Andrew Wheeler, acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, speaks during an interview in San Francisco on Feb. 4. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)
Media critic

In an article last Friday, E&E News took a tour through the swamp. The organization of 75 reporters and editors focusing on energy and the environment zeroed in on possible ethical conflicts facing acting Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew Wheeler. The topic is hot, considering that President Trump has nominated Wheeler as the EPA’s permanent director; his nomination just secured the approval of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and is headed to the full Senate for a vote.

“Wheeler’s ex-firm lobbied agency on efforts he oversees,” reads the headline on the Feb. 1 story by reporter Corbin Hiar. The story’s lead sentence lays out the troubles inherited by a government official who once worked as a lobbyist: “A former colleague of acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler repeatedly met with top EPA officials about toxic waste sites and regulations that Wheeler now controls, newly released emails show."

The EPA press office found cause to play media critic: “E&E Publishes Hogwash Misleading Story,” reads the title of a Friday press release. The EPA’s critique complains about two allegedly “misleading” statements in the E&E article, the first having to do with timelines:

Misleading: “Wheeler’s ex-firm lobbied agency on efforts he oversees” and that Acting Administrator Wheeler’s former firm communicated with EPA officials on “two specific (Superfund) sites and one rulemaking — all of which Wheeler hasn’t recused himself from working on.” 

Reality: The communication that E&E News cites occurred in July 2017, nearly four months prior to his nomination to become Deputy Administrator and nearly 10 months prior to his confirmation as Deputy Administrator. E&E News incorrectly implies that because Acting Administrator Wheeler is now at EPA, his former firm’s previous attempts to contact the Agency are retroactively prohibited.

In fact, the E&E article did address the timeline, as follows: “Although Wheeler wasn’t included on the email, before joining EPA he acknowledged in a financial disclosure form that he provided ‘strategic advice and consulting’ to General Mills between 2015 and August 2017.”

The EPA, furthermore, put some media-attack boilerplate in its release: “Clicks are more important than facts for E&E News in their latest ploy by implying guilt by association constitutes a story.”

Cyril T. Zaneski, executive editor of E&E News, found that comment “odd.” It’s not “clickbait,” says Zaneski; it’s “anything but. It’s a paywalled site.” E&E News provides exclusive subscriber access to all content, and some stories are subsequently opened to the general public.

Furthermore: If the EPA found the story sufficiently “misleading” to warrant a flaming press release, surely the agency requested a correction from E&E News? Well, no. “They have not,” says Zaneski.

On the same day, the EPA press office published a press release ripping this article in HuffPost: “Coal Baron Cuts Ties With Lobbying Firm As Ex-Lobbyist Andrew Wheeler Ascends At EPA.” The release called the piece “misleading" and "biased” yet failed to supply convincing material supporting that characterization. What’s more, the EPA didn’t initially cooperate with HuffPost reporter Alexander C. Kaufman: “The EPA initially declined to comment, then on Friday issued a ‘fact check’ press release calling this story ‘biased and misleading,’” his article says.

On Tuesday, the EPA circulated a similar attack on an article by Annie Snider, a reporter for Politico Pro, with the subject line “Politico Continues Misinformation Campaign on PFAS." The pushback concerns Snider’s article about a former Koch Industries official who is “playing a key role as the agency decides how to protect people from the pollution left behind at hundreds of military bases and factories across the country.”

A Politico spokesman tells the Erik Wemple Blog, “Annie has been in touch regularly with EPA throughout her reporting, and we stand by the story.” Also: The spokesman indicates that Snider has apparently been removed from the agency’s press-release distribution list.

The Erik Wemple Blog asked the EPA press office about its latest blasts. An emailed reply came back from John Konkus, deputy associate administrator for public affairs: "The American public expects and deserves a press that provides truthful and honest reporting on important environmental issues, when the press fails to do that, it is our job to correct the record.”

We’ll just call that progress, given: that Jahan Wilcox, who worked EPA press under then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, once told a reporter, “You’re a piece of trash”; that the EPA under Pruitt barred certain reporters from an EPA summit; that the EPA under Pruitt banished an AP reporter from its press-distribution list: “He’s more than welcome to visit our website,” said an EPA official; that Wilcox, under Pruitt, told a New York Times reporter, “If you want to steal work from other outlets and pretend like it’s your own reporting that is your decision”; and that Wilcox, under Pruitt, did this: