While the Trump administration is not known for velvety smooth relations with the news media, federal agencies are far more likely to ignore reporters than to officially scold them. Not the EPA. Reporters whom the agency deems to have misreported can expect to hear about it, and not just through a polite phone call or an email requesting a correction.
Instead, the EPA goes public.
“A reader of Politico would have been rightfully confused about the results” of an inspector general’s report about a Superfund task force, the EPA declared in a June 24 release. “It is only fair to ask why they chose to ignore the key findings of this report.”
A day later, the EPA’s communications wing weighed in on the Hill’s story about a new regulation. “The Hill used a false premise and ran a grossly inaccurate story,” it said. It went on to list “THE HILL’s FALSE QUOTES,” “MORE OF THE HILL’S FALSE QUOTES” and “MORE FALSE REPORTING FROM THE HILL.”
A spokeswoman for the Hill, Lisa Dallos, said the publication stands by its story. Politico’s spokesman, Brad Dayspring, characterized the Superfund story as “fair and fact based.”
The EPA’s unusual approach is in some ways a return to its recent past. Under former administrator Scott Pruitt, who resigned a year ago amid various scandals, the agency attacked reporters on a semiregular basis. The pushback sometimes took on a nasty tone. Pruitt’s spokesman, Jahan Wilcox, who has also left the agency, once responded to a reporter who was seeking comment for a story by telling her, “You have a great day, you’re a piece of trash.”
Things simmered down with Pruitt’s departure, but have lately begun to grow toxic again.
The EPA’s top media manager says the approach nowadays is kinder and gentler but still firm. “I’m trying not to get into name calling or picking fights,” said Corry Schiermeyer, associate administrator for public affairs at the agency. “I honestly just want to ensure that when anyone reports about our policies and issues that the reporting is correct and accurate.”
The news releases, she said, are a way to establish an official record before a disputed story goes viral on social media: “If we sat back and didn’t do anything, it can spin out of control.”
Reporters on the beat, however, are somewhat baffled by the agency’s aggressiveness, especially because Pruitt’s replacement, former energy-industry lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, is more low-key than his predecessor.
Asked who decides when to publicly call out a news organization, Schiermeyer hedged. “That’s a good question,” she said after a pause. “I wouldn’t say it’s the policy of Corry Schiermeyer’s office. I would say it’s often done on a case-by-case basis, by my office or others within the agency who feel that something was an egregious mischaracterization.”
That includes Wheeler, who Schiermeyer said objected to a tweet by Yahoo News correspondent Alexander Nazaryan about a speech Wheeler gave in June. Wheeler’s apparent peeve led to a news release asserting that Nazaryan “deliberately spread false information on twitter by misreporting Administrator Wheeler’s comments.” In response, Nazaryan tweeted Yahoo News “stands by the accuracy of our reporting.” Nazaryan declined to comment for this story.
News sources typically seek redress through discussion and negotiation with reporters and their editors. But the EPA’s critiques of Nazaryan and Politico had one striking difference: The agency posted its news releases without seeking corrections or retractions from the organizations, effectively blindsiding both. Schiermeyer acknowledged officials failed to do so, but said neither Politico nor Yahoo contacted the agency before publication.
Most recently, the agency trained its fire on the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), in effect challenging en masse reporters who cover the EPA. Agency officials objected to a letter written by the group to Wheeler about the agency’s new Freedom of Information Act regulations. In a news release, the agency criticized the letter, saying it included “numerous inaccuracies that were regurgitated from false articles.”
“They took it as an opportunity to discredit or suggest environmental journalists were misleading the public,” said Bobby Magill, SEJ’s president. “It’s part of a larger pattern of trying to smear the press.”
Magill, a reporter for Bloomberg Environment, said he objected to “the tone” of the EPA’s response. “It’s one thing to set the record straight,” he said. “It’s a whole other thing to suggest you’re intentionally misleading people.”
But by rebutting in such a public way, the EPA risks calling more attention to the stories it’s disputing, a potential example of the Streisand effect, in which an effort to rebut or suppress information has the unintended consequence of drawing more interest to it. (The phenomenon was named for legendary singer and actor Barbra Streisand, whose attempts to keep an aerial photograph of her Malibu home out of public view led to a spike of interest in it.) The disputed Politico story, for example, was available only through Politico’s subscription service, so few would have known about it before the EPA complained.
Schiermeyer, however, thinks the approach can prevent worse outcomes. The public naming and shaming “can slow things down and sometimes stop misinformation from continuing to be repurposed,” she said. “You might not be able to stop the first reporter, but at least the second and third and fourth reporter” will see information the agency considers accurate.