Cabinet & Agencies

Issues ››› Cabinet & Agencies
  • How Reporters And Civil Servants Can Team Up To Thwart Trump’s Anti-Transparency Agenda

    Blog ››› ››› ANDREW SEIFTER

    On January 24, two anonymous sources at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) told Reuters that the Trump administration had instructed EPA officials to remove the data-heavy climate change page from the agency’s website, and that the page could be taken down as soon as the following day. A public backlash quickly ensued, and the Trump administration at least temporarily backed away from its plan to shut down the website on January 25, as E&E News reported.

    Whether the Trump-led EPA will ultimately remove the website remains to be seen, but regardless, the episode represents a victory for open data and a guide for how whistleblowers can work with reporters to push back against Trump administration gag orders that have alarmed science and transparency advocates.

    And judging from their initial response, major media outlets seem to recognize that seeking out whistleblowers is particularly important in the current political landscape.

    On the same day that the EPA employees alerted Reuters of Trump’s plan to shut down the EPA climate website, Associated Press science writer Seth Borenstein reminded government scientists and officials that they can “securely and confidentially” send tips and documents to the AP via its SecureDrop service. The Washington Post also ran through its version of SecureDrop in a January 25 article titled, “Here’s how to leak government documents to The Post.”

    Meanwhile, the staff at InsideClimate News (ICN) provided whistleblowers with a list of do’s and don’ts for revealing internal documents and information to ICN without compromising themselves.

    It is safe to say that there is already widespread concern among civil servants about government transparency under the Trump administration, as a series of rogue climate-related tweets from National Park Service employees clearly demonstrates. But this battle over information is really just beginning, and it’s more important than ever that reporters work with whistleblowers to hold the White House accountable.

  • Eight Things We Learned From Scott Pruitt’s EPA Confirmation Hearing

    Blog ››› ››› ANDREW SEIFTER

    Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, President-elect Trump’s choice to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), took part in a contentious hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on January 18. The hearing largely focused on Pruitt’s deep ties to polluting energy companies and track record of opposing the EPA’s clean air and water safeguards. Here are eight key moments from the hearing that are worthy of media attention.

    1. Pruitt doubled down on climate science denial, despite affirming that climate change is not a “hoax.”

    Coming into the hearing, Pruitt was on the record as a climate science denier who has refused to accept the consensus among climate scientists and the world’s leading scientific institutions that human activities such as burning fossil fuels are the main cause of global warming. Pruitt was given multiple opportunities during the hearing to clarify his views on climate science -- and he responded by doubling down on his climate science denial.

    In his opening remarks, Pruitt stated: “Science tells us that the climate is changing, and that human activity in some manner impacts that change. The ability to measure with precision the degree and extent of that impact, and what to do about it, are subject to continuing debate and dialogue, and well it should be.”

    Later in the hearing, Pruitt admitted that he does not believe climate change is a “hoax,” as Trump has claimed, but that doesn’t mean that he suddenly made an about-face and aligned his view with that of the world’s leading climate scientists. In response to a question from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who cited the 97 percent of climate scientists who say global warming is caused by human activities, Pruitt again asserted that “the ability to measure with precision the degree of human activity’s impact on the climate is subject to more debate on whether the climate is changing or whether human activity contributes to it.”

    Finally, in response to further questioning from Sanders, Pruitt made the astounding proclamation that his personal opinion on the subject is “immaterial” to serving as the EPA administrator.

    2. Pruitt misled about the basis of his opposition to EPA safeguards against dangerous mercury pollution from power plants.

    Mercury is a powerful neurotoxin, and mercury pollution, which largely comes from coal- and oil-fired power plants, is particularly dangerous for children and expecting mothers. In 2011, the Obama administration issued the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards to cut mercury pollution by requiring power plants to install proven and widely available pollution control technology. Pruitt responded by issuing a series of lawsuits to block the EPA’s mercury safeguards, including one lawsuit that is ongoing.

    During the hearing, Pruitt defended his lawsuits against the EPA’s mercury standards, despite acknowledging that mercury should be regulated by the EPA. At one point, following pointed questions by Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), Pruitt claimed that “there was no argument that we made from a state perspective that mercury is not a hazardous pollutant under Section 112 [of the Clean Air Act]. Our argument focused upon the cost-benefit analysis that the EPA failed to do.” In fact, Pruitt’s 2012 lawsuit against the EPA’s mercury standards did cite Section 112 and asserted that “the record does not support EPA’s findings that mercury … pose[s] public health hazards,” as Environmental Defense Fund’s Jeremy Symons pointed out.

