Fox News anchor Bret Baier was among the first at the network to call the November election for Joe Biden. But despite having a reputation for being more objective than his colleagues Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham, Baier’s straight-news show Special Report has been consistently airing misinformation on climate change since 2009, a new study has found.
Researchers at media watchdog Media Matters, a frequent critic of conservative media, counted and analyzed every time Baier’s show ran a segment on climate change and the environment or discussed it prominently from January 1, 2009, to May 3, 2021.
Of 972 segments that related to climate change and the environment, they found 850, or 87 percent, “featured false or misleading narratives and misinformation.”
“Week after week, year after year, Special Report viewers—who are promised an objective and unbiased analysis of the issues—have been inundated with misleading statements that reflect Fox’s opinion-side rhetoric: denying climate science, shirking responsibility for environmental degradation, downplaying the severity of climate change, and recklessly casting solutions as too costly or leading toward a slippery slope of tyranny,” the report says.
The report says Baier has featured the views of Marc Morano at least 10 times, a prominent climate change denier who in 2019 said on Special Report that a major United Nations report warning of mass extinctions was about “politics, not science.”
Misinformation is aired more frequently on Baier’s show when there is a Democratic administration, the report says. In the first four months of Biden’s presidency, it argues, Special Report spread misleading narratives about climate change at a weekly rate three times higher than when Donald Trump was president in 2020.
Overall, it says, the show spread two and a half times more climate misinformation during Barack Obama’s first term than it did during Trump’s term.
“What that tells me is that Special Report is situated firmly within the broader climate denial machine, which is really good at ramping up and pushing misinformation at moments when climate action is most possible,” Allison Fisher, director of the climate and energy program at Media Matters, told VICE News.
Fox News and Special Report did not respond with an on-the-record comment. Fox News insists that anchors like Baier do legitimate journalism and the network shouldn’t only be judged by its more well-known opinion hosts like Carlson and Ingraham.
“The opinion programming is incredibly popular, and steals the bigger part of the headlines,” a Fox News marketing consultant said in 2019 as the network launched a campaign to sign up advertisers. “Literally more than two-thirds of the millions of people who come in and check out the channel every day are coming for the news programming.”
But the line between news and opinion can sometimes be blurred, the Media Matters report says. Viewers who tuned into Special Report in December 2009 watched conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer argue that acting internationally on climate change would “mean a serious constriction of the U.S. economy, a lowering of our standard of living.”
In March 2016, viewers saw Baier host then-rising network star Ingraham, who made fun of people “losing sleep over the environment every night” and said the Obama administration’s plans for regulating pollution were really “about redistributing wealth and making America poorer.”
In January, Baier’s show aired a clip of Republican National Committee Chairperson Ronna McDaniel, who said that under a new Democratic administration the GOP would refuse to “cede our country to the far left who want to turn toward socialism, institute the Green New Deal, and remake America as we know it.”
On May 3, Baier himself questioned why the Biden administration was stressing scientific unknowns in its communications about COVID-19 but “they don’t have that same phrasing when talking about climate change.”
“In order to be a legitimate anchor there has to be moments when you are being truthful, that you’re doing the straight reporting, that you’re pushing back on clear and obvious misinformation,” Fisher said. “He’s not doing that for climate on any sort of regular basis.”
However, there are examples of Baier giving airtime to people who want aggressive action on global heating. On March 9, 2020, Baier co-hosted a town hall with Bernie Sanders, who said “ climate change is an existential threat to this planet.”
Last September, as wildfires raged out of control on the west coast, Baier hosted NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson, who said, “I think there is a consensus that climate change exacerbates the forest fires.” But Baier also had on the show that day Ari Fleischer, a White House press secretary under George W. Bush, who said, “I don’t think anybody scientifically will know, can know, whether or not climate change has caused these fires.”
This type of “balance” is a problem, Purdue University media researcher Jennifer Hoewe told VICE News, because it gives viewers the impression the science of climate change is controversial and unsettled.
“Their framing involves a two-sided debate,” said Hoewe, who has studied the impact of Fox News’ climate coverage on public opinion. “There’s people who agree with climate change and those who do not, rather than Fox just going with the scientific consensus.”
This is an issue across the mainstream media, which according to one Brown University study has in recent years given opponents of climate action twice the media coverage as people attempting to fix the emergency. CNN has been specifically called out for this trend.
Yet when it comes to outright climate misinformation Fox News is in a league of its own, the Media Matters report argues. “The stakes for news media to cover this issue seriously and responsibly could not be higher,” the report reads. “Climate coverage on Special Report with Bret Baier has been characterized by blatantly false, biased, and desperate attempts to undermine climate change action and environmental protections.”
Follow Geoff Dembicki on Twitter.