By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 18, 2005
The Environmental Protection Agency paid the Weather Channel $40,000 to produce and broadcast several videos about ozone depletion, urban heat problems and the dangers of ultraviolet radiation as part of the Bush administration's efforts to inform the public about climate change, agency records show.
The agreements, reached in 2002 and 2004, required the cable TV station to create four two-minute "video capsules" on the topics and air them several times during peak viewing periods, according to interviews and EPA records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The Weather Channel also was to provide access to the segments through its Web site. The EPA had the right to review scripts and suggest content, but the Weather Channel retained editorial control.
The Weather Channel "is in a unique position to help EPA expand its audience," an EPA official wrote in a document justifying the sole-source agreement. "It is the only channel that focuses its programming solely on weather and environmentally-related information. Broadcasting to more than 80 million households and 95 percent of all cable TV homes in the U.S., the weather channel has established itself as the strongest electronic-media brand among all 24-hour news and information channels."
Two experts who reviewed the videos at the request of The Washington Post said the content is straightforward, educational and scientifically sound.
But the EPA's payments to a commercial news organization to further its public relations efforts reinforce recent concerns that the administration sometimes has cloaked its promotion of executive branch policies in messages that resemble news stories and do not always fully disclose the government's role. It also raises questions about whether Americans can trust that the information they receive from news outlets such as the Weather Channel has been independently reported and presented.
"The way that they've presented it makes it look more independent than it in fact is, and that's misleading," said Melanie Sloan, executive director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit advocacy group that has been critical of the administration's public relations practices.
"It would be totally fine for there to be a community service message on these topics. All it would have to say -- much more clearly -- is that this was paid for by the government," she said.
The video segments, which run slightly more than two minutes each, end with an unseen narrator saying, "For the Weather Channel, I'm Nick Walker."
Walker is a meteorologist, "so he's not pretending to be a reporter, he is a reporter. . . . We're being completely up front," said Eryn Witcher, an EPA spokeswoman.
All four videos display the EPA's logo at the end of the segment as well as a line of text that reads, "This has been a co-production of the Environmental Protection Agency & The Weather Channel." But the videos do not explicitly say that the agency spent taxpayers' dollars to secure the Weather Channel's participation.
Witcher said the agency would consider including such language in future videos. "While we did disclose it, we will go the extra mile to ensure there is no confusion," she said.
EPA and Weather Channel officials defend the project as appropriate. Witcher said the videos were a cost-effective way to reach the public about how to preserve and improve the environment and protect human health.
"An important role for EPA is to educate the public on key issues," Witcher said. "This allowed EPA to have a lengthy program that not only went to 6 million viewers, but after six months EPA retained full rights to the educational video and 15,000 copies were distributed across the country to hundreds of classrooms. . . . If you make an educational brochure, and, say, that costs $1 each to produce, and it reaches 6 million people, that would be $6 million."
In 2003, the EPA paid the Weather Channel $90,000 to produce and broadcast a 22-minute "video special" on watershed management to further the agency's mission of protecting and restoring water quality under the Clean Water Act. Under that project, the EPA reviewed the script "to ensure that the written narration and associated use of visuals place EPA's work in the most positive and professional context," according to a summary of the agreement.
The shorter videos come across as a blend of a traditional news story, a public service announcement and an educational video.
"They seem pretty straightforward to me, just kind of educational materials," said Brian K. Lamb, a professor of environmental engineering at Washington State University, who reviewed the videos at the request of The Post. "I certainly didn't see any scientific issues with them. They seem to be factually more or less correct."
Daniel Lashof, science director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Climate Center, said: "I think they are actually a very good use of EPA resources to reach the public on these issues. The science, I think, is presented accurately in all of them."
Raymond Ban, the Weather Channel's executive vice president for meteorology, said the cable station has entered into similar paid partnerships with other federal agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Forest Service.
"What we try to do is create some compelling programming that people would be interested in viewing, and that would actually convey some good information about the current state of that topic and give the agency the chance to toot their horns a little bit about some of the neat stuff that they are working on," Ban said.
"We certainly don't have anything to hide about disclosing the joint aspect of this. . . . We're not going to put anything on the air that A) isn't sound and accurate science; B) that we don't think is compelling programming; and C) we're certainly not going to be a puppet or a mouthpiece for any particular political or agency agenda," he said.
The administration and the Government Accountability Office have been at odds over prepackaged stories that tout federal programs and have been aired without changes by some television stations. The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, has contended that the government must always reveal its role to avoid violating a federal ban on "covert propaganda."
Bush officials have said the burden of disclosure falls on the stations.