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  • EPA nominee Andrew Wheeler is gaming the media ahead of his confirmation hearing

    Wheeler is looking increasingly like Scott Pruitt in his dealings with the press

    Blog ››› ››› LISA HYMAS


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Andrew Wheeler, nominated by President Donald Trump on January 9 to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is increasingly following the aggressive media playbook of his predecessor, Scott Pruitt.

    Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, assumed the role of acting EPA administrator in July, after Pruitt got himself booted. He has continued Pruitt's work of rolling back major environmental regulations, a fact that has been well-reported. Less well-known is that Wheeler has also been following in Pruitt's footsteps in dealing with the press.

    Wheeler's EPA press team attacks journalists and media outlets

    The scandal-prone Pruitt had an extremely contentious relationship with the media. His press office retaliated against specific reporters whose stories it didn't like and even attacked them by name in press releases, among other antagonistic moves.

    When Wheeler took the helm, many reporters looked forward to a change in approach. E&E News published a story about the differences between the two EPA leaders in July under the headline "'Night and day' as Wheeler opens doors to press."

    But in the last few months, the EPA press office has returned to some of the same combative tactics used during the Pruitt era. An October 30 press release was headlined, "EPA Sets the Record Straight After Being Misrepresented in Press." Two days later, it got more aggressive with a press release titled "Fact Checking Seven Falsehoods in CNN’s Report." From an E&E News article published in mid-November:

    The [EPA press shop's] combative approach calmed a bit when acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler took over for Scott Pruitt, who resigned over the summer, but now it appears to be intensifying again.

    The agency's actions have been scrutinized in the press in recent weeks, and the public affairs shop has been hitting back.

    Bobby Magill, president of the Society of Environmental Journalists, said the agency seems to be returning to its war-room-style tactics under Pruitt.

    "It looks to me like they're sort of returning to form," Magill said. "This suggests that they are returning to their previous press strategy under Scott Pruitt."

    Wheeler may start feeling even more antagonistic toward the press in the coming months. On December 26, a federal judge ordered the EPA to release roughly 20,000 emails exchanged between industry groups and high-level political appointees at the agency, including Wheeler, after the Sierra Club sued to gain access to the records under the Freedom of Information Act. Similar records requests from the Sierra Club during Pruitt's tenure helped lead to his forced resignation; the group made the emails available to reporters, which led to the publication of many embarrassing articles about Pruitt.

    Wheeler favors right-wing media for his televised interviews

    Pruitt heavily favored Fox News and other right-wing media outlets, giving them far more interviews than mainstream news organizations.

    Wheeler exhibits similar preferences. All four of the TV interviews we've seen him give since becoming acting administrator at the EPA have been with right-wing outlets.

    The first went to the conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group. Boris Epshteyn, Sinclair's chief political analyst and a former Trump aide, asked no hard questions and gave Wheeler a platform to make specious claims about automobile fuel economy. Wheeler's second TV interview was with Fox News, the third was with the Fox Business Network, and the fourth went to a Sinclair national correspondent, and those interviewers all went easy on him too.

    Wheeler is getting cozy with the right-wing Daily Caller

    Pruitt and his press office had a remarkably friendly relationship with The Daily Caller, a far-right online publication started by Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, funded by Charles Koch, and sustained through sketchy tax dealings. During Pruitt's tenure, the EPA press office issued a policy statement by sending out a press release that pointed to an interview Pruitt gave to The Daily Caller, while the right-wing outlet frequently defended Pruitt against accusations of wrongdoing, sometimes with "scoops" and "exclusives" based on information that appeared to have been leaked to the outlet by EPA sources.

    Late last year, Wheeler revealed his own affinity for The Daily Caller. After he was criticized for spreading a false attack on the National Climate Assessment, a major government report on climate change, the EPA issued a press release that tried to defend Wheeler by directly citing a Daily Caller article. For its part, The Daily Caller regularly publishes articles defending Wheeler and the actions of his EPA.

    Wheeler embraces right-wing outlets and slams mainstream media via his Twitter account

    Like his predecessor, Wheeler has a fondness for right-wing media outlets and personalities, but he has exhibited that preference in a way that Pruitt never did -- via his personal Twitter account. Or at least he did until a few weeks ago, when Wheeler protected his account to hide his tweets from the public. (Wheeler still has a publicly viewable official Twitter account.) But journalists and activists had made note of many of the controversial tweets from his personal account before he deleted individual ones and then made the whole account private.

    The Daily Beast reported last year on one troubling 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.”

