the observatory

EPA Officials Demand Anonymity

“Hush-hush” conference calls anger reporters
May 7, 2010

Twice in the last three months, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has ordered reporters not to name the agency officials participating in media conference calls, frustrating a number of the journalists involved.

The latest incident happened Tuesday, when the EPA arranged a teleconference in order to discuss a long-awaited plan to regulate coal ash, a byproduct of burning coal for electricity that contains toxic chemicals like arsenic, lead, and mercury. The agency announced the call mere hours before it took place, however. Moreover, the advisory it sent to reporters noted that:

Administrator [Lisa] Jackson may be quoted by name, on the record, for the entire press call. In addition to the administrator, EPA officials will be on hand to answer press questions on background only. If you use or publish answers from these officials, they may be quoted as senior EPA officials.

Robert McClure, the chief environmental correspondent at Investigate West, sent an e-mail to EPA press secretary Adora Andy shortly before the call, registering his objection and urging the agency to allow the other officials to be quoted by name. Later, the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), where McClure is a member and sits on the First Amendment Task Force, sent a formal letter of complaint to the EPA, a copy of which was obtained by CJR.

“It goes against best practices in transparency for public officials to demand anonymity,” wrote SEJ president Christy George, who did not take part in the teleconference on Tuesday. “Public officials work for the public, and should be on the record. If someone does not wish to be on the record, that person should not speak at a press conference.”

The letter did credit the EPA for explaining the ground rules in its media advisory. In early February, the agency insisted on the same anonymity policy at the beginning of another teleconference (that time about its 2011 budget) without giving reporters any prior warning. In both cases, however, reporters complained that the rules inhibited their ability to report the story. In a blog post after the call on Tuesday, James Bruggers, a reporter at the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky, wrote:

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My turn to ask a question came at the end, and I used it to object, saying my news organization would not allow me to use anonymous sources that way, and I asked why EPA had decided to run the press conference like that. Andy [the EPA press secretary] told me she’d get back to me “off-line.”

I still would welcome an answer.

Anonymity wasn’t the only problem, however. Transparency was also an issue, reporters said, because Andy did not reveal the names of the two other agency officials taking part in the call until near the end of the teleconference, after a number of journalists had complained.

“I sent her an e-mail during the call that said, ‘Hey, wait a second, it’s one thing for you to insist that we not identify these people by name. But it’s another thing for me to not even know who is talking to me,’” said Ken Ward, Jr., a reporter at The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. “It could’ve been the darn janitor for all I knew.”

Even when Andy identified the two officials, a number of reporters said that she rattled off their names quickly and unintelligibly, without adding their titles or areas of expertise (not to mention the fact that, by that point, it was impossible for reporters to remember who had said what). As it turns out, however, both were senior officials and, in what some journalists called adding insult to injury, the EPA later issued a press release about the coal-ash regulation plan that quoted one, Mathy Stanislaus, by name. (Likewise, after the February teleconference, the agency posted an audio recording of the call online, which identified those involved.)

“We don’t use a lot of anonymous source stuff here at the Gazette, and these are high-level people,” Ward said. “It isn’t like this is some inspector out in some field office who has never talked to a reporter before. These are sophisticated professionals who have been in and out of government for a long time. They are completely capable of answering on-the-record questions from reporters, and that’s the way it ought to work.”

When it doesn’t work like that, all kinds of problems can occur, including the loss of accountability. For instance, the Courier-Journal’s Bruggers said that during Tuesday’s call, one of the EPA officials said something about the use of coal ash as construction fill—a common practice in Kentucky—which seemed to contradict something he later read in literature that the agency provided. Because he was working on deadline and had no idea who had made the statement, he ended up paying little attention to the agency’s “beneficial use” provisions in his article about the ash regulation plan, a topic he otherwise might have explored in greater detail.

“What happens is some nameless, faceless person gives you an answer that’s wrong or confusing, and you have no way as a reporter to go back and say to the agency, ‘Well, this person said this,’ because you don’t know who said it,” the Gazette’s Ward explained. “And if you don’t know who said it, the agency can say, ‘We don’t know what you’re talking about.’”

In a blog post at Investigate West, McClure argued that, “This kind of horse hockey has been par for the course at some agencies in D.C. for some time, such as the State Department and the White House. But EPA, from the time it was founded up in the early ’70s until the administration of George W. Bush, remained quite open. Which is as it should be. We’re talking about the air we all breathe and the water we all drink, after all.”

Ward agreed. “When I have tried to have detailed discussions with them about their policies on mountaintop removal, the EPA has consistently offered interviews with people on background only, and I have declined,” he said. “Outside of the Beltway, media organizations are not used to relying on this on-background, no-names stuff. My paper does not look kindly on that kind of stuff and we’re very careful to not use it very often.”

Asked about reporters’ complaints about the anonymity policy on the teleconferences, Andy, the EPA’s press secretary, offered a fairly evasive and anodyne response.

“From listing the public schedules of senior agency officials, to fully utilizing social media throughout the agency, to publishing reams of environmental data-sets, this EPA is working hard to open its doors to the American people,” she said.

A follow-up request to respond to the specific complaints about the teleconferences was not returned. Nonetheless, Ward and other journalists do, in fact, credit the EPA for having made limited progress on openness and transparency, such as providing more lines for reporters to join its teleconferences, making those calls longer, and posting more information to the Web. Ward is skeptical about some of the Web presence, however.

“I think a lot of what you see out of EPA on transparency is, ‘Oh, well, we’re on Twitter, or Facebook, or we’re having Web chats,’ and all of this kind of nonsense,” he said. “And part of the goal, I think, is the same goal the Obama campaign had, which was to bypass traditional media and take their quote-unquote message directly to the public, and that certainly inhibits the ability of journalists to do their job, which is to help the public sort out what’s true and not true about what’s in that message.”

The Society of Environmental Journalists has had multiple conversations with the EPA about improving access and transparency, but many journalists remain incredibly frustrated, said Joe Davis, the director of the society’s Freedom of Information Project and editor of its Watchdog TipSheet. Moreover, the problems with the EPA go beyond anonymous sources on teleconferences.

“Minders and permissions—those are the issues,” Davis said. “If you have to get press office permission to talk to a staffer or a scientist, we don’t like that. And if you have to have a press office person present on the phone or in person during an interview, we don’t like that either. I think there’s a lot of unanimity about that. And let’s face it. It’s not the just the EPA. It’s a multi-agency issue. And it’s White House driven.”

During the Bush administration, the EPA and other agencies consistently received low marks on the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Report Card on Federal Agency Media Policies. Many reporters hoped that President Obama’s pledge to create “an unprecedented level of openness in Government” would change that. Since Obama took office, however, the Society of Environmental Journalists has issued more than half a dozen statements urging the administration to improve transparency in many different corners of government, from the EPA to the Department of Energy.

“The Obama administration wants to be able to say, ‘Look how transparent we are. We’re better than the Bush administration was,’ and, I mean, that was a pretty low bar for transparency,” Ward said. “I think a lot of journalists would like to see the bar set a little higher than ‘We’re-better-than-the-Bush-administration-was.’”

The EPA’s decision to impose strict anonymity guidelines during recent teleconferences is clearly not a step in that direction, however. Until it reverses course, it is incumbent upon journalists to push back against such frivolous restrictions.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.