On May 25, the Supreme Court, in the decision of Sackett v. EPA, significantly weakened the Clean Water Act and curtailed the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency to safeguard the nation's wetlands and waterways from pollution.
The controversial decision leaves millions of acres of wetlands vulnerable and jeopardizes “access to safe drinking water to millions” of Americans. Unfortunately, most major TV news programs failed to cover the decision and its implications.
Media Matters found that from May 25-31:
- CNN, Fox News and MSNBC aired a combined 21 minutes of coverage about the Supreme Court decision that limited the Clean Water Act across 13 segments.
- Fox’s 12 minutes of coverage was more than CNN (3 minutes) and MSNBC (6 minutes) combined.
- Corporate broadcast news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC failed to cover the decision at all.
Corporate broadcast and cable news’ lack of substantive and sustained news coverage can not only obscure the public's understanding of significant climate and environmental rulings, but also risks allowing public discourse to be shaped around narrow, often misleading narratives propagated by right-wing outlets such as Fox News.
How national TV news covered the Sackett decision
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of an Idaho couple after a 14-year legal battle in which they fought to develop on their land, near protected wetlands, without a federal permit. In a concurring opinion, the conservative majority (Justice Brett Kavanaugh opted to side with liberal justices, saying the majority’s decision to redefine what constitutes waters protected under the Clean Water Act went against scientific evidence) leveraged the Sacketts' property dispute as a vehicle to kneecap decades-old Clean Water Act regulations. With this and other recent pro-industry decisions, this Supreme Court has made it clear that it is beholden to harmful special interests that have conspired to ensure certain cases make it before the friendly court. According to NPR:
As in last year's case limiting the EPA's ability to regulate air pollution from power plants, the decision was a major victory for the groups that supported the Sacketts — mining, oil, utilities and, in today's case, agricultural and real estate interests as well.
Paired with the trend that is emerging in the court’s pro-pollution decisions, this ruling merits much more coverage than it has received. The only two segments that aired outside of Fox News programming appeared on the May 25 episode of CNN News Central and the May 31 episode of MSNBC’s The Beat with Ari Melber.
The MSNBC segment was the most substantive of the two and featured an interview with Vox senior correspondent Ian Millhiser, who clearly explained that the 9-0 ruling was a narrow decision on the merits of the case, while the 5-4 concurring opinion from the conservative wing went much further to redefine wetlands and subsequently hinder the EPA’s ability to enforce the Clean Water Act.
Millhiser also put the decision into the broader context of this court’s agenda saying: “But it's part of a much bigger pattern, where it seems like every term we get a more serious blow to the environment. Last term the Supreme Court went after the Clean Air Act. This year they went after the Clean Water Act. And you know, next term who knows what's going to be next.”
Notably the segment also pointed out that the decision makes waterways that have been protected for more than 40 years since the Clean Water Act was enacted now vulnerable to toxins. Guest host Katie Phang noted that the EPA was established by Republican President Richard Nixon and the Clean Water Act was passed during his presidency.
Fox’s coverage largely obfuscated the dangerous reach of the concurring opinion to paint the liberal justices as supporters of the far-reaching changes detailed in the 5-4 split. For example, the May 26 episode of The Faulkner Focus featured a correspondent segment followed by an interview with Fox personality Sean Duffy. Both of these segments make light of Sen. Chuck Schumer’s (D-NY) harsh critique of the ruling and downplay the divisions between the conservative and liberal wings' rulings on the case in order to infer a unanimity belied by the liberal wing’s blistering dissents.
The role of mainstream news media in covering pivotal environmental rulings
Too often, national TV news shows miss key opportunities to discuss the implications of climate and environmental rulings. For example, cable news coverage of last July’s West Virginia v. EPA ruling missed a key opportunity to mention how the fossil fuel industry helped shape the ruling or stands to benefit from it. Coverage also failed to frame the decision through an environmental justice lens, largely ignoring how the decision would impact marginalized communities.
During her nomination hearing in October 2021, now-Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett gave what should have been disqualifying answers about climate change, even as the dark money ties to her nomination were brought to light. However, CNN and MSNBC struggled to articulate the harm a private interest-friendly justice like Barrett would have on important issues ranging from climate action and environmental regulation to workplace rights.
National television news coverage, or the lack thereof, can play a very influential role in shaping public perception of paramount environmental decisions. Substantive and sustained coverage could act as a catalyst, stimulating public discourse and encouraging the public to become engaged around significant environmental and climate policies. However, the dearth of good coverage can also dull the perceived urgency of environmental rulings and diminish public engagement.
The lack of coverage shown in this study, aside from abetting a dwindling appetite for climate action, can also make room for public misinformation, especially when right-wing media, like Fox News, are allowed to dominate and shape the narrative around important climate issues.
Allowing right-wing media to dominate climate and environmental coverage has eroded public trust and hindered climate action
The Sackett decision is a case in point: Right-wing media flooded social media with attacks on those who amplified the significance of the decision to redefine what waters are protected by the Clean Water Act, while Fox News significantly outpaced other cable outlets in coverage.
By cheerleading the fossil fuel industry, pushing climate denial, and demonizing climate and environmental action and activists, Fox News has contaminated policy debates, and hindered the development of sound, scientifically-grounded policies.
Ultimately, it is not just the viewers of these underperforming networks, but our planet that pays the price.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for ABC’s Good Morning America, World News Tonight, and This Week; CBS’ Mornings, Evening News, and Face the Nation; NBC’s Today, Nightly News, and Meet the Press and all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for any of the terms “Supreme Court,” “court,” “EPA,” “Environmental Protection Agency,” “agency,” “Clean Water Act,” “Idaho,” or “Sackett” (including misspellings) within close proximity of any of the terms “lake,” “river,” “stream,” “pond,” “ocean,” “pollution,” “flood,” or “property” or any variation of any of the terms “water,” “wetland,” “environment,” or “regulate” from May 25, 2023, when the Supreme Court issued its decision in Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency, through May 31, 2023.
We timed segments, which we defined as instances when the Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency decision was the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion of the decision. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed the decision with one another.
We did not include mentions, which we defined as instances when a single speaker mentioned the decision without another engaging with the comment, or teasers, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host promoted a segment about the decision scheduled to air later in the broadcast. We rounded all times to the nearest minute.
We then reviewed the identified segments for whether any speaker discussed the difference between the 9-0 decision, where the justices agreed unanimously that the EPA had overreached in its enforcement of the Clean Water Act with regard to the Sackett’s property, and the 5-4 split opinion, where the majority limited the scope of the Clean Water Act nationally.