How Scott Pruitt's EPA is attacking journalists and stifling the media

How Scott Pruitt's EPA is attacking journalists and stifling the media

EPA takes up Trump’s war on the press by insulting media outlets, withholding information, and flouting public records requests

Blog ››› ››› EVLONDO COOPER


Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

This post was updated on 5/23/18 to incorporate additional news reports.

Since Scott Pruitt took the helm of the Environmental Protection Agency in early 2017, the EPA has consistently refused to release basic information, blocked reporters from attending agency events, and attacked journalists and outlets whose coverage it didn't like. This antagonistic stance toward the media mirrors President Donald Trump’s unprecedented war against the press, which Media Matters has chronicled.

Seeking a reset after a year of the agency’s attacks and obfuscation, the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) sent a letter to the EPA’s press office in January in the hopes of improving journalists’ access to EPA information and "begin[ning] a conversation about journalists’ basic needs." The letter made five requests, which the group summarized on its website:

  1. Respond to inquiries in a meaningful and timely manner, arranging interviews with subject matter experts.
  1. Distribute all press releases and advisories, to all who request them, not just to a select audience.
  1. Hold open press briefings on significant news. Invite all regular beat reporters to in-person briefings held at EPA headquarters; provide web conferencing and teleconference access for all interested reporters outside the Washington area.
  1. Reinstate the practice of publishing a weekly list of the EPA administrator’s scheduled public appearances.
  1. Resume the practice of publishing an up-to-date calendar of all the EPA administrator’s meetings — not just public events.

The EPA failed to respond to SEJ’s letter -- or to a follow-up inquiry -- so the group released the letter publicly in March. SEJ sent the EPA another letter on March 30 calling on the agency to “answer reporters' questions directly, rather than referring them to published articles by their favored media," as summarized on the SEJ website.

Here are more than 20 examples of Pruitt's EPA assailing the press or frustrating journalists' efforts to cover the agency's actions.

EPA withholds Pruitt’s schedule from the press. Former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, who headed the agency under President Barack Obama from 2013 to early 2017, shared her schedule on the EPA website every day, but Pruitt, like many other members of Trump's cabinet, withholds basic information about his activities. According to Politico, the EPA has refused “to provide schedules or advisories of his upcoming meetings, confirm his attendance at specific events, or say what city he plans to be in on a given day." As a result, news outlets and watchdog groups have filed multiple Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and lawsuits to obtain his calendars. When the EPA has eventually responded and released information about Pruitt's schedule, it has generally been bare-bones, partially redacted, or months late.

EPA spokesperson: “Pruitt does not want open press." While coordinating logistics for a roundtable discussion Pruitt held at the University of North Dakota with the state's senior senator, John Hoeven (R), and governor, Doug Burgum (R), EPA spokesperson Jahan Wilcox asked that reporters not be permitted to attend, E&E News reported. Hoeven had wanted to include media, but Wilcox wrote to Burgum’s staffers that “most importantly Pruitt does not want open press." After being informed that reporters had already been invited to the last 15 minutes of the event, Wilcox insisted, “We can't have anything open."

EPA spokesperson called police on North Dakota reporters trying to cover Pruitt event. EPA spokesperson Wilcox threatened to call the police on two reporters from the Grand Forks Herald who were attempting to cover Pruitt’s August 9 visit to the University of North Dakota. The Herald reported that after Wilcox made his threat, “A UND Police officer then arrived to insist the building and its grounds were private property before demanding the reporters move away from the center's front door. … The EERC is not private property and is owned by UND."

EPA asked radio host not to take listener calls during interview with Pruitt. During his August 9 visit to North Dakota, Pruitt sat for a joint interview with Gov. Burgum, conducted by local talk radio host Scott Hennen. Hennen normally takes listener calls during his show, but documents obtained by E&E News show that EPA spokesperson Wilcox asked him not to during the Pruitt interview, and Hennen acquiesced.

EPA terminated funding for a nonprofit newspaper after it reported that Trump's budget cuts would hurt the Chesapeake Bay. The Bay Journal, a nonprofit newspaper that covers environmental issues in the Chesapeake Bay region and reaches approximately 100,000 readers, has been partially funded by the EPA since 1991. Last June, the paper reported that Trump's proposed budget would slash funding for Chesapeake Bay programs and harm restoration efforts. In August, the EPA abruptly canceled a previously approved $325,000 grant to the paper due to a “shift in priorities." The Bay Journal requested records pertaining to the termination, which EPA failed to produce, so the paper sued. Under pressure from Maryland's Democratic senators, the EPA restored the Bay Journal’s funding in March.  

