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  • The top 6 tricks Scott Pruitt uses to outfox the media

    Blog ››› ››› LISA HYMAS


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    A version of this post was originally published on Grist.

    Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt might just be the most ruthlessly effective member of the Trump administration -- much to the ire of environmental activists, who recently launched a #BootPruitt campaign. One of Pruitt's trademark strategies is trying to tightly control media coverage of himself and his agency, a way to tamp down criticism of his industry-friendly agenda and extreme rollbacks of environmental protections.

    Pruitt has lost control of the media narrative in the past week, as numerous outlets have reported on his snowballing ethics scandals. But if he keeps his job -- there are reports that President Trump still has his back -- you can expect him to double down on his media machinations.

    Here are the key ways Pruitt manipulates and hampers the press:

    1. Pruitt goes to right-wing news outlets to push his messages out

    During his first year as head of the EPA, Pruitt appeared on Fox News, Trump's favorite network, 16 times -- more than twice as often as he appeared on the other major cable and broadcast networks combined. Fox hosts and interviewers tend to lob softballs at him and gloss over his numerous controversies and scandals.

    Pruitt gives interviews to other conservative outlets, too, from Breitbart News Daily to The Rush Limbaugh Show to the Christian Broadcasting Network. Last month, Pruitt went on conservative talk-radio shows to spread misleading talking points as he attempted to defend his extravagant travel spending.

    And when Pruitt announced a plan in March to severely restrict the kinds of scientific data that can be used in policymaking -- a change decried by scientists, environmentalists, and public health advocates -- he gave an exclusive interview to conservative news site The Daily Caller about it. The resulting article painted the shift in a positive light, of course.

    2. Pruitt gives interviews to generalists instead of environmental reporters

    Pruitt grants some interviews to mainstream news outlets, but when he does it's often with political reporters or generalists instead of reporters on the environmental beat who would know the right tough questions to ask.

    For instance, in February, Pruitt appeared on The New York Times' podcast The Daily. The interview was largely light and fluffy, letting Pruitt spout his talking points with little pushback, including a false claim that Congress would have to change the law in order for the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases. After the interview, it fell to Times environmental reporter Coral Davenport to point out that the Supreme Court had already granted authority to the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases. Too bad she wasn't the one who conducted the interview. The following week, when another Times environmental reporter, Lisa Friedman, asked for a comment from Pruitt for a piece on his views on climate science, an EPA spokesperson instead referred her to the interview with The Daily.

    The EPA administrator sat for another soft interview with a Washington Post political reporter that was published in the Post's political newsletter The Daily 202. The resulting piece quoted Pruitt defending his enforcement record -- “I don't hang with polluters; I prosecute them" -- and praising Trump for his "tremendous ideas."

    Contrast that with what happened when Pruitt gave a rare interview to two Post reporters, Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin, who've been doggedly covering his agency. They produced a substantive article on how Pruitt has been shifting the EPA to serve the interests of regulated companies; quotes from Pruitt in the piece are interspersed with quotes from experts and with reporting on Pruitt's moves to roll back environmental protections and enforcement.

    3. Pruitt's EPA withholds basic information from the press and the public

    Under Pruitt, the EPA has become extraordinarily secretive.

    Unlike previous EPA administrators, Pruitt has refused to publicly release his full schedule in anything close to real time. The EPA has barred reporters from attending events where Pruitt speaks, even threatening to call the police to remove them. Most recently, on April 3, the EPA blocked numerous journalists from attending his announcement about the loosening of auto fuel economy standards, enabling Pruitt to avoid hard questions.

    It's so hard to get information out of the agency that the Society of Environmental Journalists sent the EPA public affairs office a letter in January asking for such fundamental things as open press briefings, responses to reporters' inquiries, and distribution of press releases to everyone who requests them.

    As New York Times reporter Friedman said in October, "Covering the EPA is like covering the CIA. It is so secretive. It is so difficult even to get basic information.”

    It's no surprise, then, that Freedom of Information Act lawsuits against the agency have soared under Pruitt.

    4. Pruitt's EPA sends reporters articles by climate deniers instead of useful information

    Over the last month, the EPA has sent out at least four "press releases" that did nothing more than promote articles or opinion pieces by right-wing figures that painted Pruitt in a positive light, as ThinkProgress reported.

    The most eye-popping press release was headlined "The Hill: Scott Pruitt is leading the EPA toward greatness." It pointed to a fawning opinion piece co-written by the head of the Heartland Institute, a notorious climate-denial think tank.

    But perhaps the most vexing to reporters was a press release that promoted the aforementioned Daily Caller article on Pruitt restricting the EPA’s use of scientific data. The agency sent it out in lieu of an informative press release and otherwise refused to answer reporters' questions about the action. This prompted the National Association of Science Writers to send a letter of protest to the head of the EPA press office, calling on her to "take steps immediately to prevent this unprofessional and unethical behavior from occurring again." The Society of Environmental Journalists followed up with a similar letter of its own.

