E-Mail: White House Ordered Scientists To Lowball BP Spill Rate Estimate

January 25, 2012

Is the press office helping or hurting journalists' efforts to get science stories right? Society of Environmental Journalists members have long complained that PIOs were often hindering their job of reporting accurately — and SEJ on their behalf has urged agencies under several administrations to stop interposing their political appointees between journalists and the scientists they seek to interview.

Agency press offices have resisted. They continue to write policies requiring press-office permission before a journalist can interview an agency scientist — and requiring Saddam-style "minders" to sit in on interviews and guard against inconvenient statements by scientists. Agency press offices usually say they are doing this in the name of accuracy and at the request of scientists. SEJ — along with journalism and scientists' groups — have questioned this justification.

Now comes the smoking memo.

Newly released in-house e-mail shows that White House and agency "communications people" pressured agency scientists to underestimate the amount of oil flowing into the Gulf during the 2010 BP oil spill. The e-mail was written by none other than US Geological Survey Director Marcia McNutt, and was never meant to be made public. McNutt spearheaded one effort to estimate the spill. Against strong agency resistance, the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) forced disclosure of the e-mail with a Freedom-of-Information-Act lawsuit.

The case offers more evidence that press officers insist on sitting in on journalist-scientist interviews in order to insure the science gets a spin favorable to the administration's political goals. Now a watchdog group, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) has filed a scientific integrity complaint against a NOAA scientist in the incident.