NY Times Public Editor Critiques, But Largely Defends Misleading EPA Story

NY Times

The New York Times' public editor Margaret Sullivan has now weighed in on The Times' misleading article advancing baseless industry allegations that the EPA illegally lobbied on behalf of clean water protections. But while Sullivan recognized that the article has some significant problems, she nonetheless defended it as a “solid story” overall.

In a May 27 column, Sullivan acknowledged that some of the concerns identified by Media Matters, Climate Progress and others about The Times' May 19 article are valid:

Those who fault the article for not having its “to be sure” caveats up higher may have a point. And it's possible that the front-page display suggests what [Washington, D.C. reader Ben] Somberg calls a “smoking gun” that doesn't materialize -- though plenty of front-page stories lack that element.

But despite this acknowledgement, Sullivan came to the defense of the reporters who authored the story, declaring that the article “raises important questions” and that it is “a legitimate examination of a worthwhile issue.” She also quoted an email from one of the reporters, Eric Lipton, who claimed the premise of the article is justified because “in the view of certain members of Congress, and opponents of the rule, [the EPA's actions] may have violated the Anti-Lobbying Law. That is what the article said.”  

But there is a major flaw in Lipton's logic -- and it's one that is not addressed in Sullivan's response. Just because opponents of the EPA are claiming the agency violated the Anti-Lobbying Act, that doesn't mean that claim is worthy of a story in The New York Times if it is a completely baseless allegation. And it is a completely baseless allegation. 

To recap:

  • The Times itself acknowledged that multiple “experts” -- including an energy industry lobbyist who worked for the EPA under the Bush administration -- “said the agency's actions did not appear to cross a legal line.” 
  • The Times itself acknowledged that the EPA did not spend nearly enough money on the outreach actions in question to qualify as “substantial” grassroots lobbying, according to the Justice Department legal opinions that The Times cited earlier in the same article.
  • As Climate Progress' Joe Romm explained, The Times itself noted that “the Justice Department has indicated that 'grass-roots' efforts are most clearly prohibited if they are related to legislation pending in Congress,” and that EPA officials pointed out that they “did not violate the Anti-Lobbying Law because they never explicitly urged the public to lobby Congress.”

For all of these reasons, the claim by EPA opponents that the agency violated the law just doesn't hold up. And The Times was well aware of these issues, because they included all of them deep within the body of the front-page article.

Sullivan's acknowledgement that the article should have had “its 'to be sure' caveats up higher” misses the point. The Times should not have run this story in the first place.

Image at top via Flickr user samchills using a Creative Commons License.