    Wheeler has amplified at least two tweets from Fox News' Brit Hume that bashed major newspapers. In December, Wheeler "liked" a Hume tweet that linked to a Wall Street Journal editorial criticizing The Washington Post for alleged anti-Trump bias. In October, he retweeted another Hume tweet that criticized The New York Times and linked to an article in the conservative National Review.

    Wheeler has also "liked" a number of tweets from other right-wing figures who criticized mainstream media outlets, including:

    • a Donald Trump Jr. tweet linking to The Daily Caller and mocking CNN
    • a tweet from frequent Fox guest and former NRATV host Dan Bongino that slammed MSNBC
    • a tweet from libertarian talk show host Dave Rubin that bashed HuffPost

    Wheeler promotes climate denial and racist memes via his Twitter account

    Like Pruitt, Wheeler also casts doubt on well-established climate science -- another view he has expressed through his Twitter account.

    In a 2015 tweet, Wheeler praised a RealClearPolitics essay that argued, "There is no such thing as 'carbon pollution.'” The essay criticized mainstream media outlets and scientific journals that have reported 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. ... These are the people promoting a myth that has become deeply ingrained in our society.

    In 2011, Wheeler 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." Wheeler also retweeted a Milloy tweet from 2015 that took a shot at HuffPost founder Arianna Huffington. And in 2009, Wheeler sent two tweets linking to climate-denying blog posts.

    HuffPost's Alexander Kaufman has reported on how Wheeler used his social media accounts to endorse or promote other unsavory views:

    [Wheeler] repeatedly engaged with incendiary, partisan content on his personal Facebook and Twitter accounts over the past five years. The online activity included liking a racist image of former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama on Facebook and retweeting an infamous “Pizzagate” conspiracy theorist.

    Wheeler is turning back to major mainstream newspapers as he faces confirmation hearing

    Though Wheeler has shown a preference for right-wing media in TV interviews and on Twitter, he has also given a number of interviews to mainstream newspapers, wire services, and D.C. publications. In July, after it was announced that he would serve as acting EPA administrator, Wheeler gave interviews to The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, USA Today, and The New York Times.

    The pace of his interviews with print outlets slowed down after his first month in office, but then ramped back up in November around the time that Trump announced his intention to nominate Wheeler to permanently fill the top EPA spot. On November 16, Wheeler gave another interview to The New York Times, and then two weeks later sat for a live-streamed interview with The Washington Post. In December, he gave another interview to The Wall Street Journal and then one to The Hill.

    Granting interviews to major newspapers seems to be part of Wheeler's strategy to paint himself with a gloss of mainstream respectability before his Senate confirmation hearing, which is scheduled for January 16. Meanwhile, some of his more partisan views are now out of sight in that locked Twitter account, including insults lobbed at those very same newspapers. 

  • Fox Business ran defense for Scott Pruitt by baselessly attacking a CNN investigation

    CNN reported on the EPA chief helping a mining company. Fox Business Network didn't like that at all.

    Blog ››› ››› LISA HYMAS


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    The Fox Business Network has aggressively and baselessly attacked a CNN investigation into moves made by Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt that will help a proposed mining project in Alaska. The network aired four segments last week that criticized CNN's story.

    In an October 10 report aired on Anderson Cooper 360°, CNN correspondent Drew Griffin noted that Pruitt met on May 1 with the CEO of the Pebble Limited Partnership, a Canadian-owned company proposing to build a gold and copper mine in southwest Alaska that could threaten a major salmon fishery in Bristol Bay. Just over an hour after that meeting that took place, CNN discovered, Pruitt ordered his staff to withdraw proposed protections for Bristol Bay that had been put forward by the Obama administration, potentially clearing the way for the controversial Pebble Mine to go forward. Also on that same day, Pruitt agreed to settle a lawsuit that the mining company had filed against the EPA, according to CNN.

    On October 18 and 19, Fox Business Network ran four separate interviews that bashed CNN's report, one with the Pebble Limited Partnership's CEO and three with John Stossel, a Fox commentator. Here are the segments:

    • one: on Varney & Co. on October 18, host Stuart Varney interviewed Stossel;
    • two: also on Varney & Co. on October 18, Varney interviewed Pebble CEO Tom Collier;
    • three: on After the Bell on October 18, host David Asman interviewed Stossel;
    • four: on Kennedy on October 19, host Lisa Kennedy Montgomery interviewed Stossel.

