Fellow SEJ Members,
In the wake of SEJ's public questioning of US EPA's commitment to openness in its dealings with the news media, a delegation of SEJ leaders met with the agency's external affairs brass on April 25, 2013.
The officials we met with acknowledged at least one failure to respond, and took notes on some recent examples we gave them of the agency stonewalling reporters' requests for interviews and information. They said they would like a "reset" in their fractured relationship with SEJ and re-committed to doing what they acknowledged was their job – seeing that reporters get the information they need in a timely fashion.
The meeting was requested by James O'Hara, then associate EPA administrator for external affairs, who has since left the agency. O'Hara, who once worked at the Nashville Tennessean, said he'd heard from a former colleague at the Nashville paper that SEJ members were complaining about being unable to interview agency scientists or get meaningful answers to their questions about agency actions and announcements.
His call to SEJ executive director Beth Parke to ask for a meeting came just after SEJ had published an op-ed in Environmental Health News calling EPA one of the most opaque agencies in the federal government. SEJ urged members of the U.S. Senate to quiz Gina McCarthy, the nominee to take over as EPA administrator, about the agency's stiff-arming of the news media.
SEJ President Don Hopey, board member Robert McClure and WatchDog editor Joe Davis participated in the meeting via conference call, while Tim Wheeler, chair of SEJ's Freedom of Information Task Force, went to EPA HQ to meet face to face. Also present for EPA were Victoria Rivas-Vasquez, deputy associate administrator for external affairs, and Nancy Grantham, public affairs chief for EPA's Region 1 office. O'Hara opened the meeting by saying he was a short-timer, and would be leaving the agency in a couple of weeks. He said Grantham would step into his job on an acting basis.
O'Hara said he had initially been irritated that SEJ hadn't reached out to him with its grievances, but he said he later learned that in January 2012, SEJ's then-president, Carolyn Whetzel, had written EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson with the same complaints. SEJ didn't get any response, either in writing or by phone. O'Hara said that letter had somehow been "controlled" to a different office in EPA, which had nothing to do with public affairs and did nothing with it. So at the meeting, O'Hara apologized for that failure to respond.
SEJ's delegation told the EPA brass that our members and other journalists frequently cannot get interviews with agency scientists or program people, and that requests for information often yield nothing more than political "talking points" delivered by public information staff via email (and "on background" no less, in a number of instances). We outlined a few recent cases, but emphasized that they were simply the latest of many going back years.
O'Hara said he wanted a "reset" in EPA's relationship with SEJ and the press, not to rehash past problems but to focus on doing better from now on. We proposed they develop an agencywide policy for handling news media requests for interviews and information, one that would emphasize openness for their scientists and staff to discuss their work with journalists. We urged them to hold training sessions for the public affairs staff, and offered to have SEJ members participate. And we recommended that the EPA administrator and other high-ranking agency officials hold regular press conferences to which journalists could call in and ask questions on a variety of topics.
They didn't respond at the meeting to any of those or commit to any specific changes. O'Hara acknowledged that EPA public-affairs brass at one time held quarterly conference calls with SEJ leaders to discuss such issues, but instead of reinstituting that he said he wanted SEJ leaders and others just to pick up the phone and call if or whenever they have a problem. He said his "door is always open" if any reporter feels she or he is not getting a meaningful, timely response from the public affairs staff, either in the DC HQ or the regional offices. Grantham, his designated successor, echoed the statement.
Whether anything changes will be up to EPA, of course. And since then, we've heard of more instances of reporters having interview requests ignored and getting instead terse, nonresponsive emailed statements days after they asked for information. We've pressed EPA again to consider our proposals and called for systemic reform of the public-affairs operation.
Meanwhile, Grantham reports that a new associate administrator for external affairs has been named. Tom Reynolds, who had been deputy director of public affairs at the Department of Energy before joining President Obama’s reelection campaign, starts the week of May 20.
Musical chairs notwithstanding, we want to hold EPA accountable in the weeks and months ahead for the agency’s renewed pledge to do its job. So please email Tim Wheeler (email@example.com ) directly your experiences in seeking interviews and information, good, bad or indifferent.
If you're having problems, feel free to knock on that "open door" or alert SEJ and we'll do it on your behalf. In either case, please do let us know, as we want to compile a fresh record to assess the outcome of this "reset" and keep pressing to open those doors.
The acting head of media relations at EPA's HQ is Dave Cohen, reachable at Cohen.David@epa.gov And here's the link to the rest of EPA's public affairs contacts: http://www.epa.gov/newsroom/#mediacontacts
Chair, SEJ's Freedom of Information Task Force
tbwheeler at aol.com