Coverage of former President Donald Trump’s visit to East Palestine by the major cable news networks – CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC – largely failed to contextualize the stunt with key details including Trump’s role in weakening safety regulations of the rail industry and his notoriously poor leadership in handling disasters that happened during his term.
- Major TV news networks on cable (CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC) aired over an hour of coverage across 33 segments on Trump’s visit to East Palestine.
- Only 10 segments, the vast majority appearing on MSNBC, included discussion of Trump’s role in weakening regulations that govern the transport of hazardous materials by rail.
- Only 1 program alluded to Trump’s response to federal disasters during his term.
30% of cable coverage of Trump's visit to East Palestine cited his role in deregulating the rail industry
On February 22, Trump visited the small Ohio town, where three weeks ago a train operated by Norfolk Southern containing hazardous material derailed, creating a toxic fire and prompting a state of emergency declaration and the evacuation of the surrounding community.
The incident came after a decadelong campaign by the rail industry to weaken federal regulations governing the transportation of toxic and dangerous materials. Under the Trump administration, several regulations were weakened at the behest of the rail industry. According to The Guardian:
He [Trump] withdrew an Obama-era plan to require faster brakes on trains carrying highly flammable materials, shelved a rule that demanded at least two crew members on freight trains and dropped a ban on transporting liquified natural gas by rail, despite fears this could cause explosions.
This salient and glaring information made its way into only 10 of the 33 cable segments that aired — on February 22 through 23 — on Trump’s visit to the disaster site. MSNBC mentioned Trump’s role in weakening rail safeguards in 7 of its 12 segments. Fox News mentioned it in 2 of its 16 segments — though one of the mentions was intended to push back on links between Trump and deregulation — and CNN mentioned it 1 time across its 5 segments.
MSNBC provided the vast majority of mentions, and of the 7 mentions, 3 appeared on The ReidOut. During her monologue on the February 23 edition of The ReidOut, host Joy Reid noted:
JOY REID (HOST): It was Donald Trump and his administration who gave the rail industry and Norfolk Southern exactly what they wanted, fewer and looser rules around rail safety. Trump conveniently forgot to tell his most loyal supporters how Norfolk Southern lobbied heavily for laxer safety rules and how receptive the regulators in the Trump administration were to their arguments on rolling back the rules. There's also the litany of Obama-era regulations to advance safety that Trump's administration rescinded and that the Biden administration has or is trying to reinstate.
Cable news ignores Trump’s history of questionable responses to federal disasters during his term
Trump’s visit was seemingly meant to position him as a leader in a time of crisis as he competes for his party’s 2024 presidential nomination, giving him a chance to criticize the current administration's response to the disaster.
The stunt, which included handing out “Trump Water,” buying McDonalds burgers for and handing out MAGA hats to first responders, and suggesting that FEMA started to act only after the Biden administration learned of his visit, could have been an opportunity for cable outlets to revisit how Trump responded to high-profile disasters during his own term.
For example, in the wake of one of the most destructive hurricanes to hit Puerto Rico and the deadliest natural disaster on U.S. territory in 100 years, Trump held up nearly $20 billion in disaster relief. An image of the president throwing paper towels to survivors of Hurricane Maria weeks after the storm was widely criticized and viewed as emblematic of the Trump administration response to the catastrophe that left over 3,000 dead.
Trump also initially rejected aid to California to help the state recover from a historic year of wildfires in 2020 after criticizing the state’s wildfire management and telling officials to rake the forest, and he bizarrely used a Sharpie to alter a map of Hurricane Dorian’s path to support a false claim he made that the storm would hit Alabama.
Only one program, the February 23 edition of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, alluded to Trump’s failed response to Hurricane Maria in discussing his visit to East Palestine. After host Joe Scarborough called out Trump for failing to visit the site of train disasters during his presidency, co-host Mika Brzezinski quipped, “He did go throw paper towels at people at one point.”
The Morning Joe segment also discussed key details aired the night before on Fox News’ Special Report with Bret Baier. In response to the ongoing drumbeat, led by Fox News and repeated by Trump, of chastising Biden and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg for not visiting the site of the disaster, anchor Bret Baier quoted from a Politico article to note that “it is exceedingly rare for a transportation secretary to visit the site of a train derailment, especially one that resulted in no fatalities.’”
Baier further noted: “There were train derailments in the Trump administration that actually had fatalities that didn’t have a visit by Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. But this seems to have some momentum about the administration and its reaction to this derailment in particular.”
The network’s chief political analyst Brit Hume seemingly agreed with this assessment, noting that such visits are “political gestures” and commenting: “I don't think the administration's policy and actions toward East Palestine would be any different if more officials had gone there.”
This rare fact check in Fox News’ divisive coverage of the disaster aside, Trump’s visit was a theatrical stunt that should have been presented within the context of his past actions — if covered at all. But at the end of the day, the question of who is on the ground is less pressing than what is being done to aid the victims, clean up the environment, and prevent future so-called accidents by polluting industries.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for any of the terms “Ohio,” “train,” “East Palestine,” or “Norfolk Southern” within close proximity of either of the terms “Trump” or “president” from February 22, 2023, when Trump visited the East Palestine derailment, through February 23, 2023.
We timed segments, which we defined as instances when Trump’s visit to East Palestine was the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion of the visit. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed the visit with one another.
We did not count passing mentions, which we defined as instances when a speaker in a segment on another topic mentioned the train derailment without another speaker engaging with the comment, or teasers, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host promoted a segment about the train derailment scheduled to air later in the broadcast.
We then reviewed all segments for whether they included context on Trump’s role in weakening regulations governing the transport of hazardous materials by rail and mentioned Trump’s response to federal disasters during his term.