    5. Pruitt repeats disingenuous, misleading talking points

    Unlike his boss, Pruitt is disciplined and on-message. In interviews, he turns again and again to the same tightly scripted talking points, many of which are misleading.

    Like this one: "We've seen an 18 percent reduction in our CO2 footprint from 2000 to 2014. We're at pre-1994 levels," Pruitt told Fox News Sunday in June, while defending Trump's decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement. It's one of Pruitt's favorite lines. He's repeated it ad nauseum during his 13 months at the EPA.

    When he spouts this statistic, Pruitt is essentially bragging that the U.S. has already done a lot to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. That might sound good on the surface, but Pruitt's claim is misleading -- he ignores the fact that emissions went down in part because of Obama-era policies that Pruitt and others in the Trump administration are now undoing. It's also just a really weird thing to boast about if you're a climate denier like Pruitt.

    Does Pruitt actually think it's a good thing that the U.S. reduced carbon dioxide emissions? Does that mean he acknowledges that CO2 is a dangerous pollutant? Does he then think it would be good for the U.S. to continue reducing CO2 emissions? Is he aware that CO2 emissions are projected to rise this year?

    These are follow-up questions that an interviewer who's knowledgeable about climate change might ask, but so far we haven't seen any such pushback. No wonder Pruitt keeps repeating the line.

    6. Pruitt's EPA retaliates against journalists

    Under Pruitt, the EPA's press office has taken the unprecedented step of personally attacking reporters whose work the leadership dislikes. In September, the office issued a press release bashing Associated Press reporter Michael Biesecker over a story he co-wrote. "Biesecker had the audacity to imply that agencies aren’t being responsive to the devastating effects of Hurricane Harvey," the release read. "Unfortunately, the Associated Press’ Michael Biesecker has a history of not letting the facts get in the way of his story." The EPA then dropped Biesecker from its email press list.

    The agency's press office has also attacked New York Times reporter Eric Lipton, who's done deep-dive investigative reporting into Pruitt's EPA. In August, the office put out a press release that accused him of reporting "false facts." In October, Liz Bowman, head of the EPA's Office of Public Affairs, gave a snarky reply after Lipton requested information on agency actions, accusing Lipton of having a "continued fixation on writing elitist clickbait trying to attack qualified professionals committed to serving their country.”

    The bottom line: Why Pruitt’s media manipulation matters

    When Pruitt gets more positive media coverage for himself and the EPA, or at least less negative coverage, it can sway public opinion in favor of his right-wing agenda and make it easier for him to continue eviscerating environmental protections. His successes then help him curry favor with oil companies, the Koch network, and other monied interests that could fund a future Pruitt campaign for senator, governor, or even president. After all, the EPA administrator is notoriously ambitious.

    If Pruitt does ascend higher, you can expect to see a lot more anti-regulatory fervor and a lot more media manipulation and maltreatment.

  • Four ways the NY Times has undermined its own climate coverage

    The paper gave ammunition to the Trump administration to deny climate science and defend dropping out of the Paris agreement

    Blog ››› ››› LISA HYMAS

    The New York Times has done some stellar reporting on climate change, and it’s poised to do more thanks to its recent creation of a dedicated climate team. See, for instance, its impressive ongoing series on how climate change is affecting major cities, and another recent multimedia series on the melting of Antarctica.

    But the paper has made serious missteps in recent days and weeks, some of which have bolstered the White House’s case for climate denial and for dropping out of the Paris climate agreement. Here are four problems that deserve to be called out:

    1. Letting Bret Stephens spread climate denial, which was seized on by Scott Pruitt

    The New York Times hired conservative climate denier Bret Stephens as an op-ed columnist in April, and his first column was a factually compromised and misleading attack on climate science. Its publication provoked widespread condemnation of the Times and Stephens in late April.

    Then the column got a new round of attention late last week, in the wake of President Donald Trump’s controversial decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris agreement. On June 2, the day after Trump’s announcement, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt defended the move from the podium in the White House briefing room, and cited Stephens' column to make the case that climate science is unsettled:

    I don’t know if you saw this article or not, but the “Climate of Complete Certainty” by Bret Stephens that was in The New York Times talked about -- and I’ll just read a quote, because I thought it was a very important quote from this article. “Anyone who has read the 2014 report of the IPCC knows that, while the modest 0.85 degrees Celsius warming of the earth that has occurred since 1880, much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities. That’s especially true of the sophisticated but fallible models and simulations by which scientists attempt to peer into the climate future. To say this isn’t to deny science. Isn’t (sic) to acknowledge it honestly.”

    Pruitt actually misquoted the column, omitting Stephens’ acknowledgement that there has been “indisputable ... human influence” on the warming of the earth since 1880. But nonetheless, Pruitt left the impression that The New York Times supported his fringe views.

