biden then, claiming that he was a “radical” for supporting it even though he had never endorsed the proposal.
In fact, if we’re talking about flip-flops, look no further than Fox News, which has spent months painting Biden with the radical socialist brush. The network completely melted down over his climate speech on July 14; The Five invoked socialism and climate alarmism in their coverage, while host Sean Hannity stated that Biden “has taken his cues from the most radical, the most extreme socialist extremist that this party has ever embraced.” Fox’s obsessive coverage of Biden’s climate plan was filled with hysterical claims and misinformation, including the lie that it would ban all fracking.
After all of these attacks, they are now saying that Biden is actually too moderate and this may scare off progressive voters. That’s quite the turn-around for Fox, and it shows how incoherent the network’s coverage of Biden’s climate platform has been. By comparison, Fox segments about the debate in the week afterward barely included any reference to Trump’s climate answers, which were filled with denial and misinformation.
Climate journalist Emily Atkin wrote in her Heated newsletter, “The climate portion of last night's debate was the only time Trump didn't constantly interrupt—because he didn't know what to say.” Apparently, the network doesn’t know what to say either.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original programming on Fox News Channel for the term “Green New Deal” from 11:30 p.m. EDT on September 29, immediately following the first presidential debate, through October 6, 2020.
For each mention of “Green New Deal," we reviewed whether speakers advanced the narrative that Biden once supported the Green New Deal but disavowed it during the first presidential debate, or whether speakers advanced the narrative that his stance toward the Green New Deal has alienated progressive voters away from his campaign.