EPA Gag Order Brings Call For Johnson Resignation (Part 2)

July 30, 2008

Continued from Part 1.

Some of "The Rules" laid down by the EPA press office, as experienced by SEJ members, include the following:

  • Agency personnel say they are not allowed to talk to reporters at all unless the conversation has been approved by the Office of Public Affairs. EPA press officers have often upbraided reporters for daring to make contact with EPA employees without first asking permission from the press office.
  • Agency personnel are required to report to the press office after-the-fact any inquiries made to them or contacts from news media.
  • Press officers sometimes demand that all questions must be submitted in advance. (This rule is invoked intermittently.)
  • When a reporter calls the EPA press office requesting an interview with a specific agency official or scientist, the press office takes the position that it is they who decide whom the reporter will talk to. There is no expectation that the reporter will get to talk to the person whom they have requested.
  • A press officer must be present in person or on the phone during an interview.
  • Only top-level political appointees are allowed to speak on the record. These might include the EPA press secretary or a deputy or assistant administrator. Knowledgeable staff are relegated to whispering in the political appointees' ears.
  • Press officers, by default, speak only on background. This applies even to information issued via press release, favorable to the agency, which the agency wants to see in print.
  • Press officers, by default, may often read only "desk statements" — official talking points written by undisclosed political appointees.
  • Scientists are allowed to talk to reporters, when permitted, only about research they themselves have directly produced. If they are experts in a field, they are not allowed to comment on what is generally known in that field or on the work of others in that field. This rule is construed very narrowly.
  • Press conferences are almost never held in person any more. When necessary, they are done by teleconference — a mechanism which allows EPA to limit the number and length of questions and gives EPA operators control over who asks questions. Question periods are short and questions few. "Open floor" questioning is almost unheard of today.
  • EPA and its press office do not follow any policy of trying to maximize media access to news by consistently accommodating the timing of the news cycle. On the contrary, EPA often seems to be manipulating stories by using timing to make coverage easier or harder. The general timing of many major EPA decisions are known weeks or months in advance because of regulatory or court-set schedules. Nonetheless, advance notice given for major briefings and announcements can often be measured in hours or minutes. Press conferences, briefings, and teleconferences are often held with only a few hours' notice. A recent briefing (3/12/08) was held at 6 pm ET. Announcements of unpleasant news are often made on late Friday afternoon.

PRESS SPOKESMEN TEND TO BE POLITICAL APPOINTEES

During previous administrations, one big problem at EPA's headquarters press office was competence. Reporters were forced to deal with a line press officer assigned to cover the subject they were reporting about — and those "beat" press officers too often appeared to be uninformed about the subject. Only in recent years has EPA mastered the technology of the e-mailed press announcement — one which most other federal agencies mastered years earlier. In today's online news world, where the news cycle may be measured in minutes or hours rather than days, the speed of e-mail is critical. The Bush administration gets some credit for ratcheting press-office technology up a notch.

EPA's line press officers are often career civil servants. They get instructions on what to do, what to say, and whom to say it to from the people who run their office.Top press officers have often been political loyalists and political appointees in many agencies during many administrations. But this has been especially true at the Bush EPA.

EPA's current press secretary, for example, Jonathan Shradar, has no substantial professional experience as a journalist. But he did work on the Bush Northwest Ohio campaign in 2004. Shradar has a bachelors degree in journalism. He is hardly exceptional. Eryn Witcher, one of his immediate predecessors, worked on the Bush campaigns in both 2000 and 2004. Another predecessor, Cynthia Bergman, handled communications for the Maine Republican Party in 2002.

Allowing political appointees to gain a chokehold on communications between investigators and reporters, on the one hand, and agency scientists and staff, on the other hand, creates a number of problems.

In the flap over the June 16 OECA memo, the bald wording of the memo said that agency staff could not answer questions from IG, GAO, or Congressional staff. The agency later denied that it said what it said, or meant what it said. But the Union of Concerned Scientists points out that forcing staff to tell bosses what investigators are asking (and what they are answering) chills any hope of accountability for agency wrongdoing. It silences whistleblowers.

Similar problems arise when PIOs throttle communications between reporters and scientists. Scientific findings are critically important in policy decisions about climate and other environmental regulatory matters. Allowing political appointees to control the communication of science allows them to misrepresent or suppress it. An abundant record has accumulated over the past eight years documenting how EPA and other agencies have done exactly that.

Reporters can be intimidated, too. Young (and not-so-young) reporters who depend on EPA's press office every day for information they need have expressed some fear that if they complain or challenge EPA's unwritten (but rabidly enforced) press policies they would be shunned or punished the next time they asked the press office for help.

Some more experienced reporters tell the WatchDog that they never go through EPA's press office if they can avoid it. Top-ranked national reporters tend to cultivate personal trust relationships with EPA staff that span years — far longer than the tenure or memory of the typical EPA press secretary. These reporters — who flout the go-through-PIO rules — typically break the big stories. Seasoned observers observe that rather than punishing them, EPA's press office has been known to reward them with day-ahead leaks on hot stories.

PRESS COVERAGE AND JUNE 16 MEMO

PREVIOUS SEJ COVERAGE