EPA attacked NY Times reporters in press release over pesticide story. On August 18, The New York Times published a story detailing how the EPA disregarded the advice of agency scientists by refusing to ban a harmful pesticide after Pruitt met with farming industry executives and told them he was listening to their pleas. Three days later, the EPA issued a press release attacking the story and accusing the reporters, Eric Lipton and Roni Caryn Rabin, of reporting "false facts" and omitting "inconvenient facts." Though the EPA did not dispute any of the story’s specific factual claims, the press release also stated that "the New York Times never lets the truth get in the way of a good story."

EPA attacked AP reporter in press release over toxic-site story. On September 2, The Associated Press published a story on toxic sites flooding in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which Washington Post media critic Eric Wemple later declared to be "factually sound." But the EPA issued a press release criticizing the story and attacking the credibility of the AP and Michael Biesecker, one of the reporters who wrote it. "Unfortunately, the Associated Press’ Michael Biesecker has a history of not letting the facts get in the way of his story," the agency’s release read. The press release also included a statement from EPA spokesperson Liz Bowman that accused the AP of attempting to “mislead Americans” by “cherry-picking facts.” To bolster its attack on Biesecker and the AP, the release cited a Breitbart News article. 

EPA dropped AP reporter from its email list and criticized him for not opening positive emails about Pruitt. The EPA had been unhappy with AP reporter Biesecker even before he published his story about toxic site flooding after Harvey. When The Washington Post's Wemple asked the EPA about its ongoing conflict with Biesecker, an agency official said that the EPA had removed Biesecker from its master email list, explaining, “We don’t think he’s a trustworthy reporter.” An EPA official also told the Post that the agency monitored which journalists opened its emailed press releases: “We are able to see who opens our emails,” the official said. “Michael [Biesecker] very rarely opens a positive story about [EPA Administrator] Scott Pruitt. He only opens stories where he tries to create problems.”

EPA warned employees against leaking to the press. The EPA required employees to attend training sessions that warned them of the dangers of leaking sensitive information to the media, The Associated Press reported. During the mandatory training, employees were given a fact sheet that detailed how leaks have harmed America in the past and warned, "Enemies of the United States are relentless in their pursuit of information which they can exploit to harm US interests."

EPA spokesperson misled NY Times reporter. In a talk at Yale, New York Times climate reporter Lisa Friedman recounted an instance in October when an EPA spokesperson gave her inaccurate information. Per the Yale Daily News, Friedman "said a spokesman for the EPA disputed the claim that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt planned to announce the decision [to roll back the Clean Power Plan] in Kentucky with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. The spokesman told her that 'it was not accurate' to say that Pruitt was going to make such an announcement.” Friedman then told the audience, “Except for it was absolutely accurate, and Fox News was invited.” Friedman also said, “Covering the EPA is like covering the CIA. It is so secretive. It is so difficult even to get basic information.”

EPA accused NY Times reporter of being “biased” and “writing elitist click bait.” When Times reporter Lipton sent detailed questions to the EPA about the agency loosening regulations on toxic chemicals, EPA spokesperson Bowman refused to answer his queries. Instead, she sent a caustic comment by email: “No matter how much information we give you, you would never write a fair piece. The only thing inappropriate and biased is your continued fixation on writing elitist click bait trying to attack qualified professionals committed to serving their country.” Lipton quoted her comment in his article.

EPA refused to confirm basic facts to NY Times reporter, then accused him of stealing from other news outlets. The Washington Post's Wemple reported further details on Lipton's back-and-forth with the EPA about his story on toxic chemical regulations. Lipton asked EPA spokesperson Bowman to confirm reports that Michael Dourson, Trump's nominee to head the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, began working at the EPA before being confirmed by the Senate. Bowman referred Lipton to stories published by USA Today and E&E News, which Lipton took as confirmation. Then EPA spokesperson Wilcox jumped into email chain, interjecting, “If you want to steal work from other outlets and pretend like it’s your own reporting that is your decision.” After Lipton explained to both spokespersons that basic fact-checking is critical to avoiding “Fake News,” Wilcox, ccing USA Today’s and E&E News’ reporters, replied to Lipton, “Adding the two outlets who you want to steal their work from to this email.”

EPA had police remove reporter from Pruitt event in Iowa. Ethan Stoetzer, a journalist with InsideSources Iowa, never received a response after trying repeatedly to contact the EPA to RSVP for a December 1 event where Pruitt would be speaking at a cattle company headquarters in Iowa. The event was invite-only, but media were permitted to attend. According to his reporting, Stoetzer showed up to the event site and was initially allowed to enter the press booth. But then he “was approached by a Story County Sheriff’s Deputy, as well as several staff members of both the EPA and Couser Cattle Company, who did not give their names when asked, and was told that he had to leave the premises.” He reported that other members of the media who had not RSVP’d were allowed to remain at the event. EPA spokesperson Wilcox did not reply to repeated questions about why Stoetzer was forced off the premises.

