The New York Times put a 1,700-word piece on its front page Tuesday that accuses the EPA of violating federal laws on grassroots campaigning.
The paper ran the story despite knowing the accusation is not true, a fact that is buried deep in the article. How is that journalism?
Here is how the Times previews the story on its website:
Now that is a click-bait story for both conservatives and progressives — EPA accused of law-breaking. The problem is you have to read 1,000 words into the story, something most people will never do, to learn this bombshell:
Jeffrey R. Holmstead, an energy industry lobbyist and an E.P.A. deputy in the Bush administration, said the E.P.A. was “using campaign and advocacy strategies to promote a regulatory action.” But he and other experts said the agency’s actions did not appear to cross a legal line.
For the record, fossil-fuel lobbyist Holmstead is the go-to guy for a respectable quote from the industry viewpoint — his firm has posted 12 pages of articles that quote him. If Holmstead “and other experts” say EPA didn’t “appear to” cross a legal line, you can be quite sure it didn’t.
In short, there’s no “there,” there. That’s why EPA chiefs under both George W. Bush and his father released a statement calling the EPA’s actions “appropriate.”
“Apparently the NYT was successfully spun to run a narrative of EPA malfeasance,” he said. “It is disappointing to see this sort of sensationalist journalism over a minor expenditure of funds appear in the NYT. Reporting means more than repeating the talking points of sources.”
The Times has nothing but some quotes from a couple of industries that don’t like the EPA’s new rule, and thus don’t like EPA’s efforts to inform the public about it and get comments on how it might be improved.
Indeed, the Times creates confusion by seeming to conflate informing the public about a draft rule and lobbying the Congress about legislation. Near the end of the article, the Times writes:
In its previous opinions to federal agencies, the Justice Department has indicated that “grass-roots” efforts are most clearly prohibited if they are related to legislation pending in Congress and are “substantial,” which it defined as costing about $100,000 in today’s dollars — a price tag that the E.P.A.’s efforts on the clean water rule almost certainly did not reach if the salaries of the agency staff members involved are not counted.
The Times notes that the spending wasn’t substantial. But the other key point is that the EPA’s outreach, such as the EPA tweet it posted (below), was not lobbying about pending legislation.
The Times asserts earlier in the piece, “The E.P.A.’s tactics in supporting the rule are clearly designed to move public opinion, at a time when Congress was considering legislation to block the agency from putting the rule into effect.”
But the Times provides no evidence whatsoever that there is any truth to such a claim, presumably because they don’t have any. Indeed that claim sounds like the Times left out the phrase “according to industry critics” since the full 1700-word Times piece shows that what the EPA was “clearly” doing was not lobbying about legislation. To repeat the words of Jeff Holmstead (the energy industry lobbyist and former Bush EPA deputy), the EPA was “using campaign and advocacy strategies to promote a regulatory action.”
The Times waits until the last two paragraphs to let EPA officials make this rather obvious point: “they did not violate the Anti-Lobbying Law because they never explicitly urged the public to lobby Congress.” The EPA has been doing its job.
“We are well within our authority to educate the American people about the importance of what E.P.A. is doing to act on climate change and protect public health,” Thomas Reynolds, associate EPA administrator, said at the end of the Times article. “There is a very clear line, and we never, ever cross it.”
On its website, the EPA explains, “A public outreach effort to increase awareness and support of EPA’s proposed Clean Water Rule is well within the appropriate bounds of the agency’s mission to educate and engage Americans.” The EPA quotes from a recent Comptroller General opinion: “Agency officials have broad authority to educate the public on their policies and views, and this includes the authority to be persuasive in their materials.”
So the entire Times piece is a nothing-burger cooked up by a few not terribly credible industry critics. Unsurprisingly, after the New York Times published its piece, three former EPA administrators, including two from Republican Administrations — Christine Todd Whitman (2001-2003), Carol M. Browner (1993-2001) and William Reilly (1989-1992) — released a statement making this very point. It opens, “Engaging the American public in the development of public health safeguards is an important function of the Environmental Protection Agency.”
Whitman, Reilly, and Browner (who is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at American Progress where I also work), end by noting:
As former Administrators, we only wish we had the tools available to today’s EPA when implementing safeguards against lead in gasoline, protecting the public from acid rain, and cleaning up our waterways from toxic pollution amongst many other measures. It is appropriate for the EPA to use these tools to engage as many Americans as possible especially as the agency moves forward with important public health protections in development today.
In this story, the Times mainly served as a stenographer for a few anti-EPA industries. It’s clear that the Times knew there was nothing to the story when they finally published it on their front page. The fact that they included some buried quotes eviscerating the piece’s central point suggests to me that this whole framing was driven by the editors and not the reporters. Either way, it is an example of how not to do journalism.