    Moreover, Pruitt’s ongoing lawsuit against the EPA is based on a “rigged” cost-benefit analysis that “considers all of [the regulations’] costs, but only some of their benefits,” as the Union of Concerned Scientists has noted. The lawsuit claims that that EPA’s calculation of the financial benefits of the safeguards cannot include indirect benefits, such as reduced smog and sulfur dioxide, that would also be reduced by the pollution control technology used to cut mercury pollution -- even though the EPA accounted for indirect costs, such as higher electricity prices (in addition to direct costs like the expense of installing pollution controls).

    3. Pruitt refused to rule out blocking California’s clean car rules and other state-level pollution limits.

    During the hearing, Pruitt did nothing to assure progressive states that the Trump administration will not pre-emptively stop them from taking action to fight climate change and reduce pollution.

    First, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) noted that “the EPA has historically recognized California’s authority to issue new motor vehicle pollution standards that go above and beyond federal standards,” and she asked Pruitt whether he would commit to “recognizing California’s authority to issue its own new motor vehicle air pollution standards.” Pruitt replied that he would “review” the issue but refused to commit to upholding California’s right to set stronger pollution standards.

    Later, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) returned to this topic, noting that Pruitt wouldn’t commit to supporting the right of California, Massachusetts, and other states “to do what is best for global warming in their own states,” adding, “When you say ‘review,’ I hear undo.” Markey concluded that Pruitt has a “double standard” in which he says states like Oklahoma that agree with “the oil and gas industry perspective” have “a right to do what they want to do,” while states like California and Massachusetts may not have the right to “increase their protection for the environment” and reduce carbon pollution.

    4. Pruitt confirmed that he equates the interests of the oil industry with those of the people of Oklahoma.

    In 2014, The New York Times reported that Pruitt sent a letter to the EPA on state government stationery that accused federal regulators of overestimating industry air pollution, and that the letter was secretly almost entirely written by lawyers for Devon Energy, one of the biggest oil and gas companies in Oklahoma. At the time, Pruitt responded to the controversy by declaring, “That’s actually called representative government in my view of the world.” During the hearing, Pruitt again confirmed that he equates representing the people of Oklahoma with representing the oil industry.

    Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) mentioned the letter, asking Pruitt if he would acknowledge that he “presented a private oil company’s position, rather than a position developed by the people of Oklahoma.” Pruitt replied that he “disagree[d]” with Merkley’s conclusion and asserted that the letter was “representing the interests of the state of Oklahoma” because it “was representing the interest of an industry in the state of Oklahoma, not a company.” Pruitt cited the fact that the oil industry is “a very important industry to our state” as justification for equating the industry’s position with that of the state.

    5. Pruitt claimed he didn’t solicit fossil fuel contributions for the Republican Attorneys General Association.

    Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) drilled down on Pruitt’s extensive financial ties to fossil fuel companies, including Koch Industries, ExxonMobil, Murray Energy, and Devon Energy. At one point, Whitehouse asked Pruitt if he had ever solicited funds from those companies for the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA), to which Pruitt answered, “I have not asked them for money on behalf of RAGA.”

    While it’s possible Pruitt’s claim is true, a document uncovered by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) shows that RAGA gave call sheets to Republican attorneys general to solicit funds from corporations, as CMD’s Nick Surgey noted. So the exchange is an important area for reporter follow-up, as the Natural Resources Defense Council’s John Walke explained.

    6. Pruitt refused to recuse himself from his ongoing litigation against the EPA, setting up an apparent conflict of interest.

    Sen. Markey asked Pruitt if he would recuse himself as EPA administrator from the lawsuits that he has brought against the EPA to overturn the agency’s clean air and water safeguards, adding that if Pruitt refused, “people are going to think that it’s not just the fox guarding the henhouse, it’s the fox destroying the henhouse.” Pruitt answered that he would recuse himself only “as directed by EPA ethics counsel.” Markey noted that Pruitt’s continued involvement in those lawsuits would create a “fundamental conflict of interest.”

    Later in the hearing, Sen. Harris pressed Pruitt on whether he has “discretion” to recuse himself from the cases, independent of what the ethics counsel says. After initially dodging the question, Pruitt acknowledged, “Clearly there’s a discretion to recuse.”

