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Al Roker gives us reason to be a bit optimistic
A version of this post was originally published on Grist.
Everyone knows that the U.S. got gobsmacked by hurricanes last year. But if you rely on mainstream media for your news, you might not know that climate change had anything to do with it.
In 2017, the major broadcast TV news programs mentioned climate change only two times total during their coverage of the record-breaking hurricanes that made landfall in the U.S. The climate-hurricane link came up once on CBS, once on NBC, and not at all during ABC's coverage of the storms, Media Matters found. All in all, major TV news programs, radio news programs, and newspapers mentioned climate change in just 4 percent of their stories about last year’s big hurricanes, according to research by Public Citizen. Many major media outlets also neglected to weave climate change into their reporting on 2017's heat waves and wildfires.
Will coverage in 2018 be any better?
Al Roker has given us reason to feel slightly optimistic. Last week, Roker, the weather forecaster on NBC's Today show, demonstrated one good way to put an extreme weather event into proper context. While discussing the devastating flooding that recently hit Ellicott City, MD, he explained that heavy downpours have become more common in recent decades thanks to climate change, using a map and data from the research group Climate Central:
As we roll into summer -- the start of the season for hurricanes, wildfires, droughts, and heat waves -- that's just the kind of connect-the-dots reporting we need.
The New York Times helped set the scene with its recent map-heavy feature on places in the U.S. that have been hit repeatedly by extreme weather. "Climate change is making some kinds of disasters more frequent," the piece explained, and "scientists also contend that climate change is expected to lead to stronger, wetter hurricanes."
But it's one thing to report on how climate change worsens weather disasters in general, as the Times did in that piece. It's another thing to report on climate change while covering a specific storm or wildfire, as Roker did -- and many journalists still seem to be squeamish about it. They shouldn't be; science has their back. In addition to what we know about the general links between climate change and extreme weather, there's a growing area of climate research, called attribution science, that measures the extent to which climate change has made individual weather events more intense or destructive.
Consider the research that's been done on Hurricane Harvey, which dumped more than 60 inches of rain on the Houston area this past August. Just four months after the storm, two groups of scientists published attribution studies about it: One study estimated that climate change made Harvey's rainfall 15 percent heavier than it would have been otherwise, while another offered a best estimate of 38 percent.
Broadcast TV news programs did not report on this research when it came out, but they should have. And the next time a major hurricane looms or makes landfall, media outlets should make note of these and other studies that attribute hurricane intensity to climate change. Scientists can't make these types of attribution analyses in real time (at least not yet), but their research on past storms can help put current and future storms in context.
Of course, in order to incorporate climate change into hurricane reporting, journalists have to be reporting on hurricanes in the first place. They failed miserably at this basic task when it came to Hurricane Maria and its devastation of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Maria got markedly less media coverage than hurricanes Harvey and Irma, according to analyses by FiveThirtyEight and researchers from the MIT Media Lab. The weekend after Maria made landfall, the five major Sunday morning political talk shows cumulatively spent less than a minute on the storm. And just last week, when a major new study estimated that Maria led to approximately 5,000 deaths in Puerto Rico, as opposed to the government's official death count of 64, cable news gave 16 times more coverage to Roseanne Barr's racist tweet and her canceled TV show than to the study.
Hurricane Maria overwhelmingly harmed people of color -- Puerto Rico's population is 99 percent Latino and the U.S. Virgin Islands' population is 98 percent Black or African-American -- so it's hard not to see race as a factor in the undercoverage of the storm. The authors of the MIT Media analysis attributed the lack of coverage to a “cultural gap” and suggested that more minorities working in media might have alleviated the problem. Not only are minorities less likely to be employed in newsrooms; they're also less likely to be included in media discussions of climate change.
The lack of reporting on Maria sets a scary precedent, as climate disasters are expected to hurt minority and low-income communities more than whiter, wealthier ones. Unless mainstream media step up their game, the people hurt the most by climate change will be covered the least.
Ultimately, we need the media to help all people understand that climate change is not some distant phenomenon that might affect their grandkids or people in faraway parts of the world. Only 45 percent of Americans believe climate change will pose a serious threat to them during their lifetimes, according to a recent Gallup poll. That means the majority of Americans still don't get it.
When journalists report on the science that connects climate change to harsher storms and more extreme weather events, they help people understand climate change at a more visceral level. It's happening here, now, today, to all of us. That's the story that needs to be told.
Following a new study estimating that almost 5,000 people died as a result of Hurricane Maria, Sunday news shows completely ignored the devastation and death toll that is 72 times higher than the government’s official number of 64.
