Michael Biesecker | Media Matters for America

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  • New EPA chief Andrew Wheeler has a fondness for right-wing media and climate-denier blogs

    But will he be as combative toward the mainstream press as Scott Pruitt was?

    Blog ››› ››› LISA HYMAS


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Scott Pruitt, ousted administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), had cozy relationships with right-wing media outlets and combative relationships with the mainstream press. Andrew Wheeler, who's stepped in as acting administrator, has also shown a fondness for right-wing media and signs of disdain toward some mainstream media. But Wheeler has not interacted with the press in the same hostile and tribal ways that Pruitt did. Will Wheeler's approach to the media shift now that he's at the helm at EPA?

    On the topic of climate change, it’s easier to predict whether Wheeler will change course: probably not. Like Pruitt, Wheeler has long been skeptical of climate science and climate action, as evidenced not just by Wheeler’s public statements but also by his Twitter account. He has tweeted out links to climate-denying blog posts, including one post that declared, “There is no such thing as ‘carbon pollution.’”

    Pruitt leaned heavily on right-wing media

    Throughout his tenure at the EPA, Pruitt made heavy use of right-wing media outlets to spread his preferred talking points and fight back against media coverage he didn't like. During his first year, Pruitt appeared on Fox News more than twice as often as all other major TV networks combined, Media Matters found, and Fox was less likely than other networks to cover Pruitt's scandals. Pruitt was also a frequent guest on national right-wing talk-radio shows, where he received soft treatment.

    After Pruitt got unexpectedly tough questions during an April interview with Fox's Ed Henry, he retreated to right-wing outlets that were even more likely to give him good press, giving interviews to the Sinclair Broadcast Group, the Washington Free Beacon, and a Mississippi talk-radio show.

    Pruitt cultivated a particularly cozy relationship with right-wing outlet The Daily Caller, giving the site exclusive quotes and information. The Daily Caller in turn repeatedly defended Pruitt against scandals and attacked people who released damaging information about him. Even after Pruitt resigned, The Daily Caller continued to act as his attack dog, publishing pieces with headlines including "Source: A torrent of negative press ended Scott Pruitt's career at EPA" and "Jilted former EPA aide with sordid history takes full credit for Pruitt's resignation."

    Pruitt attacked and stymied mainstream media outlets

    Under Pruitt, the EPA press office repeatedly attacked, stymied, and manipulated reporters at mainstream news outlets, as Media Matters documented. The agency refused to release basic information about its activities, blocked journalists from attending official agency events, favored reporters who would provide positive coverage, and publicly insulted and retaliated against reporters and outlets whose coverage officials didn't like.

    One of many such attacks came in September, when the EPA sent out a press release that personally maligned Associated Press reporter Michael Biesecker, accusing him of having "a history of not letting the facts get in the way of his story." Another attack happened in June of 2018, when EPA spokesperson Jahan Wilcox called an Atlantic reporter "a piece of trash” after she asked for comment on one of Pruitt's aides resigning. 

    Pruitt appeared to attack the media on his way out the door, too. His resignation letter blamed "unprecedented" and "unrelenting attacks" on him.

    Wheeler liked tweets from right-wing media figures, defended Milo Yiannopoulos

    Wheeler, for his part, has also demonstrated an affinity for right-wing media figures and outlets, but he's done it in a different way -- via his personal Twitter account. He has "liked" many tweets by conservative media figures, including ones that criticize mainstream or liberal media outlets.

    Wheeler "liked" a July 3 tweet by Donald Trump Jr. that linked to a Daily Caller post lauding Fox News's high ratings and mocking CNN's lower ones:

    He "liked" a June 11 tweet by NRATV host and Fox regular Dan Bongino that bashed MSNBC:

    Wheeler "liked" a June 1 tweet by libertarian talk show host Dave Rubin that criticized a HuffPost story: "HuffPo isn’t a place of journalism, it’s a place of Far Left activism." (Media Matters rebutted the misleading claims of right-wing figures who criticized the story.)

    He "liked" a May 22 tweet by NRATV host and NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch that knocked Planned Parenthood.

    He "liked" an April 3 tweet by conservative Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel that inaccurately claimed Obama EPA officials spent as much on travel as Pruitt did.

    He "liked" a January 6 tweet by Fox News personality Brit Hume that mocked Al Gore.

    Wheeler has "liked" tweets from frequent Fox News guests Charlie Kirk and Candace Owens of the conservative group Turning Point USA, including this one:

    According to Daily Beast reporter Scott Bixby, in 2016 Wheeler tweeted out a conspiracy theorist's video that defended Milo Yiannopoulos, an alt-right troll and former Breitbart editor, but Wheeler later deleted the 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.”