    7. Pruitt inflated his environmental credentials by misrepresenting two poultry industry cases.

    In addition to criticizing Pruitt’s efforts to overturn clean air and water protections, opponents of Pruitt’s nomination have pointed out the lack of evidence that he has taken any proactive steps to protect Oklahoma’s environment during his time as attorney general. For example, Eric Schaeffer of the Environmental Integrity Project noted in a New York Times op-ed, “During his six-year tenure, [Pruitt’s] office issued more than 700 news releases announcing enforcement actions, speeches and public appearances, and challenges to federal regulations. My organization could not find any describing actions by Mr. Pruitt to enforce environmental laws or penalize polluters.” 

    When the question of Pruitt’s environmental credentials arose during the hearing, Pruitt grossly exaggerated his record of holding polluters accountable by misrepresenting two poultry industry cases.

    First, noted anti-environment Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) invited Pruitt to explain “why you have become such a hero of the [Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission] people.” Pruitt replied by touting an agreement he reached with the state of Arkansas related to chicken manure pollution, declaring, “I actually reached out to my Democratic colleague Dustin McDaniel, the attorney general of the state of Arkansas, and we were able to negotiate an agreement that had phosphorous levels set at 0.037, scientifically driven and enforced on both sides of the border for the first time in history.”   

    But Pruitt’s agreement with Arkansas “didn’t take any steps to reduce pollution, but actually only proposes another unnecessary study and attempts to suspend compliance” for another three years of pollution, as Sen. Corey Booker (D-NJ) explained during the hearing. Indeed, as the Environmental Working Group noted, “Instead of fighting to enforce his state’s own water quality standards for phosphorus, [Pruitt] stalled. Pruitt’s 2013 amendment to the earlier agreement gave poultry polluters three more years to meet the goals established in 2003, plus an opening to weaken the standard by commissioning further study of the problem.”

    Later, Sen. Harris asked Pruitt if he could “name a few instances in which you have filed a lawsuit in your independent capacity as attorney general against a corporate entity for violating state or federal pollution laws.” Pruitt responded by citing a lawsuit against the Mahard Egg Farm, which he described as involving “the clean-up of a large hen operation that affected water quality.”

    However, parties on both sides of the lawsuit told ThinkProgress that the Mahard case “began years before he took office.” ThinkProgress further noted that while “Pruitt did technically file the case on behalf of Oklahoma, it was both filed and settled on the same day” after years of extensive negotiations that did not involve Pruitt, and it quoted Mahard’s lawyer as saying, “Nothing against AG Pruitt, but it was really a DOJ, EPA-driven process.”

    8. Pruitt passed the buck on addressing Oklahoma’s fracking-induced earthquakes.

    Citing Oklahoma’s “record-breaking number of earthquakes” that scientists attribute to the process of fracking for oil and gas, Sen. Sanders asked Pruitt if he could cite “any opinion that you wrote, any enforcement actions you took against the companies that were injecting waste-fracking water.” Pruitt replied that he was “very concerned” about the issue, but that “the corporation commission in Oklahoma is vested with the jurisdiction and they’ve actually acted on that.”

    However, although the Oklahoma Corporation Commission is responsible for regulating wastewater injection, experts told The Atlantic that “there were a number of legal questions on which Pruitt could have engaged” (emphasis original). Those include issuing a legal opinion on whether the commission could stop wastewater from coming from other states or join Pawnee residents in a class-action lawsuit against oil companies that they say are liable for the earthquakes. The Atlantic added that “while it is true that Pruitt does not regulate oil and gas extraction in Oklahoma, other attorneys general have involved themselves in difficult fracking cases.”

    Sanders concluded: “Your state is having a record-breaking number of earthquakes. You’ve acknowledged that you are concerned. If that’s the type of EPA administrator you will be, you’re not going to get my vote.”

    Kevin Kalhoefer contributed to this report.

  • Donald Trump's Hotel Bans Press For The Inauguration, Raising First Amendment Concerns

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    President-elect Donald Trump’s Washington, D.C., hotel is banning reporters from its premises during inauguration week, according to Politico’s Daniel Lippman. The move underscores the incoming president’s personal hostility toward the press and raises First Amendment issues, as the hotel space is leased by the president-elect from the federal government.

    Throughout the 2016 campaign and into the transition, Trump has made his hostility to the press a centerpiece of his political strategy. Trump declared war on the press, which included mocking specific reporters as “neurotic,” “dumb,” and a “waste of time.” He retreated to softball interviews during the final weeks of the campaign with largely friendly interviewers, Fox News, and fringe media. Since the election, Trump has lashed out at The New York Times several times for its “BAD coverage.” Trump’s own incoming press secretary also admitted that he threatened to remove a journalist who was trying to ask the president-elect a question, and prominent Trump supporter and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich applauded the threat, calling it “a signal, frankly, to all the other reporters that there are going to be real limits” for proper behavior.