Written up by the Washington Post, a May 29 Harvard University study “estimates that at least 4,645 deaths can be linked to the hurricane and its immediate aftermath,” and noted that “health-care disruption for the elderly and the loss of basic utility services for the chronically ill had significant impact.”
If the Harvard study is accurate, Maria will be the second deadliest hurricane in U.S. history. Thousands are still waiting for power. It is already estimated to and have caused $90 billion in damages in Puerto Rico alone. The devastation in the U.S. Virgin Islands from Hurricanes Irma and Maria has caused billions more in damage. And 2018 Hurricane season is officially underway as of June 1.
Despite this less than a week old study, the major Sunday political talk shows -- which include CNN’s State of the Union, ABC’s This Week, CBS’ Face the Nation, NBC’s Meet the Press, and Fox Broadcasting Co.’s Fox News Sunday -- were all silent on the subject.
MSNBC’s AM Joy and CNN’s Reliable Sources both noted the discrepancy between coverage of Hurricane Maria’s devastation, and Roseanne Barr’s racist and anti-Semitic tweets that resulted in her eponymous show being canceled.
CNN’s New Day Sunday highlighted the Harvard study’s reported death toll and noted Puerto Rico is “still recovering” and that “11,000 residents still do not have power” as the country enters the official 2018 hurricane season.
The media has routinely ignored the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria, dating back to just one week after the storm made landfall when these Sunday shows covered the devastation for less than a minute. Cable news quickly turned away from Puerto Rico following the hurricane as well. The day the Harvard study was released, cable news gave it 30 minutes of coverage that was drowned out by ten hours spent on Roseanne.
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Cable news covered Roseanne for over 10 hours. They covered Hurricane Maria's death toll in Puerto Rico for just over 30 minutes.
On Tuesday, Harvard researchers published a study estimating that approximately 5,000 deaths can be linked to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. The same day, ABC canceled Roseanne Barr’s eponymous show Roseanne after Barr sent a racist tweet about Valerie Jarrett, an adviser to former President Barack Obama. Cable news covered Barr’s tweet and her show’s cancellation 16 times as much as the deaths of U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico.
While the official death toll remains at just 64, the Harvard study, written up in The Washington Post, “indicated that the mortality rate was 14.3 deaths per 1,000 residents from Sept. 20 through Dec. 31, 2017, a 62 percent increase in the mortality rate compared with 2016, or 4,645 ‘excess deaths.’” BuzzFeed News, which also reported on the study, further explained that the researchers adjusted their estimate up to 5,740 hurricane-related deaths to account for “people who lived alone and died as a result of the storm” and were thus not reported in the study’s survey.
Cable news barely covered the report. The May 29 broadcasts of MSNBC combined with the network's flagship morning show the next day spent 21 minutes discussing the findings. CNN followed with just under 10 minutes of coverage, and Fox covered the report for just 48 seconds.
By contrast, cable news spent over 8 and a half hours discussing a tweet from Barr describing Jarrett, a Black woman, as the offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood and Planet of the Apes and the subsequent cancellation of her show.
Media coverage of the crisis in Puerto Rico has been dismal since the hurricane hit; even when outlets reported on major scandals about the mismanaged recovery, the coverage was negligible and faded quickly.
Many in the media have been quick to label Barr’s obviously racist tweet as racist. But they've failed in their coverage of the mismanaged recovery in Puerto Rico, which is also explained -- at least in part -- by racism. The Root explained why “Puerto Rico’s crisis is not generally seen as a racial matter. But it should be.” Vox explained “the ways the island and its people have been othered through racial and ethnic bias” and noted that “both online and broadcast media gave Puerto Rico much less coverage, at least initially, than the hurricanes that recently hit Texas and Florida.” A Politico investigation found that “the Trump administration — and the president himself — responded far more aggressively to Texas than to Puerto Rico” in the wake of the hurricanes that devastated both. Trump tweeted just days after Hurricane Maria hit that Puerto Ricans “want everything to be done for them.” Only half of Americans are aware that Puerto Ricans are in fact U.S. citizens. And MSNBC contributor Eddie Glaude, chair of the Center for African-American Studies at Princeton University, pointed out, “When you think about 4,600 people dying -- of color -- dying in Puerto Rico, it reflects how their lives were valued, or less valued.”
Dina Radtke contributed research to this piece.
Harvard study finds actual death toll is at least 72 times higher than the official count
On May 29, The Washington Post reported on a new Harvard study concluding that “at least 4,645 people died as a result of Hurricane Maria and its devastation across Puerto Rico last year,” which is approximately 72 times higher than the government’s official death toll of 64.
