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Hack WatchNewsletter | August 4, 2023

Mainstream Media Can’t Keep Losing the Money Trail  

ClimateCorporate Crackdown

This article first appeared in our weekly Hack Watch newsletter on media accountability. Subscribe here to get it delivered straight to your inbox every week, and check out our Hack Watch website.

Amid this week’s record temperatures, many mainstream outlets covered a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, which found that almost three quarters of Republicans prioritize economic growth over addressing climate change. Further, almost half of Republicans said climate change would not have a significant impact on their communities. These statistics run counter to Americans’ opinions overall, with a solid majority believing that addressing climate change is worth some negative impact on the economy, and that climate change will impact their lives. 

These headlines followed a week of articles focused on the fact that the recent heatwave and other extreme weather events, like smoke from fossil fuel-driven Canadian wildfires which shrouded many US cities this summer, had not shifted Congressional Republicans’ positions on combating climate change. CNN theorized about “Why Republicans can’t get out of their climate bind, even as extreme heat overwhelms the US.” Bloomberg lamented, “Summer of Heat and Fire Doesn’t Sway Republicans on Climate.” E&E News observed, “Climate change and extreme weather [met with] big yawns for GOP.”

Ignoring the Root Causes of Climate Denialism

These and other articles point out that, while many Republicans have shifted away from outright climate denialism in recent years, including by backing resilience efforts and renewable energy projects, they still stop short of addressing the root cause of climate change—avaricious corporations that extract and burn fossil fuels with reckless abandon, maximizing profits as people suffer and the planet languishes. As Emma Dumain and Rebekah Alvey wrote for E&E News, “while many Republicans say they believe in climate change […] most say that fossil fuels should not be curtailed. In fact, they say, fossil fuels should be promoted.”  

One headline this week stood out from the rest. Rebecca Burns wrote for Jacobin, “The Fossil Fuel Industry Is Paying the GOP Handsomely to Deny Climate Change.” Unlike NPR, CNN, the Hill, and other mainstream outlets, Burns tied Republican climate denialism directly to the profits and political interests of the fossil fuel industry, making concrete connections between the actions of corporate executives and the opinions of Republican voters and lawmakers. Rather than musing open-endedly about how conservatives can deny climate change in the face of rising temperatures, Burns identified a clear cause-and-effect relationship between extractive industry, the self-interest of captured politicians, and the policy outcomes that result. 

Burns wrote, “As climate change unleashed blistering heat, toxic air quality, and deadly floods on millions of Americans this year, congressional Republicans’ two super PACs raked in nearly $4 million from fossil fuel donors, according to new federal election filings reviewed by the Lever.” She went on to specify that “donors included top executives at the firms Energy Transfer Partners, United Refining Company, and Midland Energy, whose CEO, Syed Javaid Anwar, contributed $125,000,” calling out specific fossil fuel companies and executives by name. 

Burns highlights how fossil fuel money flowed in as key legislative battles over permitting reform and new oil and gas infrastructure played out. She notes that soon after an influx of funding from Valero, Energy Transfer, and a large Louisiana-based oil and gas company, “House Republicans began inserting numerous provisions into annual spending bills that would effectively bar the federal government from combating or even researching climate change, including measures requiring offshore oil and gas leasing and blocking the Securities and Exchange Commission’s proposed climate disclosure rule.”

These kinds of connections are notably absent from other publications’ coverage of the record heat in June and July, which focus more on voters’ psychology and wonder aloud how Republicans can be so out of sync with Democrats and Independents in believing that climate change is “human-caused” (really, corporation-driven), and has material impacts on our lives. These omissions from mainstream news coverage are particularly egregious given the long, well-documented history of corporations, like Exxon, working to prevent the release of climate science that substantiated the impact of burning fossil fuels on the environment. 

Hand-Waving Around Corporate Incentives Is Not New—Mainstream Media Struggles to Write Accurately About Corporations

The litany of articles about climate-related opinion polling that fail to mention fossil fuel companies’ lobbying and propaganda campaigns are just one demonstration of a larger problem: mainstream media doesn’t know how to cover corporations. From Washington Post editorials imploring President Biden not to “so[w] division” by criticizing “banks, oil companies, [and] pharmaceutical manufacturers,” to continued lenient coverage of crypto companies in the face of egregious scandals, mainstream media tends to portray corporations largely as legitimate institutions contributing to the economy. These outlets love credulous stories about creative entrepreneurs and high-tech innovations, dramatizing the careers of “genius” archetypes and writing breathless headlines about artificial intelligence and self-driving cars.

These publications tend not to highlight the structural tensions between corporations succeeding and the health and wellbeing of people and communities. As more skeptical commentators have pointed out, corporations routinely externalize the impact of their excesses onto their employees and the public via practices ranging from outright stealing (e.g. wage theft) to massive pollution driving the climate crisis. Corporate profits are often built on the suffering of communities and the exploitation of workers. 

We Need a New, Corporate-Critical Status Quo

As our work at the Revolving Door Project, particularly our Corporate Crackdown projects, strives to highlight, corporations will not cease their harmful behavior because we ask nicely. They need to be pressured by shifting incentives to t make it more costly to continue polluting, driving climate change, and harming communities than it is to shift their business practices. But thanks in part to deregulation campaigns over the last few decades and an activist Supreme Court that has already restricted environmental regulators’ authority, existing regulations are not sufficient to halt the deadly impacts of corporate capitalism — further pressure is needed.

More critical media coverage is a key component of this kind of pressure. When members of the public are more educated on the ways that corporate abuses impact their daily lives, they are more equipped to make demands of their representatives and regulators to hold corporations accountable. Instead of naively pondering how Republicans can deny climate change during a historic heatwave, mainstream outlets should bring the heat themselves, exposing the corporate status quo for the scandal that it is. It’s past time to turn up the temperature for corporate profiteers and call out executives, boards, and shareholders for their greed and abuse.

ClimateCorporate Crackdown

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