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CNN, MSNBC Run Commentary Bashing Climate Legislation From Coal and Oil PR Flacks Without Disclosing Conflicts
CNN’s Scott Jennings and MSNBC’s Mike Murphy are paid by carbon emitter front groups. Shouldn't viewers know this when they comment on the climate-heavy Reconciliation Bill?
High-profile PR flacks for oil and coal clients are advocating against President Biden’s Reconciliation Bill for MSNBC and CNN, without those outlets disclosing their glaring conflicts of interest. CNN contributor Scott Jennings and MSNBC contributor Mike Murphy have day jobs shilling for major carbon emitters, something viewers should know when those figures opine on the solvency or wisdom of the largest climate bill ever proposed.
Mike Murphy, who is given a frequent prime spot on primetime MSNBC show 11th Hour with Brian Williams, is simply disclosed as a “Veteran Republican Strategist, Co-Director of the Center for the Political Future at the University of Southern California” by MSNBC. Yet, he runs Revolution Agency PR firm, which counts among its many clients oil and coal lobbying organs. Here’s a screencap from one of the commercials the firm produced and put in its sizzle reel.
The reel also includes a screencap of the firm’s work for the Fueling American Jobs Coalition, a front group for the oil and gas lobby. 11th Hour saw fit to invite Murphy on an October 11 panel to bash the reconciliation Bill, asking a process question that Murphy dutifully concern trolled:
WILLIAMS: [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] wakes up every morning and a four to one, five to one Democratic district. She`s not going to feel the pressure that others do. Mike, a quick addendum question and that is, where is the messaging? Where are the 50 news conferences in all 50 states with the cameras showing in the backdrop, the prominent metropolitan area bridge that is going to fall into the river or the bay? Every city has them? Ergo a bill called Build Back Better.
MURPHY: Yes, that’s the trillion dollar question. Because the only message now is this thing is such a big budget buster. Even a bunch of Democrats can’t support it. That’s deadly. So yes, they need the roadshow. They, you know, they -- but I think Biden has been stuck in DC and it’ll continue trying to land the plane, the progressives tasted blood so they’re hard to deal with and getting it down to 2 trillion or less. And meanwhile, the vacuum on messaging is being filled. So you`re right, they need a campaign to get this thing back to the voter candy to make it a plus instead of a Republican punching bag.
“Budget buster,” “bunch of democrats can’t support it,” and it’s “deadly.” Here we have a classic normative-descriptive shuffle: Murphy is acting as if he’s simply presenting pragmatic and objective advice; giving the lay of the land—which the average viewer, with no indication of his day job, would understandably assume to be the case. But what he’s actually doing is planting normative messaging. The bill is toxic and too expensive, and progressive radicals simply don’t live in the same world as “moderates” such as Sen. Manchin.
In an earlier August 11 appearance on 11th Hour with Brian Williams, Murphy mocked the idea of the forthcoming progressive Reconciliation Bill, telling Williams:
MURPHY: I think that translation is Biden stopped the liberal wing of the Democratic Party from screwing with this thing that let us get to a place where a bunch of Republicans could vote for [the Infrastructure Bill without the social and climate spending Reconciliation]. And look, I’ll give President Biden and Leader Schumer and Leader McConnell a ton of credit for this, we needed to show our allies and NATO and around the world that we can pass a grownup bill and something we really need to be economically competitive with, which is infrastructure. So I think they all ought to take a bow in the Senate. But, you know, now we’re going to part two, and I’m a little worried about the House where there are a lot of progressive Democrats who are unhappy, and they’ve been beating their dream catchers into stabbing sticks lately. And, you know, I think the infrastructure bill and that may not be out of the woods yet, though. I hope I’m wrong, because the country needs it.
Murphy would again to go on a mock climate and social legislation as far left wackiness that would damager the Democratic Party brand:
…look whats happening in these elections where the grassroots Democrats are speaking Ohio 11. The Super progressive candidate, the AOC squad candidate was 20 points ahead collapsed and lost. New York City mayors raised the top two finishers were the moderate Democrats. So, I think the Twitter verse and the real Democratic Party are not the same thing.
Murphy also openly lobbied against the Reconciliation Bill, in more explicit terms in June, again concern trolling what was best for Democrats.
Murphy’s fossil fuel clients have a direct financial interest in sinking the Reconciliation Bill, particularly its climate provisions. Those measures have already taken a beating: After opposition from Sen. Manchin, Biden is reportedly open to gutting the clean electricity program, a plan to replace power plants run by coal and gas with wind, solar and nuclear energy, through a system of rewards and penalties. Climate activists had already criticized the bill’s climate measures as insufficient. For example, it left in place major U.S. subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. But with key programs on the chopping block, the fossil fuel industry will not rest until any remnant of a genuine climate policy is destroyed.
But Murphy has other clients that have a financial interest in the failure of the bill, particularly its initial proposal to increase corporate taxes to pay for its social programs. Murphy’s other clients include the US Chamber of Commerce, the American Chemistry Council, American Bankers Association, Big Pharma lobbying group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (Phrma), and Center for Individual Freedom—a far-right anti-regulatory front group created by the tobacco industry in the 1990s.
Shouldn’t MSNBC viewers know that Mike Murphy is on the dole of the very same industries that stand to lose a great deal of money if the Reconciliation Bill passes?