According to the Post article, the Harvard study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, concluded that “health-care disruption for the elderly and the loss of basic utility services for the chronically ill had significant impacts” across the island, including “some communities [that] were entirely cut off for weeks amid road closures and communications failures.” A BuzzFeed write-up of the same study explained that, while at least “4,645 more people died in the final months of 2017” than in previous years, researchers adjusted their estimate up to 5,740 hurricane-related deaths to account for “people who lived alone and died as a result of the storm” and were thus not reported in the study’s survey.
If Harvard’s death toll estimate is accurate, Hurricane Maria was the second deadliest hurricane in U.S. history and the deadliest in 117 years.
And yet, even as U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico continued to die in 2017, media quickly dropped their focus on the crisis. The first Sunday after the storm, the five major political talk shows cumulatively dedicated less than one minute to coverage. And the overall coverage of the crisis sharply declined after President Donald Trump visited the U.S. territory on October 3; a Media Matters study found that prime-time cable news coverage of Puerto Rico’s recovery plummeted after that date.
Media should publicize the results of the Harvard study and the woefully inaccurate official death toll, demanding an explanation for how the government hid the magnitude of the casualties. And as the next hurricane season approaches, we need to pay attention to the people who live in Puerto Rico and demand accountability from the government.
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Journalists from AP, CNN, E&E News, and Politico were all prevented from attending
This post was updated on 5/23/18 to incorporate additional news reports.
Reporters from The Associated Press, CNN, E&E News, and Politico were barred from attending parts of an Environmental Protection Agency summit on water contaminants on May 22 and 23. At one point, security guards used force to remove an AP reporter from the building.
From a May 22 AP report:
The Environmental Protection Agency is barring The Associated Press, CNN and the environmental-focused news organization E&E from a national summit on harmful water contaminants.
The EPA blocked the news organizations from attending Tuesday’s Washington meeting, convened by EPA chief Scott Pruitt.
EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox told the barred organizations they were not invited and there was no space for them, but gave no indication of why they specifically were barred.
Pruitt told about 200 people at the meeting that dealing with the contaminants is a “national priority.”
The AP’s environmental reporter tweeted about the incident:
The @AP, @CNN and E&E all showed up to cover this @EPA meeting on widespread, dangerous contaminants in many drinking water systems around the country. We were all turned away at the door of the EPA building. https://t.co/j8JthyiM3k
— Ellen Knickmeyer (@KnickmeyerEllen) May 22, 2018
The @EPA told @AP, @CNN they weren't invited to @AdministratorPruitt's #PFAS summit. EPA guards grabbed AP reporter by shoulders, shoved reporter out of building when she asked to talk to agency public-affairs person about covering meeting https://t.co/9g1BZsG8cy
— Ellen Knickmeyer (@KnickmeyerEllen) May 22, 2018
An E&E News reporter tweeted:
This morning's PFAS Leadership Summit at @EPA headquarters is open to the press... just not to reporters from @EENewsUpdates, @AP or @CNN. We've all asked the agency's press office why we're being selectively shut out and have gotten no responses.
— Corbin Hiar (@CorbinHiar) May 22, 2018
Hallie Jackson of NBC News relayed an EPA spokesperson's response:
EPA spox tells me the reporter “was not invited” and threatened negative coverage if she wasn’t allowed in. “We provided a livestream.” When asked how that excuses physically grabbing a reporter, he indicated he wasn’t involved in that and would get back to me. https://t.co/goUIVs19Xd
— Hallie Jackson (@HallieJackson) May 22, 2018
CNN issued a statement:
CNN has issued a statement on getting turned away from the EPA summit today. pic.twitter.com/BAnekREfIr
— ErikWemple (@ErikWemple) May 22, 2018
The EPA issued a statement opening the second half of the May 22 meeting to any outlet, contradicting a previous statement:
This is a total 180 from the statement EPA gave earlier that space restraints limited attendance.
Now appears any outlet who wants to attend the second half of the hearing can. (It was previously opened to no press) https://t.co/Vwp8RRhCqQ
— Miranda Green (@mirandacgreen) May 22, 2018
But on the following day, May 23, the EPA again blocked journalists from attending the summit, including Emily Holden from Politico, author and journalist Mariah Blake, and, once again, journalists from E&E News and CNN.
I’m standing at EPA’s chemicals summit, where I’m told by security that I can’t enter and can’t stand inside because it is invite only and no press. They were polite but refused to call public affairs staff, even if I gave them the number (which they said they didn’t have).
