Amy Oliver Cooke, Energy, Environment, National

Media overreacts and mischaracterizes normal EPA transition

Last fall, the media reached a new low. According to a Gallup poll, fewer than one-third of Americans expressed confidence in the fourth estate’s ability “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly,” the lowest since Gallup began asking in 1972.

There is no reason to believe confidence has improved since last fall considering how the media covered candidate Donald Trump, who defied activist reporters and media outlets that blatantly worked against him. Now that we have President Trump, some agenda-driven journalists are still doing it.6332701_G

One glaring example is the media’s hyper-reaction to the normal procedure of transferring control of EPA external communications from one administration to the next.

Headlines of “gag orders” and “blackouts” were based on a “memo” with no discernable author that was leaked by an anonymous source and caused a “false firestorm.” Sympathetic reporters followed up with other anonymous staffers and each other for confirmation.

The reports caused this reaction from a Colorado reporter: “News this week that President Donald Trump ordered what amounted to a temporary media blackout of the EPA nearly made me blackout.” That’s unfortunate since it was nothing more than some media and EPA staffers hyperventilating about the normal transfer of power.

At least some got it right. Coral Davenport of the New York Times reported that “such orders were not much different from those delivered by the Obama administration as it shifted policies from the departing White House of George W. Bush. They [senior EPA employees] called reactions to the agency memos overblown. “

A U.S. News and World Report opinion column from Dena Battle said, “The problem is that the gag-order story – like a lot of news stories these days – is really a mischaracterization.”

Also, the head of EPA communications under the Obama administration was a political appointee who, along with other political appointees, resigned effective January 20. With no one minding the shop, it’s completely normal for the beachhead team and its skeleton crew to assume control of all external communications.

So chill oicon_2016_report_commut, media. Your overreaction reveals that your worldview is closer to radical environmental activist Bill McKibben than the average American—and says more about you then it does about the president and his incoming administration.

But there is something different about this transition, and the media isn’t putting it together.

This is the first transition in the age of social media saturation. This transition also includes threats to the new administration from some staffers in the EPA, an agency with a recent history of illegal use of its social media assets and collusion with groups that are hostile to President Trump.

During the Obama administration, the EPA developed significant social media profiles, online tools, and digital assets, including 34 Facebook pages, 37 Twitter accounts, nine blogs, three discussion forums, 55 online widgets, one YouTube channel, a website, and accounts on Pinterest, Instagram, Flickr, Storify, and Medium.

Last week, my Independence Institute colleague Michael Sandoval posted about staffers who admitted they would thwart what they believe are attacks on the agency’s mission and how some others plan to “fight actions they deem ill-advised or illegal by quietly providing information of what is happening inside their agencies to advocacy groups and the media.”

The day after I was named to the EPA transition team, Bloomberg News reported, “The incoming Trump administration could trigger a renewed and intensified culture of leaks at the Environmental Protection Agency.” According to an EPA source, ‘Staffers overwhelming opposed Trump.”

In addition, under the Obama administration, the EPA colluded with far left environmental groups that opposed candidate Trump, and now, President Trump. And their meetings were often away from government property to evade transparency requirements, as the Washington Free Beacon reported in August 2015.

Remember, just over a year ago, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) ruled that the EPA “engaged in ‘covert propaganda’ and violated federal law when it blitzed social media” to lobby for support of the controversial Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS), as the New York Times reported.

The beachhead team has no way of knowing if anonymous staffers who have threatened to undermine the new administration, colluded with groups opposed to President Trump, or used social media illegally still have access to the online arsenal. Considering all the possibilities, taking control of external communications is smart policy, not a gag order.

If the media is concerned about access to EPA staff and social media then it should talk with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) about how long he and fellow Senate Democrats plan to delay the confirmation of EPA administrator nominee Scott Pruitt. In what the Washington Post calls “an unprecedented break with Senate tradition,” Democrats have indicated they could delay until March. It’s unlikely that there will be a fully staffed communications office until Pruitt is confirmed.

There are plenty of issues to report on regarding President Trump and his new administration, but a so-called “gag order” at the EPA isn’t one of them.

Amy Oliver Cooke is the Executive Vice President and Energy Policy Center Director for the Independence, a free market think tank in Denver. She was also a member of the EPA Transition Team.


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