Murphy is not an isolated case. On October 22, CNN “analyst” Scott Jennings wrote a low-calorie op-ed, “Biden is losing ground because he's not answering the tough questions,” on the front page of the website bashing Biden’s CNN town hall, which the president had held the night before to discuss the Reconciliation Bill. Jennings slammed the president for giving “inefficient, long-winded” answers to questions, and providing an unpersuasive case for his legislative agenda. There is, of course, nothing wrong with CNN publishing criticism of Biden, but there is something wrong with the outlet’s continued reliance on someone who is effectively a lobbyist for coal and gas interests to do so.
Jennings is disclosed as “a CNN contributor and Republican campaign adviser, is a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and a former campaign adviser to Sen. Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations in Louisville, Kentucky.”
The average media consumer would have no idea what “Runswitch” is or what, in general, "Public Relations” companies do. As Media Matters documented in 2019, Runswitch is a Kentucky-based PR firm whose clients, both past and present, are a who’s who of carbon emitters:
RunSwitch has had numerous clients over the years that have been involved in the fossil fuel industry. They include:
American Municipal Power (AMP), “a nonprofit corporation that owns and operates electric facilities.” AMP uses fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas and diesel for power generation. In 2010, AMP retired its coal-fired power plant near Marietta, OH, under a settlement with the EPA to "resolve violations of the Clean Air Act.”
The Kentucky Petroleum Marketers Association, a nonprofit statewide trade association that “is made up of representatives of all segments of the petroleum industry” and promotes Kentucky’s petroleum industry.
Kentucky Electric Cooperatives, a state association that supports Kentucky’s “24 local distribution co-ops and two ‘generation & transmission’ co-ops.” The group has criticized the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, writing that it “targets coal, the main source of Kentucky’s electricity, in new and aggressive limits on carbon emissions. About 90 percent of electricity generated in Kentucky is by coal fired power plants.”
The Kentucky Coal Association, a nonprofit organization that “represents both Eastern and Western Kentucky operations that mine coal through surface and underground methods.” RunSwitch issued a 2013 press release on the group’s behalf that criticized then-President Barack Obama’s administration for pursuing “policies that have contributed to the loss of thousands of direct coal-mining jobs in Eastern Kentucky.”
The Louisville Gas and Electric Company, which “serves 326,000 natural gas and 411,000 electric customers in Louisville and 16 surrounding counties.” According to a filing by the company with the Kentucky Public Service Commission, Louisville Gas and Electric Company paid RunSwitch in 2018 for public relations work.
Jennings’ op-ed is not particularly memorable beyond the author’s biography: The criticisms he offers are themselves vague and thin on substance. But his missive is worth noting because of the broader problem it exposes.
Mercenary PR firms like Runswitch and Revolutionary Agency don’t openly disclose their clients—no doubt because doing so would compromise their ability to colonize, on behalf of their client list, nominally independent “news” spaces like CNN and MSNBC. Media Matters had to comb through press releases, corporate documents, and social media posts just to figure out some of Jennings’ conflicts of interest. I had to rely on self-published promotional materials. Which means there are almost certainly more—and more recent—carbon emitters that write checks to Jennings and Murphy that we simply don’t know about. CNN and MSNBC don’t require their lobbyist and PR flack talking heads to disclose their corporate clients.
This is not an uncommon feature at CNN or MSNBC—or, of course, Fox News. Deeply conflicted PR flacks are used as pundits and columnists fairly often. Jamal Simmons is a regular contributor to Jake Tapper’s The Lead and “provides consultations and advice to corporate clients,” according to his own promotional materials. Who those clients are is anyone’s guess. CNN Legal Analyst Elliot Williams is a principal at corporate PR firm The Raben Group which counts among its clients Microsoft, Pfizer, Walmart, Airbnb, and AT&T, which owns CNN. Frequent “CNN political commentator” Hilary Rosen runs SKDK PR firm, which represents Gillette, American Airlines, Pfizer, Microsoft, IBM, Ford, and Comcast. During the 2020 primaries, “Democratic Strategist” Paul Begala was on the board of directors of a pro-Israel front group that was running anti-Sanders attack ads in Iowa and Nevada while, at the same time, Begala was on CNN attacking Bernie Sanders.
But this is the way the game works. CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC view politics as simply Red versus Blue rather than rich versus poor, corporations versus workers, or carbon emitters versus those who want to live on the planet in 50 years. So they don’t view PR flacks being on the dole of large corporations and oil and gas companies as a problem, or the central fact needing to be disclosed to their viewers. As long as pundits are clearly identified as being on the Red Team or Blue Team, this is all the audience is assumed to need to know. And this is the murky stew in which professional cable punditry operates: “strategists,” ”consultants,” and “pollsters''—all of whom are simply moonlighting at cable news to boost their profile for their day job of shilling for a blackbox of corporate interests. Corporate cable news provides these ambiguous labels for both Republicans and corporate Democrats in exchange for free or low-cost insta-opinions from slick partisan talking heads. CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC get cheap commentary, and PR flacks get to tell their clients—or, more importantly, the clients they’re currently pitching to—that they can have access to mass media influence. The big losers are viewers who think it’s simply a partisan opinion, rather than a much narrower—and far more bleak—reality: an oil and coal industry representative trying to torpedo legislation that would harm his clients.