— Emily Holden (@emilyhholden) May 23, 2018
— Emily Holden (@emilyhholden) May 23, 2018
I'm told CNN's producer was also turned away from EPA's toxic chemicals summit. That makes at least four of us.
— Emily Holden (@emilyhholden) May 23, 2018
As Holden reported, "The Federal Advisory Committee Act states that ‘any committee, board, commission, council, conference, panel, task force, or other similar group’ used by an agency ‘in the interest of obtaining advice or recommendations’ for the federal government must be open to the public.” Holden asked for a statement about why the EPA thinks its actions were not a violation of the act, but the EPA simply pointed her to its statement from the previous day about the event being at capacity.
This is just the latest in a long string of incidents in which EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's press team has blocked reporters from events as well as dropped them from press release distribution lists and retaliated against them in other ways. On April 3, Pruitt barred reporters from his announcement about loosening automobile fuel economy standards. Journalists have been escorted out of Pruitt events by police. Reporters from The Associated Press and The New York Times have been personally attacked in official agency press releases. And the EPA has repeatedly refused to give reporters basic information about the agency's staffing and activities.
Pruitt is currently under fire for multiple scandals and seemingly corrupt activities, including a sweetheart deal he got to rent a D.C. condo from the wife of an energy lobbyist.
The Trump administration has a history of blacklisting reporters. In February of 2017, reporters from The New York Times, CNN, the Los Angeles Times, BuzzFeed News, and Politico were barred from attending a briefing in then-press secretary Sean Spicer’s office. During the campaign, Trump banned a number of outlets from his events. There are numerous other examples of Trump’s war on the press.
The May 22 and 23 summit on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) comes days after a Politico report revealed that Pruitt’s EPA and the White House sought to block a Health and Human Services study about PFAS and water contamination that “would show that the chemicals endanger human health at a far lower level than EPA has previously called safe.” According to the article, a Trump aide had said the release of the study would cause a “public relations nightmare.”
Under Pruitt, EPA feeds tips to right-wing outlets, gets fawning coverage
Scott Pruitt’s Environmental Protection Agency has developed a remarkably cozy relationship with two conservative outlets: The Daily Caller and the Washington Free Beacon.
While many other news outlets have been aggressively covering the myriad scandals dogging Pruitt, The Daily Caller and the Washington Free Beacon have gone above and beyond to defend Pruitt from charges of unethical behavior and try to discredit sources of damaging information, often by using mysteriously obtained internal EPA documents. Pruitt has also given exclusive interviews to The Daily Caller and used it as a platform for issuing policy announcements. In essence, The Daily Caller and the Washington Free Beacon are serving as de facto press offices for the EPA.
This follows a pattern Media Matters has documented of Pruitt giving interviews or information to right-wing outlets and receiving favorable coverage from them. We found that in his first year at EPA, Pruitt gave more than twice as many interviews to Fox News as to the other major cable and broadcast networks combined, and Fox gave significantly less coverage to Pruitt's scandals than did other cable news channels.
Mainstream reporters and outlets, in contrast, have been repeatedly attacked and stymied by Pruitt's EPA. The New York Times recently revealed that the agency categorizes media outlets as “friendly” or “unfriendly” and selectively chooses to talk to reporters who it believes will provide positive, uncritical coverage.
After numerous news stories emerged about Pruitt’s exorbitant travel costs, the Free Beacon ran a March 21 article headlined “Obama EPA Administrators Spent Eight Times More Than Pruitt on International Travel.” The article cited “internal EPA documents provided to the Washington Free Beacon” -- which, according to Emily Atkin of The New Republic, came from EPA spokesperson Jahan Wilcox. The Free Beacon reported that the documents “reveal Obama administration EPA administrators jet setting cost taxpayers roughly $1 million. The EPA has spent $124,000 for Pruitt and his security detail to travel to the G-7 summit in Italy and a trip to Morocco.” But Atkin pointed out the many ways in which the comparison is “laughably inadequate" or "shockingly dishonest” -- including the fact that it compares one year of Pruitt's travel to eight years of his predecessors' travel and ignores domestic travel, which in Pruitt's case has included numerous first-class flights.
The Free Beacon again defended Pruitt’s travel after a May 7 Daily Beast article described his June 2017 trip to Italy as more focused on tourism than business, based on his recently released schedule. On May 9, the Free Beacon disputed that charge, stating, “New details of Scott Pruitt's trip to Italy to attend the G-7 summit last summer undermine media reports painting the Environmental Protection Agency administrator's trip as a lavish tourist vacation. … Pruitt's schedule, obtained by the Washington Free Beacon, reveals the four-day trip was heavy on business dealings.”
