Environmental reporter’s tale of EPA censorship

The Obama Administration insists it is more transparent than its predecessors. The President’s people repeat the claim and are quick to dismiss assertions to the contrary.  Reporters—whose business is shining a light on government—see things differently. Their complaints about the Obama Administration’s secrecy is not new, but they were elevated earlier this month in a letter sent to the White House.  A group of 38 journalism and open government organizations accused the Obama Administration of

“politically driven suppression of news and information about federal agencies.”

They asserted that the Administration’s restrictions of information were a

“form of censorship — an attempt to control what the public is allowed to see and hear.”

As far as I can tell, the Administration’s response to the letter: a shrug.

The journalists’ letter was fresh on my mind when I read this morning at the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) “EPA: No comment on fracking air pollution.”  InsideClimate News’ Lisa Song describes the hoops and roadblocks she’s encountered trying to get information from the EPA.

CPI and InsideClimate News have been reporting since February on fracking in the Eagle Ford Shale and its impact on air quality for nearby residents. Among other things, Song and collaborators Jim Morris and David Hasemyer, have been trying to figure out why EPA hasn’t stepped in to force the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to do its job.  For five months they’ve been seeking on-the-record interviews with EPA officials, but no interviews have been granted.  Song explains

Our first attempt at an on-the-record interview was with Ron Curry, the administrator of EPA Region 6, which includes Texas. We discussed our request with David Gray, the region’s director of external and government affairs, by phone. Gray suggested we start with an initial interview on background, which meant we couldn’t quote or identify any EPA officials on the call. He then handed off our request to Cathy Milbourn, a press officer at EPA headquarters.

Milbourn set up an interview, but the only EPA participants were herself and a senior public affairs advisor in the EPA’s Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards in North Carolina. …Neither had the expertise to give us what we really needed: answers to our complex questions about enforcement and regulations.

In early April we asked for an on-the-record interview with the EPA official we believed could best address these questions: Janet McCabe, acting assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. At first, the EPA seemed to be considering our request. Spokeswoman Julia Valentine emailed back, saying she would respond “shortly.”

Song explains that four weeks passed.

After further prompting, we learned that our request had been sent to Milbourn, the spokeswoman we talked with in March.  … To accommodate McCabe’s busy schedule, we listed July 15 as our deadline — six weeks from our first email to Milbourn, and three months after our initial interview request.

The emails continued until Milbourn wrote on July 12, “An interview on this issue isn’t possible.”

My reaction to Lisa Song’s tale is the same one I’ve had when hearing similar experiences from other reporters.  My interest drifts from the substance of reporter’s request, to the “why” about the agency’s secrecy. Is there something scandalous the agency wants to hide? Maybe, but probably not. More likely something mundane, like having to admit that you don’t have a good answer to a questions, or not having the resources to do what’s being suggested, or not wanting to get into a political fight. Just plain old honesty that may make the agency look bad.

 

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