Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt might just be the most ruthlessly effective member of the Trump administration — much to the ire of environmental activists, who recently launched a #BootPruitt campaign. One of Pruitt’s trademark strategies is trying to tightly control media coverage of himself and his agency, a way to tamp down criticism of his industry-friendly agenda and extreme rollbacks of environmental protections.
Pruitt has lost control of the media narrative in the past week, as numerous outlets have reported on his snowballing ethics scandals. But if he keeps his job — there are reports that President Trump still has his back — you can expect him to double down on his media machinations.
Here are the key ways Pruitt manipulates and hampers the press:
1. Pruitt goes to right-wing news outlets to push his messages out
During his first year as head of the EPA, Pruitt appeared on Fox News, Trump’s favorite network, 16 times — more than twice as often as he appeared on other major cable and broadcast networks combined. Fox hosts and interviewers tend to lob softballs at him and gloss over his numerous controversies and scandals.
Pruitt gives interviews to other conservative outlets, too, from Breitbart News Daily to The Rush Limbaugh Show to the Christian Broadcasting Network. Last month, Pruitt went on conservative talk-radio shows to spread misleading talking points as he attempted to defend his extravagant travel spending.
And when Pruitt announced a plan in March to restrict the kinds of scientific data that can be used in policymaking — a change decried by scientists, environmentalists, and public health advocates — he gave an exclusive interview to conservative news site The Daily Caller about it. The resulting article painted the shift in a positive light, of course.
2. Pruitt gives interviews to generalists instead of environmental reporters
Pruitt does grant some interviews to mainstream news outlets, but when he does it’s often with political reporters or generalists instead of reporters on the environmental beat who would know the right tough questions to ask.
For instance, in February, Pruitt appeared on The New York Times’ podcast The Daily. The interview was largely light and fluffy, letting Pruitt spout his talking points with little pushback, including a false claim that Congress would have to change the law in order for the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases. After the interview, it fell to Times environmental reporter Coral Davenport to point out that the Supreme Court had already granted authority to the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases. Too bad she wasn’t the one who conducted the interview. The following week, when another Times environmental reporter, Lisa Friedman, asked for a comment from Pruitt for a piece on his views on climate science, an EPA spokesperson simply referred her to the interview with The Daily.
The EPA administrator sat for another soft interview with a Washington Post political reporter that was published in the Post’s political newsletter The Daily 202. The resulting piece quoted Pruitt defending his enforcement record — “I don’t hang with polluters; I prosecute them” — and praising Trump for his “tremendous ideas.”
Contrast that with what happened when Pruitt gave a rare interview to two Post reporters, Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin, who’ve been doggedly covering his agency. They produced a substantive article on how Pruitt has been shifting the EPA to serve the interests of regulated companies; quotes from Pruitt in the piece are interspersed with quotes from experts and with reporting on Pruitt’s moves to roll back environmental protections and enforcement.
3. Pruitt’s EPA withholds basic information from the press and the public
Unlike previous EPA administrators, Pruitt has refused to publicly release his full schedule in anything close to real time. Under his leadership, the EPA has blocked reporters from attending events where Pruitt speaks, even threatening to call the police to remove them. Most recently, on April 3, the EPA blocked numerous reporters from attending an event where he announced the loosening of auto fuel economy standards, enabling Pruitt to avoid hard questions.
It’s so hard to get information out of the agency that the Society of Environmental Journalists sent the EPA public affairs office a letter in January asking for such fundamental things as open press briefings, responses to reporters’ inquiries, and distribution of press releases to everyone who requests them.
As New York Times reporter Friedman said in October, “Covering the EPA is like covering the CIA. It is so secretive. It is so difficult even to get basic information.”
It’s no surprise, then, that Freedom of Information Act lawsuits against the agency have soared under Pruitt.
4. Pruitt’s EPA sends reporters articles by climate deniers instead of useful information
Over the last month, the EPA has sent out at least four “press releases” that did nothing more than promote articles or opinion pieces by right-wing figures that painted Pruitt in a positive light, as ThinkProgress reported.
The most eye-popping press release was headlined “The Hill: Scott Pruitt is leading the EPA toward greatness.” It pointed to a fawning opinion piece cowritten by the head of the Heartland Institute, a notorious climate-denial think tank.
But perhaps the most vexing to reporters was a press release that promoted the aforementioned Daily Caller article on Pruitt restricting the EPA’s use of scientific data. The agency sent it out in lieu of an informative press release and otherwise refused to answer reporters’ questions about the action. This prompted the National Association of Science Writers to send a letter of protest to the head of the EPA press office, calling on her to “take steps immediately to prevent this unprofessional and unethical behavior from occurring again.” The Society of Environmental Journalists followed up with a similar letter of its own.
5. Pruitt repeats misleading talking points
Unlike his boss, Pruitt is disciplined and on-message. In interviews, he turns again and again to the same tightly scripted talking points, many of which are misleading.
Like this one: “We’ve seen an 18 percent reduction in our CO2 footprint from 2000 to 2014. We’re at pre-1994 levels,” Pruitt told Fox News Sunday in June, while defending Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement. It’s one of Pruitt’s favorite lines. He’s repeated it ad nauseum during his 13 months at the EPA.
When he spouts this statistic, Pruitt is essentially bragging that the U.S. has already done a lot to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. That might sound good on the surface, but Pruitt’s claim is misleading — he ignores the fact that emissions went down in part because of Obama-era policies that Pruitt and others in the Trump administration are now undoing. It’s also just a really weird thing to boast about if you’re a climate denier like Pruitt.
Does Pruitt actually think it’s a good thing that the U.S. reduced carbon dioxide emissions? Does that mean he acknowledges that CO2 is a dangerous pollutant? Does he then think it would be good for the U.S. to continue reducing CO2 emissions? Is he aware that CO2 emissions are projected to rise this year?
These are follow-up questions that an interviewer who’s knowledgeable about climate change might ask, but so far we haven’t seen any such pushback. No wonder Pruitt keeps repeating the line.
6. Pruitt’s EPA retaliates against journalists
Under Pruitt, the EPA’s press office has taken the unprecedented step of personally attacking reporters whose work the leadership dislikes. In September, the office issued a press release bashing Associated Press reporter Michael Biesecker over a story he cowrote. “Biesecker had the audacity to imply that agencies aren’t being responsive to the devastating effects of Hurricane Harvey,” the release read. “Unfortunately, the Associated Press’ Michael Biesecker has a history of not letting the facts get in the way of his story.” The EPA then dropped Biesecker from its email press list.
The agency’s press office has also attacked New York Times reporter Eric Lipton, who’s done deep-dive investigative reporting into Pruitt’s EPA. In August, the office put out a press release that accused him of reporting “false facts.” In October, Liz Bowman, head of the EPA’s Office of Public Affairs, gave a snarky reply after Lipton requested information on agency actions, accusing Lipton of having a “continued fixation on writing elitist clickbait trying to attack qualified professionals committed to serving their country.”
The bottom line
When Pruitt gets more positive media coverage for himself and the EPA, or at least less negative coverage, it can sway public opinion in favor of his right-wing agenda and make it easier for him to continue eviscerating environmental protections. His successes then help him curry favor with oil companies, the Koch network, and other monied interests that could fund a future Pruitt campaign for senator, governor, or even president. After all, the EPA administrator is notoriously ambitious.
If Pruitt does ascend higher, you can expect to see a lot more anti-regulatory fervor and a lot more media manipulation and maltreatment.
Lisa Hymas is director of the climate and energy program at Media Matters for America. She was previously a senior editor at Grist.