The May 9 Free Beacon article also addressed reports about Pruitt meeting during the trip with Australian Cardinal George Pell, a climate denier who was facing sexaul abuse allegations at the time and was subsequently charged. The Free Beacon claimed that Pruitt had only met with Pell “incidentally” and knew nothing about the charges. But New York Times reporter Eric Lipton called those claims “wrong” and pointed out that EPA staff began planning for the dinner with Pell in May 2017 and were aware that Pell was under investigation when they vetted the meeting.
None of these articles in the Washington Free Beacon noted how the publication obtained internal EPA documents, nor did any of the similar articles published in The Daily Caller. Mainstream news outlets, in contrast, typically note how they obtain such documents.
Kevin Chmielewski, a former Trump campaign staffer, served as a politically appointed deputy chief of staff to Pruitt until he was placed on administrative leave without pay and eventually fired from the agency in March 2018, after raising concerns about Pruitt’s lavish spending. In April 2018, Chmielewski met with Democratic lawmakers’ staff and appeared on ABC's World News Tonight to detail a wide range of ethical abuses by Pruitt.
Both The Daily Caller and the Washington Free Beacon published articles that aimed to discredit Chmielewski by citing another former EPA staffer, anonymous sources, and EPA documents.
Shortly after Chmielewski presented his allegations of wasteful spending and unethical behavior to lawmakers’ staff, The Daily Caller published an April 23 article headlined, “SOURCES: Most Of What EPA’s Leaker Told Dems About Scott Pruitt Is ‘False,’” which cited “sources familiar with EPA’s inner-workings” and quoted an anonymous source saying of Chmielewski’s claims, “more than 60 percent is false, the other 40 percent is information he distorted.”
On May 7, Pruitt’s former security chief, Pasquale “Nino” Perrotta, gave his first interview since resigning from the EPA to The Daily Caller. According to multiple reports, Perrotta played an important role in justifying much of the EPA chief’s exorbitant spending. In the interview, Perrotta dismissed the barrage of negative stories about Pruitt as the product of a few “disgruntled employees,” and singled out Chmielewski in particular for criticism, accusing him of retaliating against the EPA over pay-related issues and spreading “false” information. The next week, on May 14, The Daily Caller published portions of a memo that Perrotta wrote in January detailing two phone calls he had with Chmielewski. According to The Daily Caller, the memo showed that “Chmielewski threatened to ‘retaliate’ against Administrator Scott Pruitt and others over a pay dispute.”
The Washington Free Beacon took aim at Chmielewski in an April 27 article that accused him of inflating his military service on his résumé and “benefi[ting] from the same EPA hiring authority that he said EPA officials had used to dole out raises to two top Pruitt aides, according to knowledgeable sources and EPA documents.” The Free Beacon followed up with a May 7 article that cited “several administration officials and two people who worked with [Chmielewski] on the campaign” to claim that Chmielewski had “a long history of run-ins with law enforcement, including a warning from a Secret Service detail, debt problems and other red flags that could have sunk his mandatory background check.” The New York Times had previously reported that Chmielewski was placed on administrative leave without pay after he and others confronted Pruitt about his unusually large spending, according to “two of the people with knowledge of the situation.” But the Free Beacon instead claimed that Chmielewski was forced out of the EPA because of questions about his background and an occasional inability of EPA staff to locate him while he was assumed to be doing advance work.
The Daily Caller has frequently tried to rebut negative stories about Pruitt and his staff by citing EPA emails, anonymous sources, and statements from EPA spokespeople that did not appear in other outlets. Here are a few that Media Matters has identified in recent weeks:
April 19: After The Associated Press published an article, “EPA chief sat in coach when not flying on taxpayer’s dime,” The Daily Caller ran a piece criticizing the headline and quoting an EPA statement that did not appear in any other media reports. The Daily Caller article and the EPA statement both accused AP of downplaying the fact that the flights in question took place on Southwest Airlines, which does not have first-class seats.
April 27: During a congressional hearing on April 26, Pruitt appeared to admit to lawmakers that he knew about at least one of two pay raises approved for his staffers when he stated that he had delegated authority to give the raises -- an apparent contradiction of his previous statement that he was unaware of the pay raises. The day after the hearing, The Daily Caller claimed to have a scoop: “An EPA memo obtained by The Daily Caller News Foundation shows Pruitt delegated personnel authority to Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson more than one year ago, not around the time of the controversial raises. … Based on the document and Pruitt’s testimony, he was not saying he gave Jackson authority to grant the two raises in question.” The Daily Caller article failed to address the fact that Pruitt gave differing answers about his knowledge of the raises, and neglects to mention that internal emails suggest and three administration officials have stated that Pruitt personally approved at least one of the controversial pay raises.