    Stossel also slammed CNN's report in a written piece published on the Fox News website on October 18 and in a video posted on October 13 on Reason.com, which is run by the libertarian Reason Foundation. Stossel currently works for the Reason Foundation, which gets funding from the Koch brothers. Stossel also works for the Charles Koch Institute's Media and Journalism Fellowship program. Foundations affiliated with the Koch brothers have funded the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which in 2013 ran a campaign in support of the Pebble Mine.

    On all four Fox Business Network segments, the hosts and interviewees did not dispute any of the specific facts reported by CNN, but they used highly charged language to try to discredit CNN. They repeatedly called CNN's investigation a "smear," and in two of the segments the words "CNN smear" appeared on the screen. Varney derided CNN as the "Clinton News Network," called CNN's report "a hit piece," and said to Collier, "They set you up." Stossel accused CNN of bias: "I don't think they're particularly biased against Pruitt; they're biased against the Trump administration and business." Montgomery said, "It is dishonest reporting."

    With these comments, the Fox Business personalities were echoing President Donald Trump’s persistent attacks on CNN. Trump has called it the “Clinton News Network,” accused it of being “dishonest,” and even tweeted a video of himself attacking a man with the CNN logo superimposed on his head.

    The Fox Business Network has a friendly relationship with Pruitt. The EPA chief has made seven appearances on the network since he took office in February, most recently on October 17.

    The network also has a friendly relationship with Trump. Trump has given two exclusive interviews to Fox Business Network's Maria Bartiromo, one that aired on April 12 and another on October 23. Trump has mentioned or retweeted Fox Business or its hosts at least half a dozen times since becoming president, and never in a negative light. And the White House has linked at least eight times to Fox Business Network articles from the daily news roundup it posts on its website, previously called "1600 Daily" and now named "West Wing Reads."

    As USA Today reported on October 13, the Fox Business Network has been doing well "amid the ascension of Donald Trump into the White House." The article continued, "To some, the network's gains have come by playing a game similar to that of fellow channel Fox News, hitching its star to candidate and now-President Trump and ignoring news that would hurt the president," though it observed that some of the network's hosts have criticized Trump recently. An October 17 story in Business Insider made similar points, noting the network's "lineup of right-leaning programming and embrace of President Donald Trump's economic and cultural vision." Business Insider found that Fox Business Network used phrases like "liberal media" and "left-wing media" as often as Fox News did.

    So it shouldn't come as a surprise that Fox Business Network went to bat for Pruitt and attacked CNN for its report on Pebble Mine.

    But all four segments Fox Business aired on the Pebble Mine contained errors in fact, as outlined below.

    Fox Business Network got its facts wrong

    False: Salmon are nowhere near the proposed mine site.

    "This mine is 100 miles from those salmon," Stossel said on Kennedy. "The fish are nowhere near where the mine is anyway," Asman said on After the Bell. Collier and other Fox Business personalities also noted that the site is at least "100 miles" from Bristol Bay.

    True: The proposed mine site sits right within salmon habitat.

    While the proposed mine site is more than 100 miles from Bristol Bay, it's entirely false to say that the mine site is 100 miles away from the salmon. The mine site is in a wetland area right in the middle of salmon habitat. Salmon not only inhabit Bristol Bay but migrate through and spawn in the rivers and tributaries that feed into the bay. As the EPA noted in a 2014 assessment of the potential impacts a mine could have in the area, "the Pebble deposit is located in the headwaters of tributaries to both the Nushagak and Kvichak Rivers," and, "Approximately half of Bristol Bay’s sockeye salmon production is from the Nushagak and Kvichak River watersheds."

    Damaging the salmon's habitat or Bristol Bay's watershed, even many miles from the bay itself, could have major impacts on the fishery. The EPA determined that the Pebble Mine could cause "irreversible" habitat loss because of "the extent of streams, wetlands, lakes, and ponds both overlying the Pebble deposit and within adjacent watersheds."

    Bristol Bay is home to the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world, producing 46 percent of the world’s sockeye salmon, generating an estimated $1.5 billion in economic activity a year, and supporting more than 14,000 jobs. The salmon also play a central role in sustaining the cultures of local Native Alaskan tribes that stretch back at least 4,000 years.

    False: The Obama administration completely blocked the Pebble Mine.

    During his first segment, Varney said, "This was the EPA under President Obama saying no, before you even think about submitting a plan, don't do it because you’re not going to get it." In the second segment, Varney said the mine project "was rejected, out of hand, right from the get-go" by Obama's EPA. Collier agreed, saying, "Obama wouldn't even let us file a permit application." Stossel then claimed during the third segment, "they didn't even let the guy submit a proposal."

