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  • How should media cover Andrew Wheeler? Take a lesson from coverage of Scott Pruitt

    Pruitt's silly scandals got more attention than his weighty misdeeds and regulatory rollbacks

    Blog ››› ››› LISA HYMAS


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    A version of this post was originally published on Grist.

    Andrew Wheeler, new acting chief of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has gotten a soft reception from the media during his first couple of weeks on the job. The honeymoon phase needs to end now.

    Wheeler is benefiting from comparisons to his disgraced predecessor, Scott Pruitt, who was flamboyantly corrupt and unprecedentedly adversarial toward the press. Wheeler keeps a lower profile than Pruitt and has given interviews to mainstream journalists instead of insulting them, so his different style has generated positive pieces and headlines.

    But being more sober and civil than Pruitt is a very low bar to jump over. Wheeler doesn't deserve praise for clearing it.

    Wheeler received glowing press just for saying he would listen to EPA employees. “When it comes to leadership, you can’t lead unless you listen,” he said during his first address to agency staff on July 11. That quote was featured in the headlines and introductions of stories in The New York Times and The Washington Post by reporters who had done some of the most aggressive coverage of Pruitt's scandals and regulatory rollbacks.

    But, as Mother Jones reporter Rebecca Leber pointed out, Pruitt had used the exact same line during his first address to agency staff in February 2017: “You can’t lead unless you listen.”

    This is a stark example of how journalists have been quick to paint Wheeler as a departure from Pruitt even when he's doing exactly what Pruitt did.

    The media need to stop focusing on the minor stylistic differences between Wheeler and Pruitt and start homing in on substance. The new EPA chief has already implemented his first major rollback of an environmental protection. Wheeler, a former lobbyist for a coal company, signed a final rule that will make it easier for power plants to dump toxic coal ash in ways that could pollute groundwater. And Wheeler has pledged to carry forward the rest of Pruitt's agenda.

    What media got wrong in covering Pruitt

    So how should the media be covering Wheeler? To help answer that question, take a look back at how they covered Pruitt.

    Journalists at many outlets did excellent reporting on a wide range of Pruitt's scandals and regulatory moves, particularly the teams covering the EPA at The Washington Post and The New York Times. The problem was that only some of that good original reporting got amplified by other media outlets and ultimately seen by wide audiences, and too often it was the least important stories that got the most attention.

    Media Matters analyzed TV news coverage of Pruitt during a period in June in which a number of EPA regulatory rollbacks and Pruitt scandals were revealed.

    For each of the following stories, we looked at how much coverage major prime-time TV news programs devoted to it in the week after it was first reported:

    • Rollback: The EPA decided not to examine air, water, or ground contaminants when determining the health and safety risks of potentially toxic chemicals, as The New York Times reported on June 7.
    • Rollback: The EPA took the first step toward changing the way it calculates the economic costs and benefits of regulations, with an eye toward making regulations appear more expensive, as The Washington Post reported on June 7.
    • Rollback: The EPA put forth a detailed plan to scale back a major Obama-era regulation on water pollution, as The New York Times reported on June 14.
    • Substantive scandal: Pruitt had close ties with a coal baron and big GOP donor, Joseph Craft. Craft got Pruitt good basketball tickets, while Pruitt made policy moves that benefited Craft's company, as The New York Times reported on June 2.
    • Silly scandal: Pruitt spent $1,560 on 12 customized fountain pens emblazoned with the EPA seal and Pruitt’s signature, as The Washington Post reported on June 1.
    • Silly scandal: Pruitt had an EPA aide try to obtain a used mattress from the Trump International Hotel, as The Associated Press reported on June 4.
    • Silly scandal: Pruitt used his EPA security detail to help him find fancy lotion at Ritz-Carlton hotels, as The Washington Post reported on June 7.

    The first four stories -- the ones involving policy changes likely to lead to more pollution -- got markedly less attention on TV news than the scandals surrounding Pruitt's bizarre personal misbehavior.

    How the media can do better in covering Wheeler

    Pruitt getting the boot opens up an opportunity for journalists to do a better job covering the EPA, as Wheeler seems unlikely to suck up all the oxygen by making goofy moves like buying tactical pants” or using sirens to speed to his favorite restaurant.

    Last month, some reporters on the EPA beat expressed frustration that Pruitt’s scandals were serving as distractions:

    Now they’ll have more time to chase stories about serious ethics questions at EPA and, most importantly, the regulatory rollbacks that could make Americans sick and kill us.

    There will be plenty to cover, like:

    • Wheeler’s ties to industry: He, too, has a long-established, cozy relationship with a coal baron. And he has lobbied for natural gas, chemical, uranium, nuclear, and utility interests, so we could see him cultivating close ties to those industries.
    • Wheeler’s rollbacks that benefit industry: He has already made a major policy move that serves the interests of coal and utility companies, as mentioned above, and he’s poised to take heat off automakers by rolling back auto fuel-efficiency rules and trying to revoke California's authority to set tough standards for pollution from cars and trucks.
    • Wheeler’s ethically questionable decisions: He kept on two top EPA aides who have ethics problems, as HuffPost's Alexander Kaufman recently reported. Green groups are digging for more potential missteps.

