EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Media critic

Elisabeth Bumiller, the Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, hesitated a bit when asked if she’d ever seen anything like it. “It’s an unusual statement coming out of the EPA, let’s put it that way,” said Bumiller in a Wednesday interview with the Erik Wemple Blog.

Unusual, yes, though this particular blast from the communications office of the Environmental Protection Agency surely aligns with the overt media hostility of the Trump administration. “No matter how much information we give you, you would never write a fair piece,” wrote EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman to New York Times reporter Eric Lipton. “The only thing inappropriate and biased is your continued fixation on writing elitist clickbait trying to attack qualified professionals committed to serving their country.”

If a character-driven narrative about the regulation of chemicals such as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perchlorate, methylene chloride and chlorpyrifos; risk assessment standards; “administratively determined” positions; the mechanics of the “nonconcurrence” memo; and, more broadly, the ascension of industry types to pivotal positions at the EPA counts as “elitist clickbait,” then Lipton and his newspaper are guilty as charged. “Why Has the E.P.A. Shifted on Toxic Chemicals? An Industry Insider Helps Call the Shots,” reads the story’s headline, above an investigation detailing how the EPA’s Nancy B. Beck assumed a key position at the agency after a stint at the American Chemistry Council. The trade association’s agenda traveled with Beck into the EPA, as Lipton reports: “Dr. Beck then spent her first weeks on the job pressing agency staff to rewrite the standards to reflect, in some cases, word for word, the chemical industry’s proposed changes, three staff members involved in the effort said. They asked not to be named for fear of losing their jobs,” notes the story.

Among other things, Beck “insisted” on rewriting a rule so as to make it harder to regulate PFOA, a chemical used in nonstick pans and linked to severe health problems including kidney cancer and birth defects. Her deregulatory bent, wrote Lipton, put her in a career-long rivalry with Wendy Cleland-Hamnett, who in September left her position as the agency’s acting assistant administrator for chemical safety and pollution prevention. She worked at the EPA for 38 years.

Such storytelling didn’t sit well at the EPA. The “elitist clickbait” reproach came straight off Bowman’s iPhone, according to an archive of reporting materials disclosed alongside the New York Times story.

Asked by the Erik Wemple Blog whether such a response — or even its general attitude — was cleared with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Bowman responded, “I don’t want to comment on that.” In blasting Lipton, Bowman was responding to a list of questions from Lipton, as seen here.

There are 20-odd questions on the list detailing just how far Lipton had slipped into the trade-journal world of chemical regulation. Through precise explanation and lots of column inches, Lipton shows how chemical regulations commonly evolve. In response to needless deaths, that is. President Barack Obama’s EPA, for instance, had decided that methylene chloride was so dangerous that it should be banned from use in consumer paint removers, Lipton reports. Twenty-one-year-old Kevin Hartley of Tennessee died in April after exposure to the chemical as he refinished a bathtub.

According to Bloomberg BNA, the deaths of at least 17 tub refinishers since 2000 have been attributed to methylene chloride. As Lipton’s story reports, Hamnett and Beck faced off over just this issue:

“How is it possible that you can go to a home improvement store and buy a paint remover that can kill you?” Ms. Hamnett asked. “How can we let this happen?”

Furniture-refinishing companies and chemical manufacturers have urged the E.P.A. to focus on steps like strengthening warning labels, complaining that there are few reasonably priced alternatives.

Ms. Hamnett said Dr. Beck raised the possibility that people were not following the directions on the labels. She also suggested that only a small number of users had been injured. “Is it 1 percent?” Ms. Hamnett recalled Dr. Beck asking.

Standing by her brush-back, Bowman told the Erik Wemple Blog that the agency’s issues relate more to Lipton and less to his employer. “There are a lot of reporters at the New York Times that we are happy to work with. In this particular case, it was clear that Lipton was acting on behalf of other officials with an ax to grind. It was clear he was not going to change his mind and certainly would not produce a balanced story,” said Bowman, who also formerly worked at the American Chemistry Council. More: “If you actually take the time read through detailed questions in that email, you will potentially see why I reacted the way I did,” said Bowman. In many cases, indeed, the questions paraphrase criticisms from detractors of the current EPA leadership — a common procedure in journalism.

“If the current agency management believes that stories are factually incorrect, I would think they’d want to correct them rather than refuse to respond,” Hamnett told the Erik Wemple Blog. “If there’s a side of the story that’s not being heard, then why not get that side of the story out there?”

Getting personal is in vogue at the EPA. As this blog reported in September, this same communications operation blasted an AP reporter by name in a news release following a critical story on the agency’s response to Hurricane Harvey: “Yesterday, the Associated Press’ Michael Biesecker wrote an incredibly misleading story about toxic land sites that are under water.” The AP stood by its story.

And in August, the EPA butted heads with Lipton and Roni Rabin over an article titled “E.P.A. Promised ‘a New Day’ for the Agriculture Industry, Documents Reveal.” At issue was the agency’s decision in March not to ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos. “Taking emails out of context doesn’t change the fact that we continue to examine the science surrounding chlorpyifos, while taking into account USDA’s scientific concerns with methodology used by the previous administration,” noted the EPA’s Amy Graham. The New York Times stood by its story, though the EPA isn’t happy about it: “After omitting key words from a one-sentence response to an inaccurate story, Eric Lipton’s editors stood by their decision to splice a 31-word statement, because it discredited the premise of their story,” noted the EPA’s Jahan Wilcox in an email.

Reporting on the EPA, suggests Bumiller, requires an extra level of exertion. “They are not routinely sharing Scott Pruitt’s schedule for public events with reporters,” she said, and “selectively distributing news releases at times” as well as less-than-inclusive background briefings. Lipton said that the agency declined to confirm to colleague Lisa Friedman that Pruitt would be appearing in Hazard, Ky., for a speech mentioning plans to overturn the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. As a result, the New York Times covered the speech from afar. NPR covered the news this way: “The administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, made the announcement in Hazard, Ky., on Monday, saying the rule hurt coal-fired plants.”

Bowman counters that the speech wasn’t, in fact, an “event” for the purposes of the initiative: “There was no event on [Clean Power Plan]; the proposed repeal was an in-office signing and a press release,” wrote Bowman in an email. “We did not do anything to prevent Eric Lipton from attending our announcement of our announcement. ”

When asked about the newspaper’s concerns regarding selective press-release distribution and briefings, Wilcox responded, “While serving as Attorney General of Oklahoma, Eric Lipton spent two days with Scott Pruitt and it was abundantly clear that he can’t be trusted to write objective stories. All of our releases are available online and we encourage reporters and the public to visit www.epa.gov.” Actually, Lipton never served as attorney general of Oklahoma.

When White House spokespeople rough up the media these days, smart people like to say that they’re not acting pugnacious out of spite. They’re doing it to please the media basher in chief. What’s stopping agency types from following suit? “I think the EPA has stood out,” said Bumiller.