EPA further strains relations with news media by referring reporters to Daily Caller

Science writers call agency's practice "unethical."

Scott Pruitt's EPA is increasingly issuing press releases with links to favorable articles about the agency. CREDIT: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Scott Pruitt's EPA is increasingly issuing press releases with links to favorable articles about the agency. CREDIT: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) keeps highlighting articles written by climate science deniers in a bid to promote the agency’s work under its embattled leader. From the Heartland Institute to The Daily Caller, the EPA is going to the political margins to find commentary that is complimentary of Administrator Scott Pruitt’s anti-environment agenda.

Over the past month, the EPA has issued at least four press-releases that simply promote articles published elsewhere rather that providing original information from the agency.

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The latest example of this practice is a press released issued by the EPA on Monday that touts an article written by former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli. In the article, published by right-leaning news site Real Clear Policy, Cuccinelli said Pruitt “has shown unrivaled commitment to carrying out the president’s agenda of deregulation.”

Cuccinelli is director of the FreedomWorks Foundation Regulatory Action Center, a Koch brothers-funded group that hailed President Donald Trump’s planned withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement as “a win for America.” After Trump’s announcement last June, FreedomWorks said the agreement “does nothing for climate change, which is still continually questioned by scientists.”

As Virginia attorney general, Cuccinelli launched an attack on prominent climate scientist Michael Mann, who was teaching at the University of Virginia at the time. Cuccinelli tried and failed to obtain a subpoena to gain access to Mann’s work papers to scrutinize his use of grants.

Over the past year, the EPA — in line with the Trump administration’s policy as a whole — has adopted a confrontational relationship with the news media.

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As part of this antagonistic relationship with the news media, the EPA singled out a reporter last year, criticizing his coverage of the agency’s response to flooded hazardous waste sites in southeast Texas. The EPA accused Associated Press reporter Michael Biesecker, who co-authored an article on Hurricane Harvey, of “reporting from the comfort of Washington” and having the “audacity” to imply that the EPA was not being aggressive enough in inspecting the Superfund sites.

The practice of using op-eds and articles as press releases, rather than citing expert staff members, is another product of the agency’s antagonism toward reporters.

Last Friday, the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) sent a letter to the EPA challenging the agency’s practice of circulating articles from highly partisan publications as press releases. The NASW labeled the actions as “unprofessional” and “unethical.”

Last Tuesday, EPA spokesperson Jahan Wilcox refused to respond to questions from news reporters regarding Pruitt’s stated plans to make agency science more transparent by requiring new rules be based on studies for which all data is made public — an effort critics say would paralyze the policy process.

Instead, the EPA circulated an article on this topic by The Daily Caller, a partisan publication, as a press release, the NASW wrote in its letter. With the March 20 “press release,” the EPA effectively limited its discussion of a major science policy story to a “handpicked, partisan outlet,” the letter said. Rather than answer journalists’ questions, the EPA encouraged reporters to learn details about Pruitt’s plans from a published article, “which can never be a basis of responsible news reporting,” the NASW said.

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These efforts “effectively block the dissemination of information about a potentially significant policy change at the U.S. EPA,” the letter said.

In response to the NASW letter, the EPA pointed out that it is one of the most widely covered agencies in the federal government. “The Office of Public Affairs has provided regional and national journalists — from the New York Times to the Daily Caller — with an unprecedented amount of access,” EPA spokesperson Liz Bowman said in a statement emailed to ThinkProgress. “This is a vast improvement from four years ago when E&E reported that the Society of Environmental Journalists called that EPA an ‘incredibly secretive’ agency.”

Along with providing a link to the Cuccinelli article on Monday, the EPA issued a press release promoting an editorial produced by The Oklahoman, a conservative daily newspaper in Oklahoma City, that claims the agency has used “secret science” to develop rules for controlling water and air pollution.

The Oklahoman accused Andrew Rosenberg of the Union of Concerned Scientists of opposing transparency at the agency. Rosenberg has argued that Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) is attempting to “gut the EPA at the expense of public health and safety.”

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However, the newspaper misrepresented Rosenberg’s comments. Rosenberg, director of UCS’s Center for Science and Democracy, was highlighting how Smith’s policy would prohibit the use of personal health data such as private medical records and confidential business information from being considered in EPA policy-making.

Pruitt is expected to announce in the coming weeks a policy of only using scientific findings whose data and methodologies are made public and can be replicated, the idea championed by Smith, one of the most prominent climate deniers in Congress.

In a statement that the EPA highlighted in its press release, The Oklahoman claimed Pruitt’s campaign against “secret science” is “being treated as a sign of impending apocalypse by some on the left.”

Another press release was issued two weeks ago by the EPA that simply contained a passage from an editorial co-authored by the president of The Heartland Institute, the notorious climate-denying research organization that famously paid for billboards using the photos of the convicted “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski, Charles Manson, and Osama bin Laden to equate people who believe in climate change with these mass murderers.

In the op-ed first published by The Hill, titled “Scott Pruitt is leading the EPA toward greatness,” Heartland Institute President Tim Huelskamp wrote: “There’s no question who the star hire of his administration has been: EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.”

Last month, the EPA hired Republican campaign consultant, Go BIG Media Inc., to work on a report touting Pruitt’s accomplishments. The Go BIG Media Inc. contract was worth up to $6,500, E&E News reported.

Earlier this month, the EPA released a “Year In Review” report, which highlighted Pruitt’s actions during his first year as administrator. The report touted Pruitt’s efforts to roll back several major regulations.