Fox News’ purported “straight news” and opinion personalities are working together to create histrionic coverage around the shutdown of the Colonial fuel pipeline, reportedly at the hands of criminal Russian hackers known as DarkSide, in an effort to depict a dystopian national breakdown on the scale of the oil crises and long gas lines of the 1970s.
The pipeline shutdown has set off a wave of panic-buying, which only makes the situation worse in a similar manner to the mass run on toilet paper last year at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Fox has also taken advantage of this momentary disruption to push a series of talking points ranging from calls to build even more pipelines or even to start a war. And now, the network says, President Joe Biden’s leadership in this singular event is just like President Jimmy Carter’s handling of the long gas lines in the 1970s — or even worse.
For some historical context, the oil shocks of the 1970s were two major worldwide events, occurring in 1973 and 1979, with far-reaching economic and political implications not only in the United States — helping to bring down multiple U.S. presidents of both parties — but overseas as well. The shutdown of the Colonial pipeline, by contrast, is a localized event in the Southeast United States up through the Washington metro region — not the entire world economy, or even the whole country — and furthermore, it already appears to be almost over.
The pipeline was restarted Wednesday — after the company reportedly paid the hackers a $5 million ransom — while Biden is promising an aggressive response against ransomware hackers going forward. The pipeline’s service has been restored, though the entire delivery process from the pipeline to normal service at gas station pumps will still take a few more days.
None of these facts have stopped Fox’s “straight news” and opinion sides from working hand-in-hand, however, to present the story as a full-blown crisis on the order of the 1970s.
On Wednesday’s edition of America Reports with John Roberts & Sandra Smith, correspondent Jonathan Serrie reported on-location from a long gas line in Georgia, saying at one point that “all this is driving up the cost of gasoline to more than $3 a gallon for regular — this time last year, it was $1.85.” This statement was missing some very crucial context: Gas prices plunged last year during the pandemic, due to the shutdowns in travel and other economic activity. Gas prices right now are roughly in line with recent years before 2020, with a general surge in demand as the country reopens.
And it only got worse from there, when an interview with Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel kicked off with a stream of Republican talking points about the situation — coming not from McDaniel, but from co-anchor John Roberts.
“Let's just go back to where we were four months ago — when we were energy independent, we were the No. 1 energy producer in the world, we were a net exporter of energy,” Roberts said. “Now we have a major pipeline shut down, another one that was canceled. We’ve got thousands of people who are out of work now, gas prices spiking, gas lines reminiscent of the 1970s, and gas stations running out of gas. That’s quite a change in four months.”
On Wednesday night, Fox prime-time host Sean Hannity proclaimed: “The world is more dangerous with a weak president. Sad, but it's true. And now you, the American people, we are all paying the price. We'll have to fend for ourselves in a world full of shortages, inflation, global turmoil, it looks an awful lot like Jimmy Carter in the '70s all over again.”
He then brought on Fox News chief breaking news correspondent Trace Gallagher to deliver a brief segment on the gas lines: “Today, President Biden said he'd be getting this whole thing under control in the next 24 hours, which is news to many governors, including Brian Kemp of Georgia, who knows that even with the pipeline back up and running, it will be several days before the fuel actually begins to flow again.”
On Thursday, Roberts interviewed Patrick De Haan of GasBuddy.com, asking him: “You know, we saw these long gas lines in the 1970s. Have you seen anything like this in modern times?”
And later in the program, co-anchor Sandra Smith spoke with Fox News contributor and The Hill columnist Joe Concha, for a discussion on alleged limits on press access by the Biden administration. (The entire hook for the segment was a jocular remark Biden had made to reporters on Wednesday — “I’m not supposed to be answering all these questions, I’m supposed to leave” — while he was actually answering their questions.)
At one point, Concha boldly declared: “As you’ve mentioned before, you see these gas lines reminiscent of 1979, Jimmy Carter — except these are worse, this is a crisis. You see our infrastructure completely and totally vulnerable right now, where hackers can get in and shut down whole pipelines for entire coasts in the U.S. … All of these things, the president should be out in front talking about every day in terms of what his solutions are. Instead, he's hiding behind his handlers' skirts, Sandra.”
While the weaknesses of crucial American infrastructure, whether public or private, ought to be treated as a serious problem going forward, it is clear that Fox’s “news”-side figures and opinion hosts together see the question simply as an opportunity attack the Biden administration. In their retelling, a few days of fuel shortages in the Southeast are not only just like global economic shocks of the 1970s — they’re actually even worse — just as this single episode is now apparently drawing to a close.