The broadcast news shows have been obsessed with all things Russia — well, almost all things. Russian social media agitation and propagandizing over energy sources, pipeline projects and climate change was ignored.
The network evening news programs included at least 74 stories or news briefs about Russia in March 2018, without ever mentioning concerns Russia used social media to “inflame” and divide over energy and the environment. Three stories said the U.S. accused Russia of “targeting U.S. infrastructure systems” and hacking American energy companies’ computer networks.
The evening shows aired many stories about Russia including coverage of President Vladimir Putin’s sham re-election, the poisoning of a former Russian spy in England and its diplomatic repercussions (including a potential arms race between the U.S. and Russia), Russian election “meddling” and play-by-play movements of the FBI investigation into whether President Donald Trump or any of his campaign staff colluded with Russia.
The networks skipped a key story. A congressional committee’s report on Russian social media interference was released March 1, and a former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO’s testified before a House committee March 21, about the same “hybrid war” Russia was waging online in the U.S. energy debate. In spite of that, the story was missing from the avalanche of Russian-related news stories in the month of March.
“They are instigating fights on both sides of things like oil pipelines and fracking in order to cause discord, disharmony, and to hopefully continue to suppress those efforts to keep oil prices up,” Obama’s Supreme Allied Commander of NATO retired Gen. Philip Breedlove told the committee in response to a question from Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo.
Congressional committees and testimony are often taken seriously and reported by the news media. But these weren’t.
House Committee: Russian Accounts Were Also Advancing Energy Propaganda
The House Committee on Science, Space & Technology (SST) issued a detailed report on March 1, 2018, announcing findings of its investigation into Russian social media propaganda and U.S. energy policy. It was based on documentation Twitter, Facebook and Instagram provided to the committee.
The three media companies “were able to identify Russian accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian company based in Saint Petersburg, established by the Russian government for the purpose of deceptively using various social and traditional media platforms to advance Russian propaganda,” the SST report said.
That’s the very same IRA that Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted in mid-February for interfering in the U.S. presidential election. Even with the networks’ frequent reporting on the Mueller investigation, this element of Russian interference wasn’t mentioned in any of the 74 network stories or news briefs on ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News or NBC Nightly News between March 1 and March 31, 2018.
The U.S. and Russia are energy competitors. In 2017, Reuters reported that Russia’s Gazprom acknowledged the U.S. had become a “threat to its dominant position in European gas market from an expected influx” of natural gas produced by the states.
Congressional staff found almost 10,000 Russian posts or tweets about U.S. energy policy or energy events on those platforms from 2015 through 2017. Russian-backed accounts posted about many topics, including oil and gas, fracking, pipeline projects and climate change (sometimes from both sides), according to the report.
Some of those posts encouraged protests of pipeline construction, targeting projects including the Dakota Access Pipeline and “emphasized and exacerbated the alleged violent nature of the DAPL protests.” Russian-backed accounts posted about many topics, including oil and gas, fracking, pipeline projects and climate change (sometimes from both sides), according to the report.
The committee also found Russian posts pushing the “counter-narrative” that “sought to exploit anti-activist sentiment” too. In their view, it showed “the Kremlin’s indiscriminate efforts to cause discord and disruption.”
Other News Outlets Bring Up Eco-Meddling, Networks Mum
The broadcast networks certainly had opportunity to air additional reports on the matter on the evening news programs. Or, they could have brought up Russian social-media interference about energy and environmental issues in the 74 stories they aired — especially the ones about interference in U.S. politics.
“One Facebook post created by a Russian-controlled group called ‘Native Americans United’ shows what appears to be a young girl in a braid peering out over an unspoiled prairie. ‘Love Water Not Oil, Protect Our Mother, Stand With Standing Rock,’ a reference to an Indian tribe that opposed the Dakota Access pipeline. The post also said, ‘No Pipelines. No Fracking. No Tar Sands,’” The Washington Post reported March 1, citing the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology report.
The Post also wrote that “Russians worked on both sides of contentious American political issues,” appealing “to either liberal or conservative audiences. There were posts, for example, expressing concern about climate change and others mocking it.”
That type of meddling never came up on the ABC, CBS and NBC evening news shows — even in stories where it might have easily been added. World News came close when it mentioned a cyber campaign “to infiltrate the U.S. energy secretary,” but that remark seemed to have to do with accusations about attempts to hack the energy grid.
Nightly News on March 26, reported that Russia threatened to retaliate after the U.S. expelled 60 Russian diplomats. The expulsion was fallout from the poisoning of a former Russian spy linked to Putin, in Salisbury, England. White House Correspondent Peter Alexander told viewers Trump “hasn’t commented on the expulsion order or the recent U.S. sanctions over Russian meddling in the 2016 election.”
Alexander didn’t bring up environmental meddling.
On March 15, ABC’s chief Washington correspondent Jonathan Karl reported on the “sign the Russia investigation is expanding” as Mueller issued a subpoena of the Trump family business. Following Karl’s report, anchor David Muir added “the Trump administration also announcing sanctions on Russia for cyber-attacks during the 2016 elections.” Muir asked Karl why the sanctions “took so long” before noting, “this goes even further than meddling in the election.”
“It sure does,” Karl said. “In addition to imposing the sanctions over the election meddling, the U.S. government is accusing the Russians of waging a campaign, a cyber campaign, to infiltrate the U.S. energy secretary.”
The same night, Nightly News and Evening News also reported the sanctions taken over “Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 election and other malicious cyberattacks.” Attacks on infrastructure and the hacking of American energy companies was reported by NBC, but neither story explicitly noted propaganda efforts of Russian cyber teams to sway U.S. energy and environmental opinions.
Having brought up an energy-related matter, why didn’t any of those programs go further and cite any of the findings of the House Science, Space and Technology committee?
Methodology: MRC Business examined all Nexis transcripts from World News Tonight, Evening News and Nightly News that mentioned “Russia” from March 1, through March 31, 2018. After discarding a handful of stories about a mall collapse in Russia, there were 74 briefs or news reports on those broadcasts connected to the ongoing Russia investigation, Russian politics, U.S. politics, diplomacy, the poisoned spy and various kinds of “bad behavior” by Russia.