JAWS Statement on Press Suppression by the EPA

May 24, 2018 | By JAWS Board of Directors

Recent actions by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have called into question that body’s understanding of, and dedication to, the equal and unbiased access of the press. The Journalism and Women Symposium joins many other press organizations in condemning what is effectively the suppression of public access.

On May 22, reporters representing CNN, Associated Press, and E&E News (a trade publication specializing in energy and environment news) arrived at EPA offices in New York to report on a scheduled summit on water contamination.

The members of these news outlets were turned away at security. When an AP reporter asked to speak with the public affairs officer to clarify the access policy, she was forcibly removed from the building.

This event was not closed to the press. Other news outlets approved by the EPA were permitted to attend the summit. Photos of the meeting show there was available seating in the room, with other reporters present, contrary to EPA’s claims.

The EPA subsequently issued an apology to the Associated Press, but CNN reported on May 23 their reporters were still barred from attending the second day of the summit. These actions by the EPA follow reports that the agency, in cooperation with the White House, blocked the publication of a study that revealed widespread water contamination.

This week’s summit was called to address the study, but it still has not been published in its entirety.

The EPA’s apology does not change the undisputed fact that credentialed reporters were repeatedly barred from attending a public meeting when EPA Director Scott Pruitt was present. Does this reflect a pattern of the similar repressive behavior carried out by the Trump Administration?

The Trump Administration has previously blocked specific outlets from press briefings while simultaneously showing favoritism to others. And recently, in a tweet earlier this month, President Trump even suggested government revocation of press credentials and recklessly equated negative coverage with false reporting.

President Trump’s repeated accusations of “fake news” originated in his run for office. Veteran reporter Lesley Stahl recently stated that in a November 2016 interview, then President-elect Trump admitted his attacks were calculated to discredit any negative reporting.

The government is entrusted with the public will and public funds. With this immense power comes an equally immense responsibility to be answerable to the public. The principles of open information and ready access are critical in a democracy – a democracy without transparency is a democracy in name alone.

The free press is the strongest instrument of information and accountability available to a democratic society. This is why the nation’s founders saw fit to enshrine protection of the press, alone among all professions, in the Constitution. Attempts by any administration, or its delegated actors, to restrict or “cherry-pick” access should be met with the deepest skepticism.

The ejection of the AP reporter this week stands out in its physicality, but even this visceral example does not stand alone under this administration. Last year, a reporter with CQ Roll Call reported he was pinned against a wall and then ejected from an FCC press conference. In light of this history, Tuesday’s actions by the EPA cannot be viewed in isolation.

This is a practice that deserves the strictest scrutiny and must not be tolerated from any administration at any time.

The public cannot be expected to cast informed votes nor effectively advocate for their own interests without complete, unbiased knowledge of what their elected officials – and the agencies tasked with enacting public policy – are doing.

In response to this pattern of press suppression, the National Press Club has called for a summit between press leaders and policymakers. In a statement, NPC President Barbara Cochran said, “We can think of no better place to convene and work on ground rules that will enable all of us to do a better job for the public we all serve.”

The Journalism and Women Symposium calls upon the administration to accept this good faith overture by the Press Club to meet and openly discuss the roles and responsibilities of all actors in the public media sphere. If this administration wishes to serve the public, it is not too late to engage in this dialogue and broaden its understanding of the rights and responsibilities of the press to inform the public.

There is no room in an established democracy for misunderstanding or miseducation to excuse the failures of the government to ensure public access and the freedom of information.