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  • What you need to know about EPA nominee Andrew Wheeler and the media

    Wheeler mimics Scott Pruitt's press strategy ahead of his Senate confirmation hearings

    Blog ››› ››› LISA HYMAS


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Note: An updated version of this post was published here on January 10, 2019. 

    Andrew Wheeler, President Donald Trump's soon-to-be nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is more like his predecessor, Scott Pruitt, than most people realize -- particularly when it comes to his interactions with the media.

    It's well-known that Wheeler, who took over as acting administrator of the EPA after Pruitt resigned in July, has continued Pruitt's work of rolling back major environmental regulations. That was no surprise; Wheeler formerly worked as a lobbyist for coal, natural gas, chemical, and utility companies, and as an aide to Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), the Senate's most recalcitrant climate denier.

    Wheeler does, however, have a reputation as a more behind-the-scenes, businesslike administrator than the scandal-plagued Pruitt. New York Times reporter Lisa Friedman recently described the acting EPA chief as having a "low-key, under-the-radar style, even as he has worked diligently and methodically to advance Mr. Trump’s deregulatory agenda."

    But Wheeler is now following in Pruitt's footsteps in many of his dealings with journalists and the press.

    Wheeler's EPA press office attacks journalists and media outlets

    Pruitt had a remarkably contentious relationship with the media. His press office retaliated against specific reporters whose stories it didn't like and attacked them by name in press releases, among other aggressive moves.

    When Wheeler took over, many reporters noticed and welcomed a change in approach. E&E News published a story about the differences in July under the headline "'Night and day' as Wheeler opens doors to press."

    But in recent weeks, the EPA press office has returned to some of the same combative tactics employed during the Pruitt era. On October 30, it published a press release 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 last week:

    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 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 TV conglomerate. 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.

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

    Like his predecessor, Wheeler has a fondness for right-wing media outlets and personalities, but he's exhibited that in a way that Pruitt never did -- via his personal Twitter account.

    The Daily Beast's Scott Bixby reported earlier this year on one noteworthy example:

    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 recently retweeted Fox's Brit Hume when he criticized The New York Times and linked to an article in the conservative National Review. Wheeler has also liked a number of tweets from 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 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.

    As HuffPost's Alexander Kaufman reported last month, Wheeler has also used his social media accounts to endorse or promote other troubling views:

    Andrew Wheeler, the acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, repeatedly engaged with inflammatory content on his personal Facebook and Twitter accounts over the past five years, including some in the past month.

    The previously-unreported interactions include liking a racist image of former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama on Facebook and retweeting an infamous “Pizzagate” conspiracy theorist.

    Wheeler now turns back to major mainstream newspapers as he faces confirmation fight

    Though Wheeler has shown a preference for right-wing media when he does TV interviews, he has given a number of interviews to mainstream newspapers and wire services. In July, after it was announced that he would serve as acting EPA administrator, Wheeler gave substantive 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 Wheeler now appears to be ramping it back up -- just as he's about to begin the process of trying to earn Senate confirmation.

    On November 16, hours before Trump announced that he would nominate Wheeler to officially fill the top EPA spot, Wheeler sat down for an interview with New York Times reporter Lisa Friedman. And Wheeler is scheduled to do a live-streamed interview with Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin on November 28.

    Wheeler may want to present himself as a mainstream moderate rather than a right-wing partisan as he tries to win over senators, and turning to major mainstream newspapers could be part of his strategy. But that would also present an opportunity for environmental journalists to ask tough questions and push him off his well-rehearsed talking points before confirmation hearings begin. We'll be looking to Eilperin to kick that process off next week.  

  • 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.