Fox Business ran defense for Scott Pruitt by baselessly attacking a CNN investigation

Fox Business ran defense for Scott Pruitt by baselessly attacking a CNN investigation

CNN reported on the EPA chief helping a mining company. Fox Business Network didn't like that at all.

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Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

The Fox Business Network has aggressively and baselessly attacked a CNN investigation into moves made by Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt that will help a proposed mining project in Alaska. The network aired four segments last week that criticized CNN's story.

In an October 10 report aired on Anderson Cooper 360°, CNN correspondent Drew Griffin noted that Pruitt met on May 1 with the CEO of the Pebble Limited Partnership, a Canadian-owned company proposing to build a gold and copper mine in southwest Alaska that could threaten a major salmon fishery in Bristol Bay. Just over an hour after that meeting that took place, CNN discovered, Pruitt ordered his staff to withdraw proposed protections for Bristol Bay that had been put forward by the Obama administration, potentially clearing the way for the controversial Pebble Mine to go forward. Also on that same day, Pruitt agreed to settle a lawsuit that the mining company had filed against the EPA, according to CNN.

On October 18 and 19, Fox Business Network ran four separate interviews that bashed CNN's report, one with the Pebble Limited Partnership's CEO and three with John Stossel, a Fox commentator. Here are the segments:

  • one: on Varney & Co. on October 18, host Stuart Varney interviewed Stossel;
  • two: also on Varney & Co. on October 18, Varney interviewed Pebble CEO Tom Collier;
  • three: on After the Bell on October 18, host David Asman interviewed Stossel;
  • four: on Kennedy on October 19, host Lisa Kennedy Montgomery interviewed Stossel.

Stossel also slammed CNN's report in a written piece published on the Fox News website on October 18 and in a video posted on October 13 on Reason.com, which is run by the libertarian Reason Foundation. Stossel currently works for the Reason Foundation, which gets funding from the Koch brothers. Stossel also works for the Charles Koch Institute's Media and Journalism Fellowship program. Foundations affiliated with the Koch brothers have funded the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which in 2013 ran a campaign in support of the Pebble Mine.

On all four Fox Business Network segments, the hosts and interviewees did not dispute any of the specific facts reported by CNN, but they used highly charged language to try to discredit CNN. They repeatedly called CNN's investigation a "smear," and in two of the segments the words "CNN smear" appeared on the screen. Varney derided CNN as the "Clinton News Network," called CNN's report "a hit piece," and said to Collier, "They set you up." Stossel accused CNN of bias: "I don't think they're particularly biased against Pruitt; they're biased against the Trump administration and business." Montgomery said, "It is dishonest reporting."

With these comments, the Fox Business personalities were echoing President Donald Trump’s persistent attacks on CNN. Trump has called it the “Clinton News Network,” accused it of being “dishonest,” and even tweeted a video of himself attacking a man with the CNN logo superimposed on his head.

The Fox Business Network has a friendly relationship with Pruitt. The EPA chief has made seven appearances on the network since he took office in February, most recently on October 17.

The network also has a friendly relationship with Trump. Trump has given two exclusive interviews to Fox Business Network's Maria Bartiromo, one that aired on April 12 and another on October 23. Trump has mentioned or retweeted Fox Business or its hosts at least half a dozen times since becoming president, and never in a negative light. And the White House has linked at least eight times to Fox Business Network articles from the daily news roundup it posts on its website, previously called "1600 Daily" and now named "West Wing Reads."

As USA Today reported on October 13, the Fox Business Network has been doing well "amid the ascension of Donald Trump into the White House." The article continued, "To some, the network's gains have come by playing a game similar to that of fellow channel Fox News, hitching its star to candidate and now-President Trump and ignoring news that would hurt the president," though it observed that some of the network's hosts have criticized Trump recently. An October 17 story in Business Insider made similar points, noting the network's "lineup of right-leaning programming and embrace of President Donald Trump's economic and cultural vision." Business Insider found that Fox Business Network used phrases like "liberal media" and "left-wing media" as often as Fox News did.

So it shouldn't come as a surprise that Fox Business Network went to bat for Pruitt and attacked CNN for its report on Pebble Mine.

But all four segments Fox Business aired on the Pebble Mine contained errors in fact, as outlined below.

Fox Business Network got its facts wrong

False: Salmon are nowhere near the proposed mine site.

"This mine is 100 miles from those salmon," Stossel said on Kennedy. "The fish are nowhere near where the mine is anyway," Asman said on After the Bell. Collier and other Fox Business personalities also noted that the site is at least "100 miles" from Bristol Bay.

True: The proposed mine site sits right within salmon habitat.

While the proposed mine site is more than 100 miles from Bristol Bay, it's entirely false to say that the mine site is 100 miles away from the salmon. The mine site is in a wetland area right in the middle of salmon habitat. Salmon not only inhabit Bristol Bay but migrate through and spawn in the rivers and tributaries that feed into the bay. As the EPA noted in a 2014 assessment of the potential impacts a mine could have in the area, "the Pebble deposit is located in the headwaters of tributaries to both the Nushagak and Kvichak Rivers," and, "Approximately half of Bristol Bay’s sockeye salmon production is from the Nushagak and Kvichak River watersheds."