May 8: Following reports by The Washington Post and E&E News about an EPA memo used to justify Pruitt’s first-class travel, The Daily Caller attempted to discredit the reports by quoting two unnamed sources. It wrote, “the memo is not signed, and is addressed to Gail Davis, EPA’s travel coordinator. Two sources said Pruitt would have needed approval from Jeanne Conklin, the acting controller in the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, to fly first class.”
May 8: The Daily Caller cited EPA emails as it pushed back against Democratic claims that Pruitt wanted to establish a new agency office in his hometown of Tulsa, OK. It wrote, “The Daily Caller News Foundation reviewed emails that show Pruitt asked EPA officials to find a place ‘where he could work’ when he was home in Oklahoma," but didn't ask them to open a new EPA office.
May 11: The Daily Caller cited an EPA email as it disputed a New York Times article that claimed Pruitt’s security head Perrotta drank beers with Patrick Sullivan, the assistant inspector general who oversees investigations at the EPA. The Daily Caller wrote, “An email casts doubt on a key detail of The New York Times’s profile on Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s former head of security — a detail that impugned the impartiality of a top official in the EPA inspector general’s office. … An email obtained by The Daily Caller News Foundation provides more evidence that Perrotta and Sullivan did not drink at a bar together across the street from EPA offices.” The Times later corrected its story and reported that Perrotta and Sullivan did not drink beers together.
May 14: The Daily Caller cited EPA emails to push back against reports that Pruitt requested a 24/7 security detail starting on his first day at the EPA. It wrote, “The Daily Caller News Foundation obtained emails that show EPA officials discussed options to enhance Pruitt’s security before the Senate confirmed him. In fact, a member of President Donald Trump’s ‘beachhead’ team at EPA requested beefed up security for Pruitt as a precautionary measure.”
Media Matters has previously documented how Pruitt turns to conservative and right-wing outlets when he wants to unveil news. Pruitt’s earliest announcements of his planned "red team/blue team" exercise to debate climate science were in June 2017 on The Savage Nation and Breitbart News Daily.
It’s no surprise then that Pruitt’s EPA has often used The Daily Caller to announce major policy changes at the agency. In March, Pruitt gave an exclusive interview to The Daily Caller to announce a plan to severely restrict the type of scientific data the agency can use for policymaking, which could undermine clean air regulations. Instead of giving other reporters information about the plan, the EPA sent out a press release that linked to the The Daily Caller article.
Other announcements first reported in The Daily Caller included plans to drop a requirement for new power plants to have carbon-capture technology, the submission of a proposal to roll back the Waters of the United States rule, and the "evolution" of the "red team/blue team" exercise.
UPDATE (5/22): The EPA barred The Associated Press, CNN, and E&E News from attending a national summit on harmful water contaminants convened by Scott Pruitt. The AP reported that one of its reporters asked to speak to an EPA public affairs person after being denied entry and was then grabbed by the shoulders and shoved forcibly out of the building by security. In a statement, EPA spokesperson Jahan Wilcox said, “This was simply an issue of the room reaching capacity” -- though reporters noted there were empty seats in the room. He continued: “We were able to accommodate 10 news outlets and provided a livestream for those we could not accommodate.” One of those reporters in attendance was The Daily Caller’s Jason Hopkins, who claimed to have witnessed the episode with the AP reporter and disputed that the reporter was “‘forcibly’ grabbed.” But a CNN photographer's account of the events supports the AP’s report.
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After the Pruitt scandal, another Hugh Hewitt problem at MSNBC
Hugh Hewitt repeatedly used his employment at MSNBC to praise the Trump administration's efforts to weaken the Clean Water Act, calling it one of the “accomplishments” of President Donald Trump's first year in office. But Hewitt and MSNBC did not disclose that one of his law firm’s clients is an oil and gas company that is currently litigating allegations it violated the environmental law.
Hewitt hosts a weekend MSNBC program and contributes to the network’s other programming. He is also a syndicated radio host and partner at the law firm Larson O’Brien.
Hewitt's status at Larson O’Brien presents numeorus potential and existing conflicts of interest for his media employment. The firm stated in a May 5, 2017, press release that it will be opening a Washington, D.C., office and that it “is currently representing clients before the US Department of Justice, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Environmental Protection Agency.” The press release touted Hewitt’s relocation to the Washington area as a reason for the firm to “have a permanent presence in the District.”
