The New York Times devoted a front page article on May 19 to advancing baseless industry allegations that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) illegally lobbied on behalf of clean water protections. Buried deep within the article was an acknowledgment that the allegations don't hold up, but The Times ran with the story anyway.
The Times reported that “industry critics said the agency's actions might be violating federal lobbying laws,” and that the EPA's efforts to build support for its proposed clean water rule “are now being cited as evidence that the E.P.A. has illegally engaged in so-called grass-roots lobbying.”
Yet the very same Times article 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.”
Moreover, The Times wrote that “the Justice Department, in a series of legal opinions going back nearly three decades, has told federal agencies that they should not engage in substantial 'grass-roots' lobbying.” That led The Times into a discussion of a social media campaign in support of the clean water rule that the EPA conducted “in conjunction with the Sierra Club,” while “grass-roots group” Organizing for America “was also pushing the rule.” The Times added that “critics said environmental groups had inappropriately influenced the campaign,” citing officials from the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Association of Home Builders, and Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), who claimed that "[t]here is clear collusion between extreme environmental groups and the Obama administration" on new regulations.
It wasn't until 34 paragraphs after the initial mention of the Justice Department that The Times included this massive caveat (emphasis added):
In its previous opinions to federal agencies, the Justice Department has indicated that “grass-roots” efforts are most clearly prohibited if they are related to legislation pending in Congress and are “substantial,” which it defined as costing about $100,000 in today's dollars -- a price tag that the E.P.A.'s efforts on the clean water rule almost certainly did not reach if the salaries of the agency staff members involved are not counted.
The EPA, which was quoted in The Times defending its actions, expanded upon its reasoning in a blog post, which noted that the agency uses social media "[l]ike almost every government, business or non-profit organization these days ... to inform people across the country about our work." The EPA added:
A public outreach effort to increase awareness and support of EPA's proposed Clean Water Rule is well within the appropriate bounds of the agency's mission to educate and engage Americans. As noted in a recent Comptroller General opinion, “agency officials have broad authority to educate the public on their policies and views, and this includes the authority to be persuasive in their materials.”
After releasing the proposed Clean Water Rule in March 2014, EPA conducted an unprecedented outreach effort that included holding more than 400 meetings across the country and visiting farms in nine states. The input helped us understand the genuine concerns and interests of a wide range of stakeholders and think through options to address them. As outlined in a recent blog by Administrator McCarthy, the key changes made to the proposed rule were actually driven in large part by outreach to agriculture, local government, states, and utilities.
The Times article also drew a false equivalence between industry groups' allegations against the EPA and environmentalists' concerns “that the energy industry improperly drove policy during the George W. Bush administration.” But the “influence” that industry groups are decrying as “inappropriate” consists of environmental groups gathering public comments on EPA rules, which is a far cry from how Big Oil companies secretly shaped the Bush administration's national energy policy to benefit their bottom line.
In the end, we're left with industry attacks against the EPA that don't hold up to The Times' own scrutiny. Which raises the question: Why did The Times run this story?
Image at top via Flickr user Scott Beale/Laughing Squid using a Creative Commons License.