Damaging the salmon's habitat or Bristol Bay's watershed, even many miles from the bay itself, could have major impacts on the fishery. The EPA determined that the Pebble Mine could cause "irreversible" habitat loss because of "the extent of streams, wetlands, lakes, and ponds both overlying the Pebble deposit and within adjacent watersheds."

Bristol Bay is home to the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world, producing 46 percent of the world’s sockeye salmon, generating an estimated $1.5 billion in economic activity a year, and supporting more than 14,000 jobs. The salmon also play a central role in sustaining the cultures of local Native Alaskan tribes that stretch back at least 4,000 years.

False: The Obama administration completely blocked the Pebble Mine.

During his first segment, Varney said, "This was the EPA under President Obama saying no, before you even think about submitting a plan, don't do it because you’re not going to get it." In the second segment, Varney said the mine project "was rejected, out of hand, right from the get-go" by Obama's EPA. Collier agreed, saying, "Obama wouldn't even let us file a permit application." Stossel then claimed during the third segment, "they didn't even let the guy submit a proposal."

True: The Obama administration did not block the mining company from filing a permit application.

In 2014, the Obama EPA proposed environmental standards that a mine tapping the Pebble deposit would have to meet, after the agency conducted a three-year, peer-reviewed scientific assessment that found a large-scale mine would pose serious threats to the Bristol Bay fishery. The EPA has the authority under the Clean Water Act to restrict projects like proposed mines that would threaten water quality in Bristol Bay.

But the Obama EPA did not block the mining company from submitting a proposal or permit application for Pebble Mine. If a mine proposal met the restrictions EPA laid out for the Bristol Bay area, it would be able to move forward in the process, as EPA made clear when it proposed the restrictions in 2014: "Proposals to mine the Pebble deposit that have impacts below each of these restrictions would proceed to the Section 404 permitting process," the agency wrote.

Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm that has worked to prevent Pebble Mine, explains further:

EPA proposed to ban, not the Pebble Mine itself, but the unacceptable habitat loss from any proposed mine.

[...]

Any version of the Pebble Mine which would not cause the habitat loss EPA proposed to ban could proceed to the ordinary permitting process.

In other words, the agency proposed reasonable, tailored restrictions necessary to protect the Bristol Bay ecosystem and fisheries.

[...]

If the Pebble Mine can be built without causing those impacts, the EPA’s protective action is no obstacle to it.

As The New York Times reported in May of this year, the Obama EPA's process "concluded with the determination that the mine, as planned, would risk the long-term health of the ecosystem, but it did not wholly block the granting of a permit."

It's worth noting that the mining company had been promising to file a permit application and release its plans since 2004, during the George W. Bush administration, but it never carried through. In 2013, Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski was so frustrated by the delay that she wrote a letter chastising the company for "failure to describe the project and submit permit applications," noting that "years of waiting" had fed "anxiety, frustration and confusion" in local communities.

False: The Obama EPA's decision was driven by "collusion" with "rich green lawyers" and environmental groups that have no scientific expertise.

Stossel and Fox Business hosts repeatedly characterized the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a nonprofit environmental organization that has opposed the Pebble Mine, as a "rich" group that had been "colluding" with Obama's EPA. "NRDC is not scientists, it's mostly lawyers," Stossel added. Varney referred to "rich green lawyers driving this train."

True: The Obama EPA's decision was based on a transparent multi-year scientific process.

Under Obama, the EPA spent three years conducting an extensive scientific assessment to determine the potential impacts on the Bristol Bay fishery of a large-scale mine to tap the Pebble deposit. The review went through two drafts, two rounds of peer review, and a public comment period. The EPA's decision to propose restrictions on a mining development in the area was based on this in-depth review. Pruitt's move to withdraw those restrictions, in contrast, was made without consulting EPA's scientific staff. As CNN reported, "according to multiple sources, he made that decision without a briefing from any of EPA's scientists or experts."

Varney talked about "rich green lawyers driving this train," but opposition to the mine has been led by locals and Alaskans. According to the EPA website, the agency "initiated this assessment in response to petitions from nine federally recognized tribes and other stakeholders who asked us to take action to protect Bristol Bay’s salmon populations." And it's not just tribes who are opposed: 62 percent of likely Alaskan voters opposed the Pebble Mine in a 2014 poll, and 85 percent of commercial fishers in the Bristol Bay area opposed it in a 2011 poll. State leaders are not fans of the mine either, as The New Yorker reported in July of this year: "Governor Bill Walker, an independent, has spoken out against the mine, and the G.O.P.-dominated state legislature has grown increasingly skeptical—a particularly important development, since a 2014 ballot measure, supported by two-thirds of voters, gave it veto power over any mine proposal in Bristol Bay."

NRDC -- which has been active in opposing the mine project, working in tandem with local communities -- does have lawyers on staff, but it also has a Science Center and employs at least 60 scientists who have PhDs or master's degrees in their fields.

False: The Pebble Mine is an energy project.

Host Montgomery misrepresented the proposed mine as an energy project, talking about the importance of "extracting the energy" from Alaska and wondering whether environmentalists "want us to rely on Saudi Arabia forever."

True: The Pebble Mine would extract minerals including gold and copper.

The mining project proposed by the Pebble Limited Partnership would extract copper, gold and molybdenum, not oil, gas, or coal. Stossel did not correct Montgomery’s apparent misunderstanding, but instead joined in to bash the environmentalists who want people to rely on "magical wind power and solar power."

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