WatchDog: EPA Press Office Attacks Journalists à la Trump
By Joseph A. Davis, WatchDog TipSheet Editor
Is “smear the messenger” the Trump Environmental Protection Agency’s new press strategy? Intense personal attacks on individual journalists seem to be the new norm from EPA — when those journalists print true stories describing EPA’s failure to protect the environment.
After Hurricane Harvey flooded the Houston area, some Associated Press reporters took a look at Superfund hazardous waste sites there. Whether flooding could spread pollution from those sites was a legitimate question of the sort environmental journalists are supposed to ask. Actually, agencies like EPA should be asking them too. And answering them.
The initial Sept. 2 AP story, headed “Texas toxic waste sites flooded, EPA not on scene,” made an impact even amid the outpouring of hurricane news. That story, an exclusive, was updated with at least one follow-up.
The follow-up was bylined by Jason Dearen (who is based in Gainesville, Fla.) and Michael Biesecker (who is based in Washington, D.C.), and datelined Highlands, Texas, which is where one of the Superfund sites, an acid pit, was located. It was Dearen who visited the sites, in one case by boat. The AP’s Jay Reeves (based in Alabama) was credited with additional reporting.
You could tell that the AP story was reported onsite, because it included onsite interviews, details, video (view below) and photos.
So it was surprising when EPA’s press office, the next day (Sept. 3) fired off a press release criticizing the AP story as “misleading,” attacking Biesecker personally and asserting that Biesecker was “reporting from the comfort of Washington”.
The EPA release made it seem that Biesecker was the only reporter on the story — which was misleading and factually untrue. EPA’s release did not cite any specific factual inaccuracies in the AP story.
Another EPA release, dated Sept. 2, said that EPA had visited two Houston-area Superfund sites, but had not been able to visit 11 others, because flood water made them inaccessible — essentially confirming one important premise of the AP story.
AP had reached out to (and quoted) EPA’s press office for its original story. Later, and perhaps defensively, EPA announced that it had scanned some 41 Superfund sites in Texas from aircraft, and the AP reported that.
AP accused of “yellow journalism”
One sign of touchiness in the EPA release was its statement that “Biesecker had the audacity to imply that agencies aren’t being responsive to the devastating effects of Hurricane Harvey.” The AP story did not mention agencies other than EPA.
What it did do was explore EPA’s responsiveness to Harvey in a factual way. And it noted that despite Administrator Scott Pruitt’s statements that he wanted to make Superfund cleanups a priority, the Trump administration’s 2018 budget request cut funding for them by 30 percent.
“Once again, in an attempt to mislead Americans,
the Associated Press is cherry-picking facts.”
— EPA Public Affairs Office
Most of the EPA release was written only in a “news release” voice identified as coming from the Office of the Administrator. One quote was attributed to Liz Bowman, the recently installed associate administrator in charge of the Public Affairs Office. “Once again, in an attempt to mislead Americans, the Associated Press is cherry-picking facts,” she said, accusing the AP of “yellow journalism.”
AP, of course, stood by its story. "AP's exclusive story was the result of on-the-ground reporting at Superfund sites in and around Houston, as well as AP's strong knowledge of these sites and EPA practices,” AP Executive Editor Sally Buzbee said. “We object to the EPA's attempts to discredit that reporting by suggesting it was completed solely from 'the comforts of Washington' and stand by the work of both journalists who jointly reported and wrote the story."
In the end, the fact remained that for the most part the AP was there on the ground and EPA was not.
And the media took note — after all, it was a matter critically important to the media’s ability to report the news. There were quite a few prompt articles about the flap — in such publications as Politico, The Hill, Gizmodo, Quartz, Think Progress, Buzzfeed, Salon, GQ, Climate Nexus, New York magazine, ABC News, Business Insider, Greenwire (subscription required) and inevitably the Washington Post (subscription required).
EPA press office angered over earlier story
Why so personal? There is evidence (for example, in the EPA release) that EPA honchos were mad at Biesecker in particular for a story he did on June 27 on an encounter between Administrator Pruitt and Dow CEO Andrew Liveris. The headline of the original in the Los Angeles Times tells the story: “EPA chief met with Dow Chemical CEO before deciding not to ban toxic pesticide.”
Biesecker had had to put in a Freedom of Information Act request for Pruitt’s schedule, because Pruitt does not publish his schedule as EPA administrators have done at least since the Obama era. The schedule showed a half-hour meeting between Pruitt and Liveris on March 9. A Pruitt spokesman had previously said that he had not met with Liveris on the decision not to ban Dow’s chlorpyrifos (which can harm children’s brains) before he made that decision.
