Selective Media Tour on EPA Scandal, ‘Weaponizing’ Transparency and More

April 11, 2018

WatchDog: Selective Media Tour on EPA Scandal, ‘Weaponizing’ Transparency and More

By Joseph A. Davis, WatchDog TipSheet Editor

1. Under Fire, EPA Shuts Out Mainstream Media in Favor of Right Wing Outlets
2. Taking Page from GOP Science Playbook, EPA Weaponizes Transparency
3. MapLight Offers Help with Political Data, Dark Money
4. Congressional Research Service Reports Finally Made Public


1. Under Fire, EPA Shuts Out Mainstream Media in Favor of Right Wing Outlets

News media access to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is getting more problematic as the agency circles its wagons under fire from a growing scandal (may require subscription).

Example: Administrator Scott Pruitt held an April 3 event to promote his rollback of auto mileage standards, but most of the Washington reporters who normally cover the agency were not invited and at first only Fox News was in the room.  

But Fox gets some credit here. CNN tells what happened: “EPA had attempted to allow television camera access to Fox News without informing the other four networks: CNN, ABC, NBC and CBS. Fox alerted the networks and a pool was established allowing networks equal access to the event.”

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, at an event last March, where it was announced that the agency would revisit fuel economy rules for cars. It has now formally proposed to roll back auto mileage standards. Photo: EPA

Initially, not even The New York Times was invited to the event. After its reporter Hiroko Tabuchi tweeted about it approximately a half hour beforehand, she then updated the Times Twitter feed to say the Times had subsequently been invited and that reporter Lisa Friedman was racing to get there.

Even those who had not been invited, and had heard of the subsequent livestream on Twitter, complained (as did BuzzFeed’s Zahra Hirji) that they had only heard of it minutes after the event was scheduled to start.

The progressive news-monitoring outlet Media Matters laid out the broader story of bad-access press relations in a piece that same day. In the room were Fox, Bloomberg, ABC News and, ultimately, The New York Times. Not in the room were Politico, The Hill, Washington Examiner, E&E News, CNN and more.

Pruitt on scandal-related media tour … with friendly media

A little context: EPA was scrambling to pull off the rollback announcement after cancelling at the last minute its original plan to make the announcement at a Northern Virginia car dealership, Pohanka Chevrolet in Chantilly, and moving it to EPA headquarters in D.C.

The New York Times reported that the cancellation had happened because some Chevy dealerships did not want to be associated (may require subscription) with the mileage rollback.

You would never have known that from the video, which featured executives of auto lobby groups shaking hands with Pruitt. None of them took questions. The actual announcement of the decision had happened the day before.

This “announcement” was just optics. But the optics were important as a distraction from what was really going on — not just disunity in the auto industry over the dismantling of a rule they had previously agreed to, but the multi-pronged scandal over Pruitt’s ethics.

The next day, April 4, Pruitt went on a scandal-related media tour, giving a round of interviews that two press accounts (one by Greenwire (subscription required), “Pruitt taps conservative news outlets to assail his critics,” and one by Media Matters, “As pressure over his scandals builds, Scott Pruitt blacklists reporters from EPA announcement”) implied that Pruitt had turned to friendly media to defend against the scandal.

The interviews were with Fox, the Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal, and the Washington Examiner. All are right-leaning or pro-industry. While the Examiner does publish some straight news, the paper is conservative, and interviewer Paul Bedard is an EPA defender. And, despite Fox’s right-wing proclivities, the interview by Ed Henry was surprisingly tough. So tough, in fact, that most Fox shows did not mention it.

Patterns at EPA around press prompt SEJ letter

There seem to be some clear patterns:

  • Of Pruitt’s EPA press operation favoring friendly and pro-industry outlets while shunning mainstream media and others who might ask challenging questions.
  • Of limiting press access.
  • Of nonexistent, incomplete or selective release of advisories and press releases.
  • Of manufacturing photo-ops and PR gimmicks aimed at making Pruitt look good.
  • And of attacking news media who raise questions or do critical stories.

April 3 was the same day the Society of Environmental Journalists sent a letter to EPA spokesperson Liz Bowman complaining that EPA’s press office was making agency information inaccessible.