    During Wheeler's reign at the EPA -- which could last years -- reporters will need to stop comparing him to his predecessor and instead bird-dog the agency's deregulatory moves and dig for the ethics and corruption stories that aren't as ridiculous and simple as those Pruitt routinely offered up. We're counting on journalists assigned to the national environment beat to do just that.

    But here's the potentially trickier part: After original reporting comes out on Wheeler's actions, other journalists and commentators and TV news producers will need to amplify those stories, writing articles and producing segments that will get the news in the public eye. Will they do it now that the EPA is no longer run by an absurd character with a proclivity for dramatic self-sabotage? 

    While Pruitt’s silly scandals were a distraction for some media outlets, they were a lure for others, drawing their eyes to an agency they might not cover often or in-depth. For instance, Vanity Fair -- not traditionally a source of EPA news -- published numerous pieces that highlighted Pruitt's scandals and also noted the more important fact that he'd been gutting regulations and suppressing science.

    We need Vanity Fair to keep it up during the Wheeler era, and we need NBC Nightly News and CNN's Situation Room and so many others to join in.

    Quiet deregulation and allegiance to industry are easy to ignore in the loud, lewd age of Trump, but everyday Americans who eat, drink, and breathe can't afford for the media to miss the most important stories about the EPA.

    -----

    Methodology: Media Matters conducted a Nexis search of transcripts for prime-time (5 p.m. through midnight) programs on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News, as well as the broadcast network nightly news programs: ABC’s World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, and PBS NewsHour. We examined a week’s worth of coverage for the seven stories in the first bullet-pointed list above. We identified and reviewed all segments that were captured by searching for the words Pruitt, EPA, or Environmental Protection Agency within 50 words of cost, benefit, calculate, calculation, economic, chemical, health, safety, toxic, water, pollute, pollution, rollback, regulate, regulation, rule, policy, pen, jewelry, mattress, Trump Hotel, lotion, moisturizer, moisturizing, dry cleaning, security, scandal, ethics, or ethical.

    Chart by Melissa Joskow. Research assistance by Kevin Kalhoefer.

  • Fox News reportedly having difficulty selling ads for Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham’s shows: “The pro-Trump thing isn’t working"

    Fox News’ business model is not sustainable

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    We now have further confirmation that Fox News’ role as a mouthpiece for Donald Trump is affecting the network’s bottom line.

    According to a report by Gabriel Sherman in Vanity Fair, the network is struggling to sell ad space on their 9 and 10 PM respective programs.

    While Fox News dominated the ratings in May—a fact Trump bragged about on Saturday—the network is having new difficulties monetizing its most pro-Trump programming. According to three sources briefed on the numbers, advertising revenues for Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham are down in recent months. “The pro-Trump thing isn’t working. We can’t monetize DACA and the wall and that right-wing shit,” one staffer said. “Despite all the hype on Hannity, they can’t sell it,” another insider told me. (Tucker Carlson’s show is faring better, sources said).
     

    This follows an October 2017 report that Fox News’ ad revenue had dropped 17% year over year, at the same time that ad revenue at other cable news networks was relatively stable.

    Advertisers have fled Sean Hannity’s toxic program because of his promotion of conspiracy theories, pro-Trump propaganda and willingness to take extreme measure to deflect and defend anything that comes out of the White House. Media Matters launched a campaign to focus on advertiser education when it became clear that there were no rules for Sean Hannity at Fox News. Recent events have only vindicated that. There is no pretense that Hannity abides by any standards, as Hannity has built an entire universe separate from the rest of Fox News based solely on absolute and undying loyalty to Donald Trump. Reports indicate that Hannity advises the president on a consistent basis, who in turn promotes Hannity’s show on his Twitter account. Many advertisers have left the show. At this point, the sole purpose of Hannity’s show is not profit, or education, or even entertainment: It is to lay the groundwork for an authoritarian response to the Russia probe led by Robert Mueller.

    Meanwhile, Laura Ingraham has built her show around racism, sexism and fear mongering about immigrants. She has attacked asylum seekers and refugees, told athletes to “shut up and dribble” after Lebron James criticized President Trump, and said that transgender people don’t belong in the military. Ingraham received massive blowback for these remarks.

    This backlash spilled over to financial consequences following Ingraham’s attacks on Parkland school shooting survivor David Hogg and his sister Lauren. The duo led an advertiser boycott against Ingraham, forcing her to apologize and take a “vacation.” On her radio show, Ingraham doubled down, attacking companies that left her show as having “gave into the mob.”

    But until some management imposes real standards and consequences at Fox News, it’s up to activists and advertisers to shoulder the burden. As Media Matters president Angelo Carusone wrote in October:

    Mostly driven by concerns around digital advertising, companies are becoming increasingly mindful about brand safety and intentionality in that advertising. And that mindfulness is starting to influence other advertising decisions as well, like television sponsorships.

