Under Pruitt, EPA feeds tips to right-wing outlets, gets fawning coverage
Blog ››› ››› KEVIN KALHOEFER
Scott Pruitt’s Environmental Protection Agency has developed a remarkably cozy relationship with two conservative outlets: The Daily Caller and the Washington Free Beacon.
While many other news outlets have been aggressively covering the myriad scandals dogging Pruitt, The Daily Caller and the Washington Free Beacon have gone above and beyond to defend Pruitt from charges of unethical behavior and try to discredit sources of damaging information, often by using mysteriously obtained internal EPA documents. Pruitt has also given exclusive interviews to The Daily Caller and used it as a platform for issuing policy announcements. In essence, The Daily Caller and the Washington Free Beacon are serving as de facto press offices for the EPA.
This follows a pattern Media Matters has documented of Pruitt giving interviews or information to right-wing outlets and receiving favorable coverage from them. We found that in his first year at EPA, Pruitt gave more than twice as many interviews to Fox News as to the other major cable and broadcast networks combined, and Fox gave significantly less coverage to Pruitt's scandals than did other cable news channels.
Mainstream reporters and outlets, in contrast, have been repeatedly attacked and stymied by Pruitt's EPA. The New York Times recently revealed that the agency categorizes media outlets as “friendly” or “unfriendly” and selectively chooses to talk to reporters who it believes will provide positive, uncritical coverage.
Wash. Free Beacon cited EPA internal documents to concoct misleading defenses of Pruitt’s travel scandals
After numerous news stories emerged about Pruitt’s exorbitant travel costs, the Free Beacon ran a March 21 article headlined “Obama EPA Administrators Spent Eight Times More Than Pruitt on International Travel.” The article cited “internal EPA documents provided to the Washington Free Beacon” -- which, according to Emily Atkin of The New Republic, came from EPA spokesperson Jahan Wilcox. The Free Beacon reported that the documents “reveal Obama administration EPA administrators jet setting cost taxpayers roughly $1 million. The EPA has spent $124,000 for Pruitt and his security detail to travel to the G-7 summit in Italy and a trip to Morocco.” But Atkin pointed out the many ways in which the comparison is “laughably inadequate" or "shockingly dishonest” -- including the fact that it compares one year of Pruitt's travel to eight years of his predecessors' travel and ignores domestic travel, which in Pruitt's case has included numerous first-class flights.
The Free Beacon again defended Pruitt’s travel after a May 7 Daily Beast article described his June 2017 trip to Italy as more focused on tourism than business, based on his recently released schedule. On May 9, the Free Beacon disputed that charge, stating, “New details of Scott Pruitt's trip to Italy to attend the G-7 summit last summer undermine media reports painting the Environmental Protection Agency administrator's trip as a lavish tourist vacation. … Pruitt's schedule, obtained by the Washington Free Beacon, reveals the four-day trip was heavy on business dealings.”
The May 9 Free Beacon article also addressed reports about Pruitt meeting during the trip with Australian Cardinal George Pell, a climate denier who was facing sexaul abuse allegations at the time and was subsequently charged. The Free Beacon claimed that Pruitt had only met with Pell “incidentally” and knew nothing about the charges. But New York Times reporter Eric Lipton called those claims “wrong” and pointed out that EPA staff began planning for the dinner with Pell in May 2017 and were aware that Pell was under investigation when they vetted the meeting.
None of these articles in the Washington Free Beacon noted how the publication obtained internal EPA documents, nor did any of the similar articles published in The Daily Caller. Mainstream news outlets, in contrast, typically note how they obtain such documents.
Daily Caller and Wash. Free Beacon published attacks against former EPA staffer who told Congress of Pruitt’s unethical conduct
Kevin Chmielewski, a former Trump campaign staffer, served as a politically appointed deputy chief of staff to Pruitt until he was placed on administrative leave without pay and eventually fired from the agency in March 2018, after raising concerns about Pruitt’s lavish spending. In April 2018, Chmielewski met with Democratic lawmakers’ staff and appeared on ABC's World News Tonight to detail a wide range of ethical abuses by Pruitt.
Both The Daily Caller and the Washington Free Beacon published articles that aimed to discredit Chmielewski by citing another former EPA staffer, anonymous sources, and EPA documents.
Shortly after Chmielewski presented his allegations of wasteful spending and unethical behavior to lawmakers’ staff, The Daily Caller published an April 23 article headlined, “SOURCES: Most Of What EPA’s Leaker Told Dems About Scott Pruitt Is ‘False,’” which cited “sources familiar with EPA’s inner-workings” and quoted an anonymous source saying of Chmielewski’s claims, “more than 60 percent is false, the other 40 percent is information he distorted.”
On May 7, Pruitt’s former security chief, Pasquale “Nino” Perrotta, gave his first interview since resigning from the EPA to The Daily Caller. According to multiple reports, Perrotta played an important role in justifying much of the EPA chief’s exorbitant spending. In the interview, Perrotta dismissed the barrage of negative stories about Pruitt as the product of a few “disgruntled employees,” and singled out Chmielewski in particular for criticism, accusing him of retaliating against the EPA over pay-related issues and spreading “false” information. The next week, on May 14, The Daily Caller published portions of a memo that Perrotta wrote in January detailing two phone calls he had with Chmielewski. According to The Daily Caller, the memo showed that “Chmielewski threatened to ‘retaliate’ against Administrator Scott Pruitt and others over a pay dispute.”
