SEJ President’s Report: SEJ Takes EPA to Task
By Bobby Magill
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the Trump administration is giving the press an “unprecedented” level of access. To what, exactly, the EPA is giving the press unprecedented access is a bit lost on me. But that’s the official word from EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman.
The Society of Environmental Journalists wrote a letter to the EPA on April 3 respectfully asking the agency’s press shop to take a permanent break from its hyperbolic exaggerations regarding EPA transparency, ethically-questionable treatment of journalists and its alarming appropriation of partisan news stories for official press releases.
Here’s a recap of what inspired our letter: In late March, several journalists, including some SEJ members, questioned the agency about Administrator Scott Pruitt’s reported plan to change the EPA’s longstanding policy on the use of scientific research in writing regulations.
The EPA responded to those questions by refusing to answer reporters’ questions, and then pointed them to a March 19 Daily Caller piece featuring an “exclusive” interview with Pruitt. The Daily Caller piece was then published as an official EPA press release.
One of the agency’s favorite tactics to promote itself lately is to deflect reporters’ questions and circulate favorable news coverage as official press releases. EPA did so again with a New York Post story on March 21, a Washington Times story on March 22 and again with a Real Clear Policy piece on March 26. That time, EPA congratulated itself with a Ken Cuccinelli op/ed exclaiming that to call EPA’s swift dismantling of U.S. environmental regulations “impressive would be a gross understatement.”
I sent the EPA press shop a series of questions about its policies regarding press officers referring reporters to favorable news stories instead of providing journalists with straight answers.
I asked if EPA publication of news stories as official press releases constituted confirmation of the information contained in the piece and to what degree the EPA coordinates with these publications ahead of appropriating their work as an official government statement.
Instead of answering my questions, Bowman replied:
“The Trump EPA is one of the most widely reported on agencies in the federal government and the Office of Public Affairs has provided regional and national journalists — from the New York Times to the Daily Caller – with an unprecedented amount of access. This is a vast improvement from four years ago when E&E reported that the Society of Environmental Journalists called that EPA an ‘incredibly secretive’ agency.”
Calling out EPA for breach of public trust
We’ve heard this doubletalk before. EPA has responded to other questions from reporters with a similar statement. I followed up, asking EPA to answer my specific questions.
You can guess the response: Silence.
So, after the board of the National Association of Science Writers beat us to the chase and wrote the EPA to object to this behavior, SEJ followed up with our own letter calling out EPA behavior that I see as a breach of the public trust and mockery of the free press.
As I told the EPA, SEJ has seen no such “vast improvement” in press access. The EPA restricted press access to public information and public officials in the Obama administration, and EPA restricts press access today, though perhaps with somewhat different tactics.
It is false and entirely inconsistent with SEJ member experience to claim that the EPA is affording reporters “an unprecedented amount of access.”
Journalists' coverage of the EPA and the frequency with which EPA appears in news stories is not in any way a reflection of the access EPA provides reporters. Instead, this coverage reflects broad public interest in EPA and the many changes in federal environmental regulations proposed by this administration.
That public interest is the very reason EPA should respond more openly to reporters’ requests for information about environmental regulation and policies.
How can the public get accurate information about EPA’s actions when major policies are announced without the possibility of entertaining questions from journalists? It can’t. EPA has a duty to be transparent and responsive to the public, but its unprofessional and unethical behavior strongly suggests that the agency doesn’t care to do so.
Silence greets SEJ efforts at dialog with agency
Earlier this year, after incidents in which EPA publicly attacked reporters for doing their job, SEJ wrote Bowman seeking a dialog with the agency on how to become more open and responsive to the news media.
Among the principles we asked EPA to embrace was to “engage with reporters, and maintain professionalism at all times” and “commit to responding to inquiries in a meaningful and timely manner.”
Can you guess EPA’s response?
As I told the EPA, reporters are proxies for the public. When the EPA declines to answer reporters’ queries with swift, direct, accurate and substantive answers, it severely limits the public’s access to information it deserves to have, and it inhibits the ability to monitor how the EPA is protecting public air and water. The public deserves better.
As the government becomes more opaque and
less adherent to its mandate to uphold the public trust,
the public relies on journalists to do what we do best and get better at it.
But the onus is also on us as journalists. It’s imperative that we improve our sourcing and tenacity and become more creative and resourceful in circumnavigating the deflection, obfuscation and untruths that far too often constitute some agencies’ official responses to reporters’ questions.
As the government becomes more opaque and less adherent to its mandate to uphold the public trust, the public relies on journalists to do what we do best and get better at it.
SEJ’s executive director search
Finally, I want to update you on SEJ’s search for an executive director.
SEJ advertised the position in early February. The Executive Director Search Committee, chaired by SEJ Board First Vice President Susan Moran, will process applications and conduct preliminary candidate interviews beginning this month. The committee will update the board on its progress and the strength of the candidates during an April 28 SEJ Board of Directors teleconference call.
The Board plans to interview a small slate of finalists in person during a two-day board meeting June 8-9 at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. At that meeting, the board will deliberate on the candidates and decide how to proceed.
Our best-case scenario is for the board to find a rock star candidate and make a swift hire following our UNLV board meeting so that our new executive director will be on the ground running well before October when SEJ meets during the annual conference in Flint, Mich.
But our mandate isn’t to adhere to an arbitrary deadline. The board’s mandate is to recruit the best candidate for the job — someone who has a long-term commitment to SEJ’s mission. Someone who has a clear vision for how he or she will navigate the changing philanthropic landscape and soundly manage and grow SEJ into the next decade. Someone fluent in the language of funders and the ethics and imperative of environmental journalism. Someone who can be creative in securing new sources of revenue so that SEJ’s financial footing and membership base will strengthen even as our industry continues its transformation.
That’s a big job to fill. We’re going to ensure that we find the right person to fill it. I can’t wait to bring you good news later this year about who we’ve hired. Stay tuned!
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 14. 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.