Scott Pruitt, ousted administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), had cozy relationships with right-wing media outlets and combative relationships with the mainstream press. Andrew Wheeler, who's stepped in as acting administrator, has also shown a fondness for right-wing media and signs of disdain toward some mainstream media. But Wheeler has not interacted with the press in the same hostile and tribal ways that Pruitt did. Will Wheeler's approach to the media shift now that he's at the helm at EPA?
On the topic of climate change, it’s easier to predict whether Wheeler will change course: probably not. Like Pruitt, Wheeler has long been skeptical of climate science and climate action, as evidenced not just by Wheeler’s public statements but also by his Twitter account. He has tweeted out links to climate-denying blog posts, including one post that declared, “There is no such thing as ‘carbon pollution.’”
Pruitt leaned heavily on right-wing media
Throughout his tenure at the EPA, Pruitt made heavy use of right-wing media outlets to spread his preferred talking points and fight back against media coverage he didn't like. During his first year, Pruitt appeared on Fox News more than twice as often as all other major TV networks combined, Media Matters found, and Fox was less likely than other networks to cover Pruitt's scandals. Pruitt was also a frequent guest on national right-wing talk-radio shows, where he received soft treatment.
After Pruitt got unexpectedly tough questions during an April interview with Fox's Ed Henry, he retreated to right-wing outlets that were even more likely to give him good press, giving interviews to the Sinclair Broadcast Group, the Washington Free Beacon, and a Mississippi talk-radio show.
Pruitt cultivated a particularly cozy relationship with right-wing outlet The Daily Caller, giving the site exclusive quotes and information. The Daily Caller in turn repeatedly defended Pruitt against scandals and attacked people who released damaging information about him. Even after Pruitt resigned, The Daily Caller continued to act as his attack dog, publishing pieces with headlines including "Source: A torrent of negative press ended Scott Pruitt's career at EPA" and "Jilted former EPA aide with sordid history takes full credit for Pruitt's resignation."
Pruitt attacked and stymied mainstream media outlets
Under Pruitt, the EPA press office repeatedly attacked, stymied, and manipulated reporters at mainstream news outlets, as Media Matters documented. The agency refused to release basic information about its activities, blocked journalists from attending official agency events, favored reporters who would provide positive coverage, and publicly insulted and retaliated against reporters and outlets whose coverage officials didn't like.
One of many such attacks came in September, when the EPA sent out a press release that personally maligned Associated Press reporter Michael Biesecker, accusing him of having “a history of not letting the facts get in the way of his story.” Another attack happened in June of 2018, when EPA spokesperson Jahan Wilcox called an Atlantic reporter "a piece of trash” after she asked for comment on one of Pruitt's aides resigning.
Pruitt appeared to attack the media on his way out the door, too. His resignation letter blamed “unprecedented” and “unrelenting attacks” on him.
Wheeler liked tweets from right-wing media figures, defended Milo Yiannopoulos
Wheeler, for his part, has also demonstrated an affinity for right-wing media figures and outlets, but he's done it in a different way -- via his personal Twitter account. He has “liked” many tweets by conservative media figures, including ones that criticize mainstream or liberal media outlets.
Wheeler “liked” a July 3 tweet by Donald Trump Jr. that linked to a Daily Caller post lauding Fox News's high ratings and mocking CNN's lower ones:
If it was possible to make the Fourth of July any better I leave you with this:
CNN Loses In Quarterly Ratings To Home And Garden Television https://t.co/mvqtnbtkPM
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) July 3, 2018
He “liked” a June 11 tweet by NRATV host and Fox regular Dan Bongino that bashed MSNBC:
A total disgrace. An embarrassment to themselves, to journalism, to their networks, and to anyone associated with them. https://t.co/OeDupG2bIr
— Dan Bongino (@dbongino) June 12, 2018
Wheeler “liked” a June 1 tweet by libertarian talk show host Dave Rubin that criticized a HuffPost story: “HuffPo isn’t a place of journalism, it’s a place of Far Left activism.” (Media Matters rebutted the misleading claims of right-wing figures who criticized the story.)
He “liked” a May 22 tweet by NRATV host and NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch that knocked Planned Parenthood.
He “liked” an April 3 tweet by conservative Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel that inaccurately claimed Obama EPA officials spent as much on travel as Pruitt did.
This Pruitt flap is absurd. Obama EPA officials spent as much or more on travel. And career EPA ethics officials say he paid “reasonable market value” for the condo, and leasor had no business in front of EPA. The press might at least try to pretend it didn't have two standards.
— Kimberley Strassel (@KimStrassel) April 3, 2018
He “liked” a January 6 tweet by Fox News personality Brit Hume that mocked Al Gore.
Trump has done more good for the black community in 18 months than Obama did in 8 years
— Charlie Kirk (@charliekirk11) May 12, 2018
According to Daily Beast reporter Scott Bixby, in 2016 Wheeler tweeted out a conspiracy theorist's video that defended Milo Yiannopoulos, an alt-right troll and former Breitbart editor, but Wheeler later deleted the tweet:
In August 2016, Wheeler publicly defended alt-right troll Milo Yiannopolous after the latter was banned from Twitter for encouraging users to harass actress Leslie Jones. In a now-deleted tweet, the lobbyist linked to a six-minute video, “The Truth About Milo,” produced by InfoWars editor-at-large and noted conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson, in which Watson posited that conservatives might be “banned from using the internet altogether if they trigger your butthurt.”
Since being named acting head of the EPA last week, Wheeler appears to have deleted 12 more tweets from his feed.
