This post was updated on 2/5/19.
Andrew Wheeler, acting head of the Environmental Protection Agency and nominee to fill the job permanently, has lashed out at the media repeatedly in the last few days. The EPA's press office sent out three press releases on February 1 and another one on February 5 that criticized media outlets for their reporting or discussion of either Wheeler or the EPA's activities.
These latest attacks on journalists' work are not the first that the EPA press office has issued under Wheeler. In this, he's following in the footsteps of both his predecessor, Scott Pruitt, and his boss, President Donald Trump.
Wheeler testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee at a confirmation hearing on January 16, and the committee voted along party lines to approve his nomination on February 5. Wheeler’s nomination will go before the full Senate soon.
In the meantime, Wheeler is not happy about getting what he perceives to be negative press about him or the agency he's leading.
The EPA's latest attacks on the media
On Friday morning, the EPA sent out a press release with this headline: “Huffington Post Report Filled with Biased and Misleading Claims.” The release criticized a HuffPost article that reported that Murray Energy, the coal company that Wheeler used to lobby for, has ended its lobbying contract with Wheeler's old firm. The article noted that many of the policy changes Murray Energy has wanted to see have already been implemented at the EPA.
The EPA's press release listed a number of criticisms of the article, but it didn't demonstrate that the piece was incorrect. One complaint was that the article quoted someone from the nonprofit group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which the EPA dismissed as a “liberal interest group.” Another bizarrely nitpicky gripe was about the grammatical construction of one sentence, which the EPA release claimed was intended to “trick the reader” into thinking Vice President Mike Pence was at a meeting with the head of Murray Energy. The sentence makes no such claim. HuffPost stands by its article.
On Friday evening, the EPA sent out another press release attacking a media report, this one with the subject line “E&E Publishes Hogwash Misleading Story.” It criticized another article about Wheeler's former lobbying firm. The article, published by E&E News, reported that a former lobbying colleague of Wheeler met repeatedly with EPA officials about sites contaminated with toxic waste. The article drew from a batch of internal EPA emails and calendars that were recently released in the wake of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club.
The press release did not note any factual errors in the E&E article, but rather criticized two sections that it called “misleading.” The release also made the petty and unrelated claim that E&E had previously issued a correction to a story it published about Wheeler last year; in fact, it was a clarification, not a correction. “Clicks are more important than facts for E&E News,” the EPA press release charged -- even though E&E News is a firewalled subscription news service, not one that relies on attracting a broad public audience for its reporting. E&E News stands by its story.
Also on Friday, the EPA published a press release attacking a comment made by a former Obama administration official on the Fox News program The Story with Martha MacCallum. Austan Goolsbee, who chaired the Council of Economic Advisers under President Barack Obama, said on the show that the EPA is changing rules to allow power plants to “dump more mercury into our drinking water.” The EPA charged in its press release that it was an “outlandishly false claim” and disputed it on narrow grounds, saying that the agency has not changed a key rule governing mercury emissions from power plants. But as recent opinion pieces in The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times explained in wonky detail, the EPA has been taking steps that could lead to more mercury pollution. The Times piece summed the situation up: “Wheeler is inviting the coal industry to challenge the mercury rule in court.”
Then on Tuesday, the EPA press office issued an even more vituperative press release -- this one personally attacking a Politico reporter for an article she wrote headlined “Former Koch official runs EPA chemical research.” She reported on how a former Koch Industries employee is now leading research that will help determine how the agency regulates PFAS chemicals that contaminate drinking water. EPA's press release was headlined “Politico Continues Misinformation Campaign on PFAS,” and ended with a personal insult against the reporter: “It appears Annie Snider’s talents are best used for fundraising pieces for special interest groups rather than reporting any resemblance of the truth.”
Wheeler may be feeling especially threatened by reporting on PFAS because the issue could disrupt his Senate confirmation. On February 4, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) threatened to hold up Wheeler's nomination unless the agency sets strict new rules for two types of PFAS. And 20 senators, including two Republicans, sent Wheeler a letter on February 1 calling for drinking-water limits on those same two chemicals.
Wheeler's press office attacked the media in 2018 too
These attacks echo ones the EPA press office launched last fall. On October 30, it sent out a press release with the headline “EPA Sets the Record Straight After Being Misrepresented in Press.” The release didn't name any media outlets, but it asserted that “recent media reports have inaccurately misrepresented the actions taken by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency” to address toxic air pollutants emitted by an industrial facility in Illinois.
On November 1, the press office got more aggressive, sending out a press release titled “Fact Checking Seven Falsehoods in CNN’s Report.” It attacked an article on CNN's website that reported on an EPA move that would allow states to emit more ozone pollution, which leads to smog. CNN stood by its story -- and rightly so. John Walke, a clean air expert at the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council, explained in a detailed Twitter thread that the EPA was “wrong about all seven” of its accusations against CNN.
As more articles come out reporting on Wheeler's emails and calendars, thanks to that Sierra Club lawsuit, we could see the EPA sending out still more press releases attacking media outlets.
Note: The EPA press release about the HuffPost article mentions Media Matters and claims that we are “affiliated” with Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Media Matters founder David Brock once served on the board of CREW, but he is no longer affiliated with the group. Media Matters had no involvement in the HuffPost article.