If you want to interview an EPA official about a drinking water pollution catastrophe or a controversy about air pollution from fracking, the press office may do its best to stop you.
Despite rhetoric about an "open" administration, the Obama White House has used press offices at many federal agencies to impose ironclad message control. Without legal justification or written policies, EPA and other agencies have tried to require press office permission for interviews and to interpose "minders" between reporters and agency officials.
Another example popped up in a major Texas fracking pollution story, even as an EPA press official downplayed the problem. The saga was told by Lisa Song of the Pulitzer-winning InsideClimate News and highly respected veteran investigative reporter Jim Morris of the Center for Public Integrity, who were doing a joint project on air pollution from fracking operations in the Eagle Ford Shale formation of South Texas.
"In February, after we published our first stories on the Eagle Ford," Morris and Song wrote, "we began trying to answer that question [of why fracking pollution isn't being controlled] by seeking on-the-record interviews with EPA officials in Washington, D.C., and Texas. Five months later, no such interviews have been granted."
"The EPA's non-responsiveness in the Texas air pollution story is especially troubling because it keeps taxpayers in the dark about the agency's handling of a critical environmental issue," they wrote.
If the prevalence of public affairs puppetmasters is calculated to head off embarrassment for the Obama administration, it may nonetheless end up having the opposite effect. New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan told in a July 28, 2014, post of a public affairs minder prompting then-Senator Rick Santorum during a 2005 interview with Mark Leibovich.
Sullivan calls on journalists to push back against the minders — which in Leibovich's case meant naming and quoting the minder as he told the Senator what to say.
Sullivan offered one more not-so-radical idea: that journalists are the ones who can and should really set the ground rules.
- "Runaround: Three Months of Correspondence with the EPA," InsideClimate News and Center for Public Integrity, July 24, 2014, by Lisa Song and Jim Morris.
- "Its Time To Push Back When Government Controls the Message," Public Editor's Journal (New York Times), July 28, 2014, by Margaret Sullivan.
- Previous Story: WatchDog of July 17, 2014.