    Companies do not want their advertising to be associated with rank partisanship, bigotry, or deceit. They recognize that it’s bad for business. But Fox News continues to offer all three in spades, and as a result, I suspect it is beginning to have a downward effect on the network’s commercial viability as a whole.

    Bottom line is this: Fox News’ ad revenue plummeted. It’s likely largely attributable to Hannity’s growing advertiser losses. And it also appears to reflect a deeper vulnerability in Fox News’ business model of bigotry, deceit, and partisanship.

  • Before he joined Trump, Bannon bragged he made Breitbart the home of the "alt-right." Now he's back.

    ››› ››› BOBBY LEWIS

    Stephen Bannon, former White House chief strategist and restored executive chairman of Breitbart.com, orchestrated and supported many of the worst elements of the campaign and presidency of Donald Trump. Before, during, and after his direct involvement with Trump’s political ambitions, Bannon used his experience -- and his extensive and complicated financial connections to the far-right billionaire Mercer family -- to stoke the flames of nativist anger, encourage Trump’s most racist and misogynistic rhetoric, support far-right political candidates across the globe, and attack all perceived enemies of Trumpism, potentially including Trump himself.

  • Contra right-wing media, US officials have verified core aspects of the Trump dossier

    ››› ››› NICK FERNANDEZ

    Right-wing media have waged a months-long attempt to discredit the 35-page dossier produced by a former British intelligence officer that contains allegations of coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. Various right-wing commentators have described its contents as “unreliable,” “discredited,” “largely debunked,” and "evidence of ... collusion between Democrats and Russian disinformation," including a Washington Times story that Trump promoted this week. But, according to numerous reports, American intelligence officials have “verified” various “core” aspects of the dossier.

  • First Amendment Watch: December 2016

    ››› ››› ZACHARY PLEAT

    During his 2016 campaign for president, Donald Trump launched an unprecedented war on the press. Since his election, Media Matters has tracked his and his team’s continuing attacks on the media and their abandonment of presidential norms regarding press access, which poses a dangerous threat to our First Amendment freedoms. Following is a list of attacks President-elect Donald Trump made against the media -- and instances in which he demonstrated disregard for the press -- during the month of December 2016.

  • Hyping Trump’s Latest “Discipline,” Pundits Whitewash His Recent Unhinged Days

    ››› ››› TYLER CHERRY

    Media figures are once again hyping a “disciplined” Donald Trump in the final days of the presidential campaign, ignoring the Republican presidential nominee’s racist fearmongering, outlandish claims, and “new record” total of lies told in one day. The media has unremittingly sought a Trump “pivot,” which never actually materialized.

  • Report: “Existential Crisis” At Fox News As Sexual Harassment Investigation Spreads Beyond Ailes

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    Vanity Fair reported that Fox News staffers have expressed growing fears about the network’s future following allegations that former Fox News CEO and current Rupert Murdoch “consultant” Roger Ailes sexually harassed at least 20 women.

    In July, former Fox host Gretchen Carlson filed a lawsuit that alleged Ailes fired her after she declined his sexual advances. Since Carlson filed the suit, at least 25 additional women, including Fox host Megyn Kelly and former host Andrea Tantaros, have made similar claims against the former CEO. On July 21, Ailes was forced to resign his position amid an investigation into the claims by parent company 21st Century Fox. Ailes is currently working as a consultant to News Corp. Executive Co-Chairman Rupert Murdoch during a “transition period.”

    An August 8 article by Vanity Fair’s Sarah Ellison reports that Fox News staffers fear the network’s future is facing “an existential crisis” following Ailes departure and that employees are “anxious to distance themselves” from their former boss, despite the fact they may soon lose their jobs. Ellison reports that sources say some women alleging sexual harassment claim the issue spread to “individuals beyond Roger Ailes” who were “nonetheless enablers.” From Vanity Fair:

    One staffer expressed to me an even greater fear: that, without [Roger] Ailes, Fox News’s future is in an existential crisis.

    [...]

    A sale of Fox News, which generates some $1 billion in annual profit, seems unlikely. A massive culture change, however, seems probable. Some Ailes loyalists who remain affiliated with Fox News find themselves in a particularly difficult spot. They are anxious to distance themselves from him, even as they anticipate their own ouster from the network, a Fox source told me. Several of them, who worked for Ailes in a personal capacity but were on Fox’s payroll, were dismissed last week, according to one senior Fox employee.

    But perhaps the biggest object of curiosity in the newsroom these days is the internal investigation currently being conducted by the law firm Paul, Weiss. The investigation originally focused exclusively on Ailes, but as allegations from at least 20 women have mounted—including Gabriel Sherman’s revelation that Fox paid Laurie Luhn, a former booker, $3.15 million in a settlement agreement—it has expanded to other Fox News executives. “A number of the women raised serious issues about individuals beyond Roger Ailes, who, while not as crass as Ailes, were nonetheless enablers,” said one individual briefed on the investigation. “There can be fairly raised a question: whether the atmosphere at Fox is welcoming to women absent wholesale changes in senior leadership.”