    True: The Obama administration did not block the mining company from filing a permit application.

    In 2014, the Obama EPA proposed environmental standards that a mine tapping the Pebble deposit would have to meet, after the agency conducted a three-year, peer-reviewed scientific assessment that found a large-scale mine would pose serious threats to the Bristol Bay fishery. The EPA has the authority under the Clean Water Act to restrict projects like proposed mines that would threaten water quality in Bristol Bay.

    But the Obama EPA did not block the mining company from submitting a proposal or permit application for Pebble Mine. If a mine proposal met the restrictions EPA laid out for the Bristol Bay area, it would be able to move forward in the process, as EPA made clear when it proposed the restrictions in 2014: "Proposals to mine the Pebble deposit that have impacts below each of these restrictions would proceed to the Section 404 permitting process," the agency wrote.

    Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm that has worked to prevent Pebble Mine, explains further:

    EPA proposed to ban, not the Pebble Mine itself, but the unacceptable habitat loss from any proposed mine.

    [...]

    Any version of the Pebble Mine which would not cause the habitat loss EPA proposed to ban could proceed to the ordinary permitting process.

    In other words, the agency proposed reasonable, tailored restrictions necessary to protect the Bristol Bay ecosystem and fisheries.

    [...]

    If the Pebble Mine can be built without causing those impacts, the EPA’s protective action is no obstacle to it.

    As The New York Times reported in May of this year, the Obama EPA's process "concluded with the determination that the mine, as planned, would risk the long-term health of the ecosystem, but it did not wholly block the granting of a permit."

    It's worth noting that the mining company had been promising to file a permit application and release its plans since 2004, during the George W. Bush administration, but it never carried through. In 2013, Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski was so frustrated by the delay that she wrote a letter chastising the company for "failure to describe the project and submit permit applications," noting that "years of waiting" had fed "anxiety, frustration and confusion" in local communities.

    False: The Obama EPA's decision was driven by "collusion" with "rich green lawyers" and environmental groups that have no scientific expertise.

    Stossel and Fox Business hosts repeatedly characterized the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a nonprofit environmental organization that has opposed the Pebble Mine, as a "rich" group that had been "colluding" with Obama's EPA. "NRDC is not scientists, it's mostly lawyers," Stossel added. Varney referred to "rich green lawyers driving this train."

    True: The Obama EPA's decision was based on a transparent multi-year scientific process.

    Under Obama, the EPA spent three years conducting an extensive scientific assessment to determine the potential impacts on the Bristol Bay fishery of a large-scale mine to tap the Pebble deposit. The review went through two drafts, two rounds of peer review, and a public comment period. The EPA's decision to propose restrictions on a mining development in the area was based on this in-depth review. Pruitt's move to withdraw those restrictions, in contrast, was made without consulting EPA's scientific staff. As CNN reported, "according to multiple sources, he made that decision without a briefing from any of EPA's scientists or experts."

    Varney talked about "rich green lawyers driving this train," but opposition to the mine has been led by locals and Alaskans. According to the EPA website, the agency "initiated this assessment in response to petitions from nine federally recognized tribes and other stakeholders who asked us to take action to protect Bristol Bay’s salmon populations." And it's not just tribes who are opposed: 62 percent of likely Alaskan voters opposed the Pebble Mine in a 2014 poll, and 85 percent of commercial fishers in the Bristol Bay area opposed it in a 2011 poll. State leaders are not fans of the mine either, as The New Yorker reported in July of this year: "Governor Bill Walker, an independent, has spoken out against the mine, and the G.O.P.-dominated state legislature has grown increasingly skeptical—a particularly important development, since a 2014 ballot measure, supported by two-thirds of voters, gave it veto power over any mine proposal in Bristol Bay."

    NRDC -- which has been active in opposing the mine project, working in tandem with local communities -- does have lawyers on staff, but it also has a Science Center and employs at least 60 scientists who have PhDs or master's degrees in their fields.

    False: The Pebble Mine is an energy project.

    Host Montgomery misrepresented the proposed mine as an energy project, talking about the importance of "extracting the energy" from Alaska and wondering whether environmentalists "want us to rely on Saudi Arabia forever."

    True: The Pebble Mine would extract minerals including gold and copper.

    The mining project proposed by the Pebble Limited Partnership would extract copper, gold and molybdenum, not oil, gas, or coal. Stossel did not correct Montgomery’s apparent misunderstanding, but instead joined in to bash the environmentalists who want people to rely on "magical wind power and solar power."