NY Times’ Eric Lipton: Scott Pruitt’s EPA selectively picks reporters who “give them good treatment”

From the May 9 edition of NPR's Fresh Air:

Video file

TERRY GROSS (HOST): So let's talk about one of your articles from this week -- that emails suggests that [Environmental Protection Agency Administrator] Scott Pruitt's biggest fear is having to answer an honest question. And so his staff has done everything they can to prevent that from happening, to protect him from questions, such as at a scheduled town hall meeting for Iowa ranchers. How did the staff help him avoid having to answer questions at what's supposed to be a town hall meeting?

ERIC LIPTON (NEW YORK TIMES REPORTER): Well, this has been something that's been apparent to reporters that cover the EPA for a year now, where every Friday or so we send in a request to the agency to ask them, “What's up this week? Where is the administrator going? And therefore, can we be there” -- essentially to observe his activity as he travels around the United States, in some cases around the world? It's part of our job to cover that. They never tell us where he's going.

And every Friday we send in this email to say we're trying to do our jobs to cover the agency. What they do is they take their trips. They require that the participants that are part of the various events that they're going to have not tell any reporters unless they selectively pick a reporter they think is going to give them good treatment. And the only time that we become aware of it is when Scott Pruitt or his staff sends out tweets, and then they issue a press release with photos taken from the staff. So honestly, it's a bit like propaganda as opposed to actual events that the public has access to.

And so what happened was, just last week, we got a hold of something like 15,000 pages worth of emails that were sent to his scheduler and his advance planner. And, so, for the first time, we had real visibility into who were the people involved with these events, how do they organize them, what type of scripting was done of the questions that were going to be asked, and were there attempts by media to cover it and then they were denied access? And, basically, for the first time, we really saw that all of that was true and that he was going around the country meeting with the oil industry, the gas industry, the coal industry, homebuilders, chemical companies, automakers, each time trying to prevent the press from being there and then often sending out tweets, but doing everything as possible to make it as staged as he could.

GROSS: How did you get access to the emails about his travel agenda?

LIPTON: The Sierra Club, an environmental group, had filed a Freedom of Information request. And when they didn't get the response that they wanted, they filed litigation to demand that the agency provide the emails that were for his scheduler and his advance person. And so once the Sierra Club got those documents, they shared them with us. And we got a copy of all those documents last week and we spent the weekend reading through them, Lisa Friedman and I, and then writing up a story which ran on Monday morning.

GROSS: OK. So you found out some of his travel schedule. How does he try to protect himself when he's traveling from actually answering any questions that might challenge him?

LIPTON: Well, for example, he was going in August to Nevada, Iowa, to meet with a cattle rancher and to talk about his intention to roll back a Obama-era program that's supposed to protect drinking water supplies. It's called Waters of the U.S. And so Pruitt is in the process of repealing that regulation. And farmers did not like it because it was going to restrict their ability to work some of their land, potentially. So, he went to this place where the cattle ranches were. And it was supposed to be what they call invite-only press, which means you pick certain reporters who you know are friendly, you invite them, and you don't tell anyone else.

But the cattle rancher sort of saw it as an opportunity to have what he called the town hall, which was an open event where people could ask questions. There were going to be hundreds of people there. And when the EPA found out that he was planning on having essentially a town hall meeting that was going to be all kinds of questions of Scott Pruitt, they immediately intervened and they sent an email to this cattle rancher named Bill Couser. And they said, “With a crowd of 300 people plus open press, we have to stick with the questions we currently have. My sincere apologies for causing any difficultly, but we cannot do an open Q&A from the crowd.”

So basically they were shutting down what was going to be an opportunity for Pruitt to face questions from a crowd that he didn't know. And what they sent him instead -- these are the questions they sent him, and this is what these emails brought us, this incredible visibility. Here are some of the questions they sent him they wanted this rancher to ask. Without mentioning that these were questions that were provided from the EPA. “What has it been like to work with President Trump?”

That was one of the questions. “How do you define true environmentalism,” and “Do you have an update on the Waters of the U.S. rule?”

So those are the questions they wanted him to ask, which are perfect setups for Pruitt to go on his kind of standard talking points. And that's exactly what happened because there was a video taken of the event, and we were able to see that some of the questions that are in this email were actually asked by the rancher.


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