Hewitt has recently come under fire after Politico reported on his role in brokering a meeting between Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt and lawyers at Larson O’Brien; the meeting was concerning the efforts of firm client Orange County Water District to get the EPA to devote resources to cleaning up a polluted site in the district. The publication also noted that Hewitt has been a staunch defender of Pruitt on MSNBC.
In a statement today, MSNBC said that “Hewitt disclosed several times to MSNBC viewers that he has a friendship with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and also that Hewitt’s son works for the agency." The network said Hewitt at some point stopped discussing “EPA-related matters on MSNBC” and it gave Hewitt a “verbal warning” after it learned about the Orange County Water District meeting.
MSNBC statement on Hugh Hewitt pic.twitter.com/amrBowJqXO
— Max Tani (@maxwelltani) May 9, 2018
However, Media Matters has found another ethical problem with Hewitt’s MSNBC commentary regarding a different client of his law firm.
Larson O’Brien, which was formed in 2016, states that its practice areas include “environmental and water rights.” One of its prominent clients has been HVI Cat Canyon Inc. (HVI-CC), which was formerly known as Greka Oil & Gas Inc.
In June 2011, state and federal agencies -- including the EPA -- accused HVI-CC of violating provisions of the Clean Water Act by having “illegally discharged crude oil and produced water from its oil and gas production facilities in Santa Barbara County during 21 spills between June 2005 and December 2010. The spills resulted from ruptured storage tanks, corroded pipelines and overflowing injection ponds. Oil from each of the spills flowed into nearby waterways.” Since then, HVI-CC has been involved in years of litigation concerning the oil spills.
In 2015, the Obama administration strengthened the Clean Water Act by enacting the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, with then-President Barack Obama stating that it “will provide the clarity and certainty businesses and industry need about which waters are protected by the Clean Water Act, and it will ensure polluters who knowingly threaten our waters can be held accountable.” FoxNews.com wrote that “the case against HVI got a boost when” Obama signed that rule.
Business interests were unsurprisingly opposed to the rule, and on February 28, 2017, Trump signed an executive order that set in motion the rollback of WOTUS with the goal of replacing it with a more industry-friendly rule. Environmentalists have responded by arguing that the administration's moves are efforts to weakened the landmark Clean Water Act.
On March 16, 2017, Larson O’Brien filed a motion asking a district court to permanently halt the case against HVI-CC in light of Trump’s executive order regarding WOTUS. (Litigation regarding the case is ongoing.)
In other words, Hewitt’s law firm has had a financial connection -- both through its practice area and with a specific client -- to the Clean Water Act. But those conflicts of interest haven’t stopped Hewitt from using his MSNBC platform to praise the weakening of the law through the rollback of WOTUS.
During the September 29 edition of MTP Daily, Hewitt defended ethics questions about Pruitt by praising his work on the water rollback: “Those four trips, all preapproved by the [EPA's Office of General Counsel]. He was going to the bottom of Oklahoma in one of them to meet with stakeholders that President Obama never cared about: small farmers, small plot holders, wetland people. It was the Waters of the United States Rule rollback. By all means, throw some attention on that.”
During the December 22 edition of MTP Daily, Hewitt cited the rollback of the water rule as an accomplishment, stating: “So, the president's numbers are horrible, but the accomplishments of this year, especially when it comes to [Supreme Court Justice] Neil Gorsuch and 12 appeals court judges, the EPA rollback of the Waters of the United States rule, the Clean Power Plan, the Paris Accord and, most importantly, defeating ISIS in Syria and Iraq, there's a lot of reframing going on.”
During the April 2 edition of MSNBC’s The Beat, Hewitt defended questions about an apartment Pruitt rented at below market rate from the wife of an energy lobbyist by stating: “It is not in any way, shape, or form a gift. It’s much ado about nothing. I think this is really about policy, Stephanie, as we talked about on Twitter, and I think it’s about the [Federal Vacancies Reform Act]. Specifically, people on the left are upset with Scott Pruitt over the Clean Power Plan, which he repealed; the Waters of the United States, which he repealed; the [Corporate Average Fuel Economy] standards today, which he put up for repeal. He’s executing Donald Trump’s policy on WOTUS and on regulatory rollback, and they want him out.”
Hewitt did not disclose his law firm’s work related to the Clean Water Act in any of those appearances.
MSNBC did not return a request for comment from Media Matters for this piece.