    Since being named acting head of the EPA last week, Wheeler appears to have deleted 12 more tweets from his feed.

    Wheeler tweeted links to climate-denier blog posts

    While EPA watchers have predicted that Wheeler is likely to differ from Pruitt in his demeanor, Wheeler has displayed the same attitude as Pruitt toward climate change.

    In 2011, when Wheeler was a lobbyist for the Murray Energy coal company, he 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 retweeted a Milloy tweet from 2015 that took a shot at Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington and highlighted projections about India's rising coal use.

    In 2009, Wheeler sent a tweeted promoting a climate-denying blog post published on the conservative American Thinker site:

    On at least two occasions, Wheeler has tweeted links to posts on RealClearPolitics that questioned the science of climate change. A tweet in 2009 linked to a post titled "A Reason To Be Skeptical," and the tweet included the hashtag #capandtax, a conservative smear against cap-and-trade policies. The piece he linked to, which also appeared in The Denver Post, promoted “Climategate,” a bogus, manufactured scandal in which conservatives claimed that hacked emails showed climate scientists were fabricating evidence of warming temperatures. 

    And a tweet in 2015 praised a RealClearPolitics essay that argued, "There is no such thing as 'carbon pollution.'”

    This piece, which Wheeler called "great," largely dismissed climate science and criticized the media outlets and peer-reviewed journals that regularly report 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.

    Wheeler gives interviews and quotes primarily to mainstream outlets

    Though Wheeler's Twitter account seems to show a preference for right-wing outlets, he does not exhibit the same ideological bias when he gives interviews or quotes to media. Most of the interviews he's given during his career in Washington, D.C., have been to mainstream outlets.

    Media Matters has identified eight interviews Wheeler has granted to media outlets since October 5, 2017, when President Donald Trump nominated him to serve as deputy administrator of the EPA:

    During his years as a lobbyist from 2009 to 2017 -- when he worked for coal, nuclear, chemical, and utility companies, among others -- he was quoted at least eight times by E&E News, a subscription-based news organization aimed at professionals working in the energy and environment fields, and he sat for one video interview with E&E. He also gave quotes at least twice to another inside-the-beltway news organization, Politico, as well as to The New York Times and FoxNews.com.

    From 1995 to 2008, when Wheeler worked for Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), he gave at least four more video interviews to E&E News. He was also quoted in a Washington Post article in 2008.

    Right-wing media are already leaping to Wheeler's defense

    Whether on not Wheeler starts giving interviews or information to right-wing outlets, right-wing outlets are likely to defend him against criticism. They've already started.

    The Daily Caller, which had a tight-knit relationship with Pruitt and his press office, published a story on July 5 titled "Pruitt has been gone for less than a day and his replacement is already getting attacked." And Breitbart ran a piece on July 5 that quoted conservatives praising Wheeler and argued that "the media is already attacking him in much the same relentless fashion it did Pruitt."

    What's next for Wheeler and the EPA press office?

    It's not surprising that Wheeler gave quotes and interviews primarily to mainstream and inside-the-beltway publications while he was working for Inhofe and representing his lobbying clients. He was trying to reach influencers and mold public opinion.

    In contrast, Pruitt, who has been rumored to be plotting a run for Oklahoma governor or senator, has spent his time in D.C. trying to raise his profile and burnish his image with GOP donors and the conservative base of the Republican Party. He often turned to highly partisan right-wing outlets to achieve those ends.

    Now that Wheeler is the boss setting the agenda and determining strategy, will he continue his conventional approach of talking to mainstream media, or will he follow Pruitt's recent example and turn primarily to highly partisan right-wing outlets like Fox News and The Daily Caller? And under Wheeler's leadership, will the EPA's press office treat reporters more professionally than it did under Pruitt, or will it continue to be highly combative with the media?

    In the few days since Wheeler was announced as interim EPA chief on July 5, he seems to have taken a more traditional and conciliatory approach. He's given two substantive interviews to major newspapers, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. And according to Politico, Wheeler will be taking a different approach from Pruitt in terms of dealing with the press: "Wheeler will announce where he is speaking or traveling in advance, he will publish his full calendars 'frequently,' without litigation from groups pursuing public records, and he and other top political appointees will hold briefings for the media on major policy announcements."

    But even if the media approach changes, the policy approach won't. "EPA's agenda remains largely unchanged," Politico continued. "Wheeler will still pursue much the same policy platform — fighting the courts to roll back a slate of Obama-era regulations on climate change, air pollution, stream protection and more."

    Ted MacDonald, Evlondo Cooper, and Kevin Kalhoefer contributed research to this post.

  • 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.