Wheeler tweeted links to climate-denier blog posts
In 2011, when Wheeler was a lobbyist for the Murray Energy coal company, he tweeted a link to a post on the climate-denial blog JunkScience.com. The post, written by the site's founder and longtime climate denier Steve Milloy, argued that information from the American Lung Association should not be trusted because the organization “is bought-and-paid-for by the EPA.”
— Andrew Wheeler (@AndrewRWheeler) November 10, 2011
Wheeler retweeted a Milloy tweet from 2015 that took a shot at Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington and highlighted projections about India's rising coal use.
In 2009, Wheeler sent a tweeted promoting a climate-denying blog post published on the conservative American Thinker site:
Climate alarmists refuse to debate or leave their facts at home when they do....http://tinyurl.com/d2qs66
— Andrew Wheeler (@AndrewRWheeler) April 6, 2009
On at least two occasions, Wheeler has tweeted links to posts on RealClearPolitics that questioned the science of climate change. A tweet in 2009 linked to a post titled “A Reason To Be Skeptical,” and the tweet included the hashtag #capandtax, a conservative smear against cap-and-trade policies. The piece he linked to, which also appeared in The Denver Post, promoted “Climategate,” a bogus, manufactured scandal in which conservatives claimed that hacked emails showed climate scientists were fabricating evidence of warming temperatures.
— Andrew Wheeler (@AndrewRWheeler) December 2, 2009
And a tweet in 2015 praised a RealClearPolitics essay that argued, "There is no such thing as 'carbon pollution.'”
— Andrew Wheeler (@AndrewRWheeler) November 30, 2015
This piece, which Wheeler called “great,” largely dismissed climate science and criticized the media outlets and peer-reviewed journals that regularly report on climate change:
Of course, we don’t have good data or sound arguments for decarbonizing our energy supply. But it sounds like we do. If you read Scientific American, Science, Nature, National Geographic, the New York Times, the Washington Post, or any of thousands of newspapers and magazines, and you take them at face value, you would have to agree that there is a strong likelihood that serious climate change is real and that decarbonization or geo-engineering are our only hopes.
Wheeler gives interviews and quotes primarily to mainstream outlets
Though Wheeler's Twitter account seems to show a preference for right-wing outlets, he does not exhibit the same ideological bias when he gives interviews or quotes to media. Most of the interviews he's given during his career in Washington, D.C., have been to mainstream outlets.
Media Matters has identified eight interviews Wheeler has granted to media outlets since October 5, 2017, when President Donald Trump nominated him to serve as deputy administrator of the EPA:
- The Washington Post, October 7, 2017
- The Wall Street Journal, April 12, 2018
- Bloomberg, June 27, 2018
- Washington Examiner, June 27, 2018
- The Hill, June 27, 2018
- Journal-News of Butler County, Ohio (Wheeler's hometown area), June 28, 2018
- The Washington Post, July 6, 2018
- The Wall Street Journal, July 6, 2018
During his years as a lobbyist from 2009 to 2017 -- when he worked for coal, nuclear, chemical, and utility companies, among others -- he was quoted at least eight times by E&E News, a subscription-based news organization aimed at professionals working in the energy and environment fields, and he sat for one video interview with E&E. He also gave quotes at least twice to another inside-the-beltway news organization, Politico, as well as to The New York Times and FoxNews.com.
Right-wing media are already leaping to Wheeler's defense
Whether on not Wheeler starts giving interviews or information to right-wing outlets, right-wing outlets are likely to defend him against criticism. They've already started.
The Daily Caller, which had a tight-knit relationship with Pruitt and his press office, published a story on July 5 titled “Pruitt has been gone for less than a day and his replacement is already getting attacked.” And Breitbart ran a piece on July 5 that quoted conservatives praising Wheeler and argued that “the media is already attacking him in much the same relentless fashion it did Pruitt.”
What's next for Wheeler and the EPA press office?
It's not surprising that Wheeler gave quotes and interviews primarily to mainstream and inside-the-beltway publications while he was working for Inhofe and representing his lobbying clients. He was trying to reach influencers and mold public opinion.
In contrast, Pruitt, who has been rumored to be plotting a run for Oklahoma governor or senator, has spent his time in D.C. trying to raise his profile and burnish his image with GOP donors and the conservative base of the Republican Party. He often turned to highly partisan right-wing outlets to achieve those ends.
Now that Wheeler is the boss setting the agenda and determining strategy, will he continue his conventional approach of talking to mainstream media, or will he follow Pruitt's recent example and turn primarily to highly partisan right-wing outlets like Fox News and The Daily Caller? And under Wheeler's leadership, will the EPA's press office treat reporters more professionally than it did under Pruitt, or will it continue to be highly combative with the media?
In the few days since Wheeler was announced as interim EPA chief on July 5, he seems to have taken a more traditional and conciliatory approach. He's given two substantive interviews to major newspapers, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. And according to Politico, Wheeler will be taking a different approach from Pruitt in terms of dealing with the press: “Wheeler will announce where he is speaking or traveling in advance, he will publish his full calendars 'frequently,' without litigation from groups pursuing public records, and he and other top political appointees will hold briefings for the media on major policy announcements.”
But even if the media approach changes, the policy approach won't. “EPA's agenda remains largely unchanged,” Politico continued. “Wheeler will still pursue much the same policy platform — fighting the courts to roll back a slate of Obama-era regulations on climate change, air pollution, stream protection and more.”
Ted MacDonald, Evlondo Cooper, and Kevin Kalhoefer contributed research to this post.