    Moreover, as Politico notes, Trump’s D.C. hotel is under “a 60-year lease with the federal General Services Administration, which owns the property.” Given that arrangement, a blanket ban on the press raises First Amendment concerns. Trump’s D.C. hotel has also been an ethical sticking point during Trump’s transition, as some in Congress have raised concerns about a conflict of interest between the president-elect’s business interests and his administration’s influence over the General Services Administration. From Politico’s January 18 article:

    The Trump International Hotel in Washington is banning the media from its premises during inauguration week.

    “Media is not allowed in this week in respect of the privacy of our guests,” Patricia Tang, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing wrote in an email.

    A POLITICO reporter attempted to enter the hotel Wednesday morning for a previously scheduled breakfast meeting but was stopped at the door. He then identified himself as a journalist and was told “media” was not allowed.

    President-elect Donald Trump and his three adult children own the project after winning a 2012 bid to redevelop D.C.’s Old Post Office. They have a 60-year lease with the federal General Services Administration, which owns the property.

  • Morning Joe Still Loves Donald Trump

    Blog ››› ››› NICK FERNANDEZ & LEANNE NARAMORE

    MSNBC host Joe Scarborough and his Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski have been criticized repeatedly for their “softball” coverage of President-elect Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign and into the transition, and they’ve lashed out in response. And yet, since the beginning of 2017, their Trump reporting has been nothing less than fawning.

    After a New York Times article noted that Scarborough and Brzezinski were present at a New Year’s Eve party at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort and a reporter suggested Scarborough may have “partied” with the president-elect, Scarborough resorted to smearing the reporter instead of setting the record straight. The MSNBC host “blew up,” “accused [the reporter] of lying” and “pushing fake news,” and “sought to undermine [his] credibility." This “over-the-top response,” according to The Washington Post’s Callum Borchers, was in line with Scarborough’s sensitivity “to any suggestion that he is too cozy with” Trump.

    And yet, while Scarborough has insisted that he and Brzezinski have “treated” Trump “tough” throughout the campaign, he has chosen to spend the first two weeks of 2017 bragging about how he and Brzezinski have “known and have been friends with Donald Trump for a decade,” praising him as “the master of many things,” and attacking journalists who apparently “aren’t doing their jobs” while covering Trump. Watch: 

  • Trump's Press Conference Shows Media Must Scrutinize HHS Nominee Tom Price

    Blog ››› ››› CAT DUFFY

    President-elect Donald Trump dodged a question during his January 11 press conference about how he plans to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and whether or not the replacement plan would insure as many people, but he did indicate the attack on health care reform will be led by his nominee to run the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Rep. Tom Price (R-GA). In light of Trump’s delegation to Price, the media must do a better job of scrutinizing the devastating consequences of Price’s proposals than they have in the past

    A Media Matters study of pre-election coverage found that prime-time cable and broadcast news failed to ask substantive questions about what Trump’s replacement for the ACA would look like. This cannot be the standard going forward.

    On January 11, Trump held his first press conference in nearly six months and took questions on a variety of issues. A reporter asked Trump a two-part question about the future of Obamacare, first, asking for specifics on the timeline for the repeal and replacement of the ACA, and second, questioning whether or not Trump’s replacement would “guarantee coverage” for those who gained insurance under health care reform. During his three-minute answer, Trump provided no specifics on what policies the replacement package might include and dodged the question of whether or not it would maintain current levels of insurance coverage, instead insisting:

    DONALD TRUMP: We're going to be submitting as soon as our secretary is approved, almost simultaneously, shortly thereafter, a plan. It‘ll be repeal and replace. It will be essentially simultaneously.

    Trump’s answer, while not containing any policy specifics, did reveal two key things about the upcoming ACA fight.

    First, Trump’s reluctance to answer whether or not his replacement will cover as many individuals as the ACA does is a trend, not an anomaly. As Vox senior editor Sarah Kliff and other reporters have noted, Republicans continue to dodge and obfuscate when pressed for details on how their ACA replacement will maintain the coverage expansions achieved since 2010. According to a December 15 article in The New York Times, a Republican congressional aide promised that the GOP plans would guarantee “universal access” of health care and coverage but provided no details about how this would improve on existing law.

    Second, Trump’s claim that his administration would submit a plan “as soon as [his] secretary is approved,” seems to indicate that his replacement package would closely resemble the legislation authored by his HHS nominee, Tom Price. Price’s bill, the “Empowering Patients First Act,” is the most developed health care replacement of all the Republican plans. (After dozens of symbolic votes to repeal the ACA and six years of campaigning against the law, Price is the only congressional Republican to actually put a replacement plan together in legislative language.)