The Washington Free Beacon took aim at Chmielewski in an April 27 article that accused him of inflating his military service on his résumé and “benefi[ting] from the same EPA hiring authority that he said EPA officials had used to dole out raises to two top Pruitt aides, according to knowledgeable sources and EPA documents.” The Free Beacon followed up with a May 7 article that cited “several administration officials and two people who worked with [Chmielewski] on the campaign” to claim that Chmielewski had “a long history of run-ins with law enforcement, including a warning from a Secret Service detail, debt problems and other red flags that could have sunk his mandatory background check.” The New York Times had previously reported that Chmielewski was placed on administrative leave without pay after he and others confronted Pruitt about his unusually large spending, according to “two of the people with knowledge of the situation.” But the Free Beacon instead claimed that Chmielewski was forced out of the EPA because of questions about his background and an occasional inability of EPA staff to locate him while he was assumed to be doing advance work.
Daily Caller cited EPA statements, emails, and anonymous sources to dispute damning reporting
The Daily Caller has frequently tried to rebut negative stories about Pruitt and his staff by citing EPA emails, anonymous sources, and statements from EPA spokespeople that did not appear in other outlets. Here are a few that Media Matters has identified in recent weeks:
April 19: After The Associated Press published an article, “EPA chief sat in coach when not flying on taxpayer’s dime,” The Daily Caller ran a piece criticizing the headline and quoting an EPA statement that did not appear in any other media reports. The Daily Caller article and the EPA statement both accused AP of downplaying the fact that the flights in question took place on Southwest Airlines, which does not have first-class seats.
April 27: During a congressional hearing on April 26, Pruitt appeared to admit to lawmakers that he knew about at least one of two pay raises approved for his staffers when he stated that he had delegated authority to give the raises -- an apparent contradiction of his previous statement that he was unaware of the pay raises. The day after the hearing, The Daily Caller claimed to have a scoop: “An EPA memo obtained by The Daily Caller News Foundation shows Pruitt delegated personnel authority to Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson more than one year ago, not around the time of the controversial raises. … Based on the document and Pruitt’s testimony, he was not saying he gave Jackson authority to grant the two raises in question.” The Daily Caller article failed to address the fact that Pruitt gave differing answers about his knowledge of the raises, and neglects to mention that internal emails suggest and three administration officials have stated that Pruitt personally approved at least one of the controversial pay raises.
May 8: Following reports by The Washington Post and E&E News about an EPA memo used to justify Pruitt’s first-class travel, The Daily Caller attempted to discredit the reports by quoting two unnamed sources. It wrote, “the memo is not signed, and is addressed to Gail Davis, EPA’s travel coordinator. Two sources said Pruitt would have needed approval from Jeanne Conklin, the acting controller in the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, to fly first class.”
May 8: The Daily Caller cited EPA emails as it pushed back against Democratic claims that Pruitt wanted to establish a new agency office in his hometown of Tulsa, OK. It wrote, “The Daily Caller News Foundation reviewed emails that show Pruitt asked EPA officials to find a place ‘where he could work’ when he was home in Oklahoma," but didn't ask them to open a new EPA office.
May 11: The Daily Caller cited an EPA email as it disputed a New York Times article that claimed Pruitt’s security head Perrotta drank beers with Patrick Sullivan, the assistant inspector general who oversees investigations at the EPA. The Daily Caller wrote, “An email casts doubt on a key detail of The New York Times’s profile on Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s former head of security — a detail that impugned the impartiality of a top official in the EPA inspector general’s office. … An email obtained by The Daily Caller News Foundation provides more evidence that Perrotta and Sullivan did not drink at a bar together across the street from EPA offices.” The Times later corrected its story and reported that Perrotta and Sullivan did not drink beers together.
May 14: The Daily Caller cited EPA emails to push back against reports that Pruitt requested a 24/7 security detail starting on his first day at the EPA. It wrote, “The Daily Caller News Foundation obtained emails that show EPA officials discussed options to enhance Pruitt’s security before the Senate confirmed him. In fact, a member of President Donald Trump’s ‘beachhead’ team at EPA requested beefed up security for Pruitt as a precautionary measure.”
Pruitt unveiled major policy announcements in Daily Caller
Media Matters has previously documented how Pruitt turns to conservative and right-wing outlets when he wants to unveil news. Pruitt’s earliest announcements of his planned "red team/blue team" exercise to debate climate science were in June 2017 on The Savage Nation and Breitbart News Daily.
It’s no surprise then that Pruitt’s EPA has often used The Daily Caller to announce major policy changes at the agency. In March, Pruitt gave an exclusive interview to The Daily Caller to announce a plan to severely restrict the type of scientific data the agency can use for policymaking, which could undermine clean air regulations. Instead of giving other reporters information about the plan, the EPA sent out a press release that linked to the The Daily Caller article.
Other announcements first reported in The Daily Caller included plans to drop a requirement for new power plants to have carbon-capture technology, the submission of a proposal to roll back the Waters of the United States rule, and the "evolution" of the "red team/blue team" exercise.
UPDATE (5/22): The EPA barred The Associated Press, CNN, and E&E News from attending a national summit on harmful water contaminants convened by Scott Pruitt. The AP reported that one of its reporters asked to speak to an EPA public affairs person after being denied entry and was then grabbed by the shoulders and shoved forcibly out of the building by security. In a statement, EPA spokesperson Jahan Wilcox said, “This was simply an issue of the room reaching capacity” -- though reporters noted there were empty seats in the room. He continued: “We were able to accommodate 10 news outlets and provided a livestream for those we could not accommodate.” One of those reporters in attendance was The Daily Caller’s Jason Hopkins, who claimed to have witnessed the episode with the AP reporter and disputed that the reporter was “‘forcibly’ grabbed.” But a CNN photographer's account of the events supports the AP’s report.