As The New York Times readied a story on the Environmental Protection Agency for last weekend's front page, an agency spokeswoman ignored the reporter's questions and accused him of writing "elitist clickbait."
The jab, in an email that the newspaper quoted in its story, was just the latest in a series of attempts by the agency's press office to thwart reporters or attack their work—a strategy it appears to have adopted from Donald Trump's White House.
The approach is a "sharp departure" from past practice, said Dan Fiorino, who worked for the agency for more than 30 years and is now director of the Center for Environmental Policy at American University.
"It's trying to manipulate journalists and favor those who say the right things," Fiorino said. "Now, what we're seeing from EPA is pretty much what we're seeing from the administration. The press people are there to sell a very particular point of view. They'll limit access."
Regardless of whether the president was a Republican or a Democrat, or whether his regulatory agenda was friendly to environmentalists or to business interests, the agency's press office generally tried to appear neutral.
When the EPA was still relatively young, its administrator—William Ruckelshaus, who was on a mission to rescue the agency from its own missteps—issued what's become known as the "fishbowl memo."
The 1983 Reagan-era memo said the agency, long in the crosshairs of conservatives and regulated industries, would operate with as much transparency as it could to steer clear of controversy: "EPA will not accord privileged status to any special interest group, nor will it accept any recommendation without careful examination."
At the frontline of that effort was the agency's press office. But today, former employees say, that press office handles an agency that's less like a fishbowl than a dark-windowed SUV.
Attempts to Stem Information Flow
The agency's brass-knuckle style comes at a time when it is under intense scrutiny for changing environmental and climate regulations in ways that favor coal and other fossil fuels. Among other things, it is swamped with demands for access to internal communications and other records.
From its first days in office, the Trump administration has tried to stem the flow of information from the agency to the public. The blockades began right away in January, with reports that EPA employees were being told to stop talking to the press. Reporters have been barred from events, and the agency has attacked journalists through press releases, while at the same time using press releases to promote its administrator.
"If you care at all about how the public views your work, you would try to communicate with the reporters, who are largely in charge of disseminating the information," said Monica Lee, a former spokesperson during the Obama administration. "Instead, this press office relies on [EPA Administrator Scott] Pruitt's comments, made to a very specific audience or to very friendly reporters."
This press office's efforts accompany a broader attempt at tamping down the work of climate scientists at the agency and stripping mentions of their work and of climate change from EPA websites. Earlier this year, the agency dismissed members of its Board of Science Counselors, and last week Pruitt said he would issue a directive to bar scientists who received EPA grants from serving on EPA advisory boards because he believed the grants represent conflicts of interest.
Personal Attacks on Reporters
The latest in a string of controversies came this weekend when The Times ran a front-page story chronicling efforts by a top-level EPA appointee to downplay the risks of toxic chemicals. Before taking the job in May, the appointee, Nancy Beck, had been an executive for five years at the American Chemistry Council, which provides policy, communications and research for major chemical companies, including Arkema, DuPont and Monsanto.
Times reporter Eric Lipton asked the EPA and Beck for responses to a list of questions. EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman—who also worked at the American Chemistry Council, as director of issue and advocacy communications, before joining Pruitt's EPA—replied in an email: "No matter how much information we give you, you would never write a fair piece. The only thing inappropriate and biased is your continued fixation on writing elitist clickbait trying to attack qualified professionals committed to serving their country."
The response has shocked former press officers.
"Blatantly attacking reporters and giving responses that are incredibly critical personally—it may help your base and it may fire them up, but it in no way serves the broader American people," said Liz Purchia, who ran the press office under Obama.
A month earlier, the agency tore into an Associated Press reporter, Michael Biesecker, for a story he and a colleague wrote about Superfund sites being under water in Texas after Hurricane Harvey. Biesecker, the agency said in an official press release, "has a history of not letting the facts get in the way of his story." The story, written by reporters who visited the sites after the hurricane, was correct, and the EPA later acknowledged damage there.
The press office under Obama hewed to standards outlined in its scientific integrity policy, which refers to the "fishbowl memo," which has essentially guided conduct since its release 34 years ago.
"That is the ethos," Fiorini said.
What's Required by Law?
By law, the EPA is required to have an Office of Public Affairs, which is "responsible for providing newsworthy information to the various communications media." Beyond that, an administration can release information how it wants, although it has to respond to requests for information by Congress or under the Freedom of Information Act.
"I'm not aware of any legal issues," Fiorino said, referring to the current press office. "But certainly, ethically and in terms of what you'd expect in a democracy, there are some real problems. This is a real sharp departure from what we've seen in the past."
The Obama administration's EPA press office got a rap on the knuckles from the Government Accountability Office in 2015 for a social media campaign to drum up support for a Clean Water Act rule. It was accused of violating propaganda and anti-lobbying rules.
"Historically, the press office at EPA, the public information people, get the information out there, and to some degree you want to put the administration, the people making decisions, in a good light," Fiorino said. "This administration is trying to create reality in a way that fits its view. That's really scary."
The EPA did not respond to questions for this story.