Media Matters also documented that The Washington Post repeatedly allowed Hewitt to write columns praising Pruitt without disclosing that Hewitt’s law firm does work before the agency. He also referenced the water rollback, writing on March 1, 2017: “Trump’s repeated calls in many places for regulatory reform had been foreshadowed earlier Tuesday with an executive order directing the Environmental Protection Agency and its new and very able director, Scott Pruitt, to move quickly to roll back the ruinous, overreaching ‘Waters of the United States’ rule of the Obama years.” Washington Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt told Media Matters on May 8 that Hewitt would no longer write about Pruitt.
Hewitt’s firm represents “clients before the US Department of Justice, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Environmental Protection Agency”
The Washington Post repeatedly allowed Hugh Hewitt to write columns praising Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt without disclosing that Hewitt’s law firm does work before the agency. Washington Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt told Media Matters that Hewitt would no longer write about Pruitt.
That law firm position presents numerous potential and real conflicts of interest for Hewitt’s media roles. Larson O’Brien stated in a May 5, 2017, press release that the firm will be opening a Washington D.C. office and “is currently representing clients before the US Department of Justice, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Environmental Protection Agency.” The press release touted Hewitt’s relocation to the Washington area as a reason for the firm to “have a permanent presence in the District”:
Larson O’Brien is currently representing clients before the US Department of Justice, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Larson O’Brien partner Hugh Hewitt recently relocated to the Washington area where he hosts an award winning radio show during the morning drive-time hours. “With Hugh moving to Washington and our significant client work in the Capital, it made sense for us to have a permanent presence in the District,” said Stephen Larson.
Politico reported on May 7 that Hewitt brokered a meeting between Pruitt and lawyers at Larson O’Brien concerning efforts of the firm’s client Orange County Water District to get the EPA to devote resources to cleaning up a polluted site in the district. From the report, which is based on “emails released by EPA under a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the Sierra Club”:
Hewitt, a resident of Orange County whose son James works in EPA’s press office, emailed Pruitt in September to set up a meeting between the administrator and the law firm Larson O’Brien, which employs Hewitt and represents the Orange County Water District. Pruitt had been planning to meet with the lawyers in California a month earlier, but cancelled the trip to undergo knee surgery.
“I’ll join if the Administrator would like me too or can catch up later at a dinner,” Hewitt wrote in his Sept. 18 message. Hewitt added that the issues surrounding the Superfund site were “Greek to me but a big deal in my home county.”
Pruitt’s aides responded within minutes and quickly confirmed an Oct. 18 meeting for the lawyers and a project director.
Six weeks after that meeting, on Dec. 8, the Orange County North Basin site appeared on Pruitt’s list of 21 contaminated areas to address. A month later, Pruitt proposed listing the site on EPA’s National Priorities List, a move that could make it eligible for long-term federal cleanup funding from the federal government if the responsible polluters cannot be identified and forced to pay for its remediation.
Politico noted that Hewitt has been a vocal defender of Pruitt on MSNBC. Several journalists have criticized MSNBC for the blatant conflict of interest; The New York Times’ Michael Barbaro tweeted: “Um, it's not okay for a cable news contributor to ask the EPA administrator for favors like this and still be on TV talking about him. At. All. CC: @MSNBC.”
Hewitt’s conflict of interest problem has also extended to The Washington Post, which repeatedly allowed Hewitt to praise the EPA and Pruitt in opinion columns for the paper.
Hewitt himself referenced his work on issues related to the EPA in the Post. On January 4, 2017, he wrote: “I’ve worked for real estate developers on huge projects for three decades. My law practice was built on helping them figure out and comply with complex statutory and regulatory regimes and knowing how the Environmental Protection Agency, Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service worked.”
The following are instances in which the Post allowed Hewitt to discuss the EPA without disclosing his conflict of interest:
The Post did not disclose that Hewitt’s firm works on issues related to EPA regulations in those pieces. The paper has also not been consistent in disclosing that Hewitt’s son works for the EPA. According to his LinkedIn page, James Hewitt joined the agency in July 2017. Hewitt's July 4 and September 19 columns disclosed that connection while his August 19 and February 22 columns did not.
In an email to Media Matters, Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt wrote: “I was disturbed to learn this morning that Hugh Hewitt had intervened with EPA administrator Scott Pruitt on behalf of Hewitt’s law firm as he was writing about Pruitt in a column for The Washington Post. Hewitt, who has not written about Pruitt since September, has agreed not to write about him going forward and has assured us that similar incidents won’t occur in the future.”
The Washington Post also employs megalobbyist Ed Rogers as a contributor despite countless conflicts of interest relating to Roger’s lobbying firm. Over the years, the Post has repeatedly allowed Rogers to tout his clients’ interests without disclosure.