That letter responded to an incident in which an EPA press officer had refused to answer questions about Pruitt’s proposed “secret science” rules, referring reporters to an interview in the right-wing Daily Caller.

Many publications, including the WatchDog, have documented these patterns over the past year. Media Matters has summed them up effectively (more here).

The WatchDog last year cited an analysis by Rebecca Leber in Mother Jones noting that the key patterns of EPA press tactics mirror those of the Trump White House press operation. And just last month, WatchDog catalogued how the EPA has adopted a secretive approach and displays frequent hostility to the news media, including with a troubling series of attacks on individual journalists.

Still, as the ethics crisis deepened and swirled around EPA chief Pruitt last week, the press office dug in deeper.

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2. Taking Page from GOP Science Playbook, EPA Weaponizes Transparency

If EPA Administrator Pruitt wants to “weaponize” transparency, he may yet succeed where Congressional Republicans have failed, using a subtle maneuver to stifle EPA science, and to control what the public knows about it and how it is used to protect people’s health.

At issue is publication of “raw data” behind various environmental health studies. Many health studies anonymize the identities of individual patients for reasons of privacy, showing only the aggregated data in supporting their findings.


Republicans want to declare that EPA can not use

any scientific studies that do not disclose

everything, including patient identities.


Republicans want to declare that EPA cannot, in its rulemaking, use any scientific studies that do not disclose everything, including patient identities. Anything else, they argue, is “secret science.”

Scientists disagree, of course. They maintain that what they are doing is real science, with sufficient integrity safeguards through peer review prior to publication.

In the past four years or so, GOPers in both House and Senate have tried to use the “secret science” gambit and failed.

One of the original proponents of this tactic was then-Senator David Vitter, R-Miss. Back in 2014 when Democrats controlled the White House (and the EPA) and Republicans were a minority in the Senate, the gambit worked toward discrediting EPA on the propaganda front, even if GOPers never had the votes.

Later, House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, took up the same banner and got a “secret science” bill through the House in 2017 — even though it stalled in the Senate.

But when Pruitt, a Republican, took over the EPA in 2017, it became possible for him to accomplish the same thing through rulemaking. And this year, he announced that he would begin trying to do it, and it became a major news story.

Actually, Pruitt’s proposal that science be conducted on the record … well that was something he did not want to put on the record. He announced his intention in an interview with the right-wing Daily Caller. But he did not make a formal rulemaking proposal (subscription required) in the Federal Record, and EPA spokespeople would not answer any questions on the details (something SEJ protested).

A key question is whether it would apply retroactively — possibly threatening existing EPA environmental health regulations.

EPA’s effort to keep its game secret did not work out that well in the end. As Lisa Friedman reported in The New York Times, the proposal is an effort to undermine the 1993 “Six Cities” study which is the foundation of much modern air pollution law.

Also, fossil fuel industries and anti-regulatory groups have been looking for ways to undo the “endangerment finding,” the court-endorsed basis for EPA’s legal obligation to limit greenhouse emissions. The Pruitt science gambit is seen by conservatives as one way to thwart (subscription required) that.

In any case, the prospect of legislators getting the names of asthma patients, subpoenaing them and interrogating them under oath as they gasp into their oxygen masks under TV lights does not seem a path to truth.

It’s not real transparency. Rather, its goal is to suppress science.  It is fake openness, leaving scientists, journalists and the public in the dark.

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3. MapLight Offers Help with Political Data, Dark Money

Reporters looking for some help on stories about the influence of money on politics (and, yes, that does happen on the environmental beat) may want to know about MapLight.

Of course, there are good data services already out there, like and What MapLight helps with that they don’t do is making the connection between political contributions and actual legislation.

MapLight (online here) is a foundation-funded nonprofit which also runs a project called Dark Money Watch.

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4. Congressional Research Service Reports Finally Made Public

Some of the best available backgrounders on environmental and energy issues are produced by the nonpartisan researchers at the Congressional Research Service. Congress, finally, seems to have agreed to make them openly available to the public.

The action came via a little-noticed provision in the most recent omnibus appropriations bill, which funds the government until October 2018.

The WatchDog has been nagging Congress for years about this. A campaign spearheaded by groups like the Federation of American Scientists and Demand Progress finally got it done.

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* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 15. 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.

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