The head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Andrew Wheeler, chose to go “off script” Wednesday morning when he warned the agency’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) against trusting the media.
“I caution you to be careful what you read in the media,” Wheeler said, concluding his remarks to the public meeting — the first time the SAB has meet in a year.
Wheeler was specifically referring to a tweet by Yahoo News journalist Alexander Nazaryan on Monday which quoted Wheeler telling the National Press Club, “‘The media does a disservice to the American public’ by reporting on global warming, says EPA head Andrew Wheeler. Wants more positive coverage.”
And indeed, on Monday, Wheeler did take time to list five things he believes the press “consistently gets wrong” — this included reporting that the environment is getting worse. Instead, the press should be talking more about how it’s been getting better since the 1970s, Wheeler argued.
Nazaryan’s tweet was quickly circulated around the internet, including by a New York Times journalist and the Sierra Club. In response, the EPA sent out a press release stating that the tweet was “misleading,” and accused the Yahoo journalist of choosing to “deliberately spread false information on Twitter.”
This argument was reiterated on Wednesday by Wheeler, who said the fact that the Sierra Club started promoting the tweet made him wonder whether the media and environmental groups were “colluding” for fundraising purposes.
Under the Trump administration, however, the EPA has actively worked to rollback environmental protections, often in line with fossil fuel or other industry interests. Most recently this includes challenging the underlying risk calculations that support clean air rules.
The media has played a critical role in reporting on, and investigating, not just these various policy decisions but also potential ethics controversies and conflicts of interest plaguing the agency.
But Wheeler urged scientists not to trust the media and come to him or other top EPA officials if they had questions or concerns.
This isn’t the first time that the Trump administration’s EPA has “fact-checked” the media or been antagonistic toward reporters. Last year, reporters from major news outlets, including the Associated Press and CNN, were banned from attending a summit on harmful chemicals; one journalist was even forcibly removed by security.
And in September 2017, the EPA’s press office sent out a press release titled “EPA Response To The AP’s Misleading Story,” which accused AP reporter Michael Biesecker of writing an “incredibly misleading story” about Superfund sites and Hurricane Harvey. (The EPA did not, however, contradict any facts in Biesecker’s story.)
Meanwhile, the EPA has used articles written by climate science deniers, including the Heartland Institute and the Daily Caller, as their own press releases rather than citing expert staff members — a move which the National Association of Science Writers labeled “unprofessional” and “unethical.”
All of this is part of the larger confrontational relationship with the press promoted by President Donald Trump, who consistently calls media “fake news” and has repeatedly encouraged violence against the media.