EPA hired Republican opposition-research firm to conduct "war room"-style media monitoring. The EPA awarded a no-bid contract worth $120,000 to an opposition-research firm, Definers Corp, that not only has deep connections to the Republican establishment, but is also tied to a research group that had been “looking for information that could undermine employees who had criticized the E.P.A.,” as The New York Times reported. Under the contract, Definers would provide the EPA with “‘war room’-style media monitoring, analysis, and advice," Mother Jones reported. The controversial contract was rescinded after media reports led to political outcry.

EPA misled press about Pruitt's travel, then stonewalled. After journalists reported in February 2018 on Pruitt’s exorbitant travel expenses, EPA Node Menu spokesperson Wilcox initially told Politico that Pruitt had received a blanket waiver to travel first or business class. But a spokesperson for the General Services Administration, which oversees rules about officials' travel, told Politico that it does not issue blanket waivers. Wilcox then changed his story and said that Pruitt submits a request for a waiver for each trip. Refusing to answer further questions about Pruitt’s travel, Wilcox directed reporters to use FOIA to request additional information, "a process that can take months or years," Politico noted.

EPA to reporters: You'll have to wait a year for responses to your FOIA requests. The EPA has been slow in responding to FOIA requests about Pruitt's office from media organizations and other groups, according to an analysis by the Project on Government Oversight. The agency had closed only about 17 percent of records requests related to Pruitt’s activities as of February, Politico reported. This aligns with the anecdotal stories of journalists who, when not ignored by the EPA, were informed that it would take a year to receive responses to their records requests. CNBC reported in February on a lawsuit filed against EPA alleging the agency "has systematically refused to document 'essential activities' under Pruitt, and higher-ups are creating a culture in which career employees are discouraged from creating written records."

EPA tried to prevent news outlets from covering Pruitt’s announcement of vehicle efficiency rollbacks. After granting Fox News permission to cover Pruitt’s announcement that the agency would be revising Obama-era vehicle emissions and mileage standards, EPA officials tried to stop other television networks from reporting on the event. As CNN reported on April 3, “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 public affairs officials also made little effort to inform other journalists about the event. According to CNN, “There were several journalists [at the event], including from The New York Times, Bloomberg and ABC News, according to one reporter in attendance, who added that it sounded like many of the reporters were notified of the event individually just before it took place and ran over. EPA did not send a wide notice of the event to the agency press list.”

Pruitt has used multiple email addresses, which could hamper fulfillment of FOIA requests by media outlets and others. After learning that Pruitt uses three secret EPA email addresses in addition to his official email address, Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Tom Carper (D-DE) asked the EPA’s inspector general on April 10 to investigate if Pruitt “may be withholding information from the public in violation of valid FOIA requests.” On May 2, the inspector general said his office plans to open an investigation into whether the EPA is violating the Federal Records Act.

EPA press office engaged in “questionable activities” that may have violated federal rules, Sierra Club alleged in a lawsuit. Via a Twitter thread posted on April 20, Sierra Club attorney Elena Saxonhouse announced that her group had sued the EPA for failing to provide public records related to the activities of the agency’s Office of Public Affairs. Saxonhouse alleged that the office had engaged in a number of “questionable activities,” which included “creating a right-wing media echo chamber for Pruitt,” “contracting with a firm whose stated goal is to take down Democrats,” and reportedly working to secretly place anti-Paris climate accord op-eds in newspapers, among other things. Sierra Club requested the records to determine if these actions violated rules barring the use of agency money for "self-aggrandizement," "purely partisan" communications, and "covert propaganda." The EPA was recently forced to turn over more than 24,000 pages of documents to the Sierra Club after losing a previous FOIA lawsuit to the organization.

Pruitt aides have slowed FOIA releases so they can increase vetting of records requests related to his actions. “Top aides to Scott Pruitt at the Environmental Protection Agency are screening public records requests related to the embattled administrator, slowing the flow of information released under the Freedom of Information Act — at times beyond what the law allows,” Politico reported on May 6. Based on internal emails obtained by the outlet, the EPA’s political appointees also reprimanded career officials who released public records without letting Pruitt’s aides screen them first. Although other administrations have also requested that political aides be allowed to screen certain releases before they are made public, a FOIA expert quoted by Politico said, “This does look like the most burdensome review process that I've seen documented."

EPA blocked AP, CNN, E&E News, and Politico from attending a summit on water contaminants and had an AP reporter physically removed from the building. “The Environmental Protection Agency temporarily barred journalists and the public from a national summit Tuesday addressing toxic chemicals contamination in drinking water, a week after top agency officials' effort to delay publication of a study on those chemicals came to light,” Politico reported on May 22. When an AP reporter asked to speak with public affairs personnel to learn why the outlet was barred from the event, “the security guards grabbed the reporter by the shoulders and shoved her forcibly out of the EPA building,” AP reported. Although the EPA relented after news of the incident spread and allowed the press to cover the second half of the event on May 22, the agency still blocked reporters from covering the subsequent day of the summit on May 23.

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