    As Media Matters senior fellow Matt Gertz put it, “It’s a disaster for a paper that sold itself to readers as a bulwark against the new president, then turned around and hired a prominent climate change skeptic.”

    2. Ignoring the fact that Pruitt seized on Stephens’ climate denial

    In an article about Trump’s views on climate change, New York Times reporter Peter Baker noted that Pruitt had questioned climate science during his remarks at the White House, but Baker neglected to mention that the EPA chief had used a New York Times column as a main piece of supporting evidence for his claims.

    3. Publishing a misleading story on small-business owners’ views on Paris, which was seized on by Pruitt

    On June 2, The New York Times published an article by Landon Thomas Jr. titled “Small Businesses Cheer ‘New Sheriff in Town’ After Climate Pact Exit.” Thomas claimed, “While multinational corporations such as Disney, Goldman Sachs and IBM have opposed the president’s decision to walk away from the international climate agreement, many small companies around the country were cheering him on, embracing the choice as a tough-minded business move that made good on Mr. Trump’s commitment to put America’s commercial interests first.”

    The article ignored the fact that hundreds of small businesses had publicly called for remaining in the Paris agreement, and it quoted no small-business owners who supported the deal. Small-business supporters weren’t that hard to find, even in red states. NPR's Morning Edition featured one, Fhebe Lane, who runs a store in a conservative Texas coal town. A Trump voter, Lane said she was concerned about the climate getting hotter and thought limiting emissions was a good idea.

    Thomas’ article also drew criticism for quoting some of the same pro-Trump voices he had cited in a previous piece, as Media Matters has noted. Boston Globe writer Michael Cohen pointed out that the article was “remarkably similar” to a piece Thomas wrote three months earlier; Cohen and others noted that the same two people “are quoted in both articles extolling Mr. Trump’s virtues” and “their positive words about Trump are used as evidence that small business owners are behind the president.”

    But Pruitt, for one, liked the article. He quoted it during an appearance on ABC’s This Week on June 4:

    Even The New York Times had an article, I think, within the last couple of days that talked about small business celebrating, euphoria, with respect to the president’s decision.

    4. Blaming the Democrats alongside the Koch brothers for GOP climate denial

    New York Times reporters Coral Davenport and Eric Lipton published a mostly well-reported article on widespread Republican refusal to accept climate science. But the story contained a ridiculous claim that “Democratic hubris” was partly to blame:

    The Republican Party’s fast journey from debating how to combat human-caused climate change to arguing that it does not exist is a story of big political money, Democratic hubris in the Obama years and a partisan chasm that grew over nine years like a crack in the Antarctic shelf, favoring extreme positions and uncompromising rhetoric over cooperation and conciliation.

    While the article laid out plenty of evidence that the Koch brothers had affected elected Republicans’ views, it did not make any kind of convincing case that Democrats had.

    Talking Points Memo Editor Josh Marshall characterized the “Democratic hubris” line as “half of what is imbecilic in contemporary political journalism”:

    As New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer, who wrote a book on the Koch brothers, noted in a post on June 5, Republican climate denial and the rejection of the Paris agreement are clear and direct consequences of the Kochs and other rich fossil fuel barons pouring money into the political scene. “It is, perhaps, the most astounding example of influence-buying in modern American political history,” she wrote.

    Democrats, hubristic or not, can’t claim credit for that.

    Whither the Times?

    “The paper has lost its way,” Think Progress’ Joe Romm wrote in a post criticizing the Davenport/Lipton article and other pieces published by the Times. “A shocking number of recent articles reveal a paper that’s begun to embrace false balance, giving equal time to both climate misinformers and actual climate experts, despite the overwhelming scientific consensus.”

    Still, many journalists at The New York Times are pulling in the right direction. Columnist David Leonhardt gently disputed the “Democratic hubris” argument in a piece on June 5. A number of Times journalists expressed their displeasure with Stephens’ first column. And the climate team keeps doing great work. Let’s hope their side wins the tug-of-war.

  • How Broadcast Networks Covered Climate Change In 2016

    ››› ››› KEVIN KALHOEFER

    In 2016, evening newscasts and Sunday shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC, as well as Fox Broadcast Co.'s Fox News Sunday, collectively decreased their total coverage of climate change by 66 percent compared to 2015, even though there were a host of important climate-related stories, including the announcement of 2015 as the hottest year on record, the signing of the Paris climate agreement, and numerous climate-related extreme weather events. There were also two presidential candidates to cover, and they held diametrically opposed positions on the Clean Power Plan, the Paris climate agreement, and even on whether climate change is a real, human-caused phenomenon. Apart from PBS, the networks also failed to devote significant coverage to climate-related policies, but they still found the time to uncritically air climate denial -- the majority of which came from now-President Donald Trump and his team.