EPA offered no comment on the meeting before the story ran. But they objected afterward, saying there had been no meeting, only a passing handshake. AP corrected the story.
In the Sept. 3 release attacking Biesecker, EPA’s press office brought the incident up again, using it as the sole basis for its assertion that “Biesecker has a history of not letting the facts get in the way of his story.”
But Biesecker actually has a solid reputation among journalists on the environmental beat for accurate, fair and dogged reporting. That last may be what got him in trouble. The fuss EPA made about the Liveris story certainly helped distract public attention from questions about the integrity of Pruitt’s unexplained decision not to ban chlorpyrifos.
Biesecker also did a story April 20 on Dow’s efforts to pressure federal agencies to ignore scientific studies suggesting that certain pesticides (including chlorpyrifos) harmed endangered species.
Those questions are legitimate ones for environmental journalists to be asking. Dow made a $1 million donation to the Trump inauguration. And Liveris was present Feb. 24 when Trump signed his executive order on deregulation. He gave Liveris the pen.
Trumpification of EPA press office?
One of the media accounts of the Houston Superfund flap put it in an important context: the general stance of the Trump administration toward the news media. That is, calling the media “the enemy of the American people.” Rebecca Leber wrote Sept. 6 in Mother Jones an article headed: “This EPA Statement Reads Like Something You’d Find in Breitbart.”
"[Pruitt was] turning the EPA’s public outreach
into a spin-machine that amplifies
a conservative echo chamber of positive coverage.”
— Rebecca Leber, reporter for Mother Jones
Leber’s point (and she is not the only one to make it) is that the Houston Superfund flap signals the Trumpification of the EPA press office, saying EPA “took a cue from President Donald Trump’s media-bashing playbook.”
The EPA press office, she wrote, condemned reporting as inaccurate while confirming the facts. She also made the point that this development was hardly new. She wrote back in July about how Pruitt was “turning the EPA’s public outreach into a spin-machine that amplifies a conservative echo chamber of positive coverage.”
The press office, she wrote, favors right-wing media outlets which often have ties to Trump, ignoring interview requests from mainstream outlets. If you need evidence, note that EPA’s Sept. 3 release actually cites Breitbart to support its argument, dismissing the AP in general as “fake news.” Leber points to a Media Matters study which found that Pruitt gave more interviews to Fox than to all other TV outlets combined.
The attack on Biesecker is just one example of EPA press office attacks on solid journalists who just happen to be reporting something that makes EPA unhappy. Another example is the press office’s Aug. 21 attack on an Aug. 18 article by the New York Times’ Eric Lipton and Roni Caryn Rabin. Their article was about … wait for it … chlorpyrifos.
The Times reporters had obtained more than 700 pages of internal EPA documents through a FOIA request. And it published them. The documents show Pruitt promising farm lobbyists that it was a “new day” and that he was listening to their pleas to allow chlorpyrifos. EPA attacked the New York Times in particular, named the reporters and accused them of reporting “false facts.” Does that sound Trumpian?
Brietbart reporter outraged over FOI request
That same release took a swipe at another New York Times story, to imply that the Times was in the business of purveying faulty information. It relied on a confused and incomplete story by Erik Wemple, a media critic at Times rival, the Washington Post, which criticized an Aug. 7 story by Lisa Friedman. That story spotlighted, and published, a draft precursor of the federal Climate Assessment report, the work product of scientists in 13 federal agencies.
The Times report was a scoop because virtually nobody in the mainstream media had ever reported on it, much less published it (InsideClimate News was one exception). It was news because the draft was at the point where it documented findings and conclusions before the White House could change or suppress them, although some news organizations reported on other sources saying they have seen no indication that the White House might suppress the research.
Wemple’s criticism was that the draft the Times initially published was already available on some obscure sites by request — and that nobody could reasonably expect the Trump administration to suppress climate science. The Times printed a clarification — and then published a later draft which actually had not been published anywhere else.
Now bookmark this: On August 23, well before EPA’s press office unloaded on Biesecker, there was an article in Breitbart News. The article reported, in tones of loud outrage, that AP reporter Biesecker had filed a FOIA request for emails and messages between Pruitt’s office or his press office, on the one hand, and Breitbart reporter Matthew Boyle. The story, written by Matthew Boyle himself, portrayed Biesecker as “digging for dirt” and claimed that the AP was mired in an “ethics scandal.”
Will the EPA press office succeed in intimidating news media trying to hold it accountable? That remains to be seen. The attack on Biesecker and the AP is hardly a one-off; it is part of a pattern.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 2, No. 34. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.