    Price’s plan would gut access to health insurance in the U.S. and eliminate the essential health benefits package -- allowing insurers to determine whether or not things like maternity care should be covered. This dismantling of health care reform would benefit younger, healthier individuals while sending costs skyrocketing for older or sicker individuals. The plan would reinstate high-risk pools, endangering health care access for individuals with pre-existing conditions an ACA provision conservatives claim to want to preserve. Price’s bill would also rescind the ACA’s Medicaid expansion entirely and convert the program to a block grant, blocking access to care for many low-income communities. Additionally, as the HHS secretary, Price could unilaterally reverse the contraception mandate, a benefit he has dismissed because he claims he has yet to meet “one woman” who had trouble accessing birth control before the ACA. If enacted, Price’s “Empowering Patients First Act” would roll back the gains the Affordable Care Act has achieved, leaving millions more Americans uninsured -- as would most of the variants of “Trumpcare.”

    Given that the incoming president suggested during his press conference that he will leave stewardship of repealing and replacing the ACA to his HHS secretary, journalists need to actively scrutinize Price’s record and his proposals for the future of American health care.

    During the January 11 press conference, reporters asked just one question about the ACA, with zero attempts at a follow up, despite the fact that Trump functionally avoided the original question. The initial reporting on Price’s nomination whitewashed his history of opposition to reproductive health care, and largely failed to contextualize the potential impact of his proposed policies on the American health care system. Since Trump hinted at the major role Price might play in the upcoming ACA fight, it is incumbent on reporters to step up beyond their pre-election coverage and take the current job of vetting Price seriously, making clear the disastrous effects his proposals could have on the American health care system.

  • Ethics Clearances For Trump's Nominees Won't Be Completed Before Hearings, Most Sunday Shows Don't Care

    ››› ››› DINA RADTKE

    Most Sunday news shows gave little attention to reports detailing the Office of Government Ethics’ (OGE) concerns that it will not be able to complete background checks on all of President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet nominees in time for their confirmation hearings. Despite the confirmation hearings beginning this week, CBS’ Face the Nation was the only show to devote significant time to the story.  

  • How To Overwhelm The Media

    Stacking A Press Conference and Six Confirmation Hearings On One Day, Trump And McConnell Try To Avoid Scrutiny

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    President-elect Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have scheduled several Senate confirmation hearings for Trump’s cabinet picks -- as well as Trump’s first (and likely only) press conference of the transition -- on a single day next week. The strategy seems designed to ensure that the media is unable to devote sufficient scrutiny to each story and to reduce the possibility of an educated public responding.

    Trump announced yesterday that he will hold a “general news conference” on January 11. It will be the first Trump press conference since July 27, a stretch of 168 days. By contrast, President Barack Obama fielded questions from the White House press corps 18 times as president-elect; President George W. Bush did so on 11 occasions.

    Trump previously promised to hold a December 15 press conference to address the conflicts of interest his business empire creates for his presidency, but he canceled it. Those conflicts -- including the possibility that Trump will be in violation of both the Constitution and a contract with the federal government immediately upon taking office -- should be a top priority for journalists on January 11. But by refusing to give a press conference for so long, while simultaneously scaling back on media appearances, Trump has created such a backlog of potential issues that it will be impossible for reporters to give all of them the time and coverage they deserve.

    Meanwhile, McConnell has done his best to fracture journalist attention by ensuring that six different confirmation hearings are scheduled for the same day. Wednesday will see hearings for Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), the nominee for attorney general; ExxonMobil chairman Rex Tillerson, the nominee for secretary of state; billionaire conservative activist Betsy DeVos, for secretary of education; Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS), for CIA director; Gen. John Kelly, for secretary of homeland security; and Elaine Chao, for secretary of transportation.

    Several of these nominations are extremely controversial. The American people deserve to know more about Tillerson’s ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin, learn why white nationalists are so excited about Sessions’ nomination, hear what Pompeo thinks about Trump’s reported plan to gut the CIA after the agency produced information about Russia’s influence on the 2016 election that he didn’t want to hear, and determine whether DeVos would use her post to destroy public education.

    But with all the hearings stacked on the same day, on top of Trump’s press conference, it’s impossible for the media to provide the information people need. And that’s the point -- it appears to be a deliberate effort to manipulate both the press and the public.

    There are only so many column inches on Page 1. There are only so many segment blocks in a cable news show. The evening broadcast news programs -- watched by millions but with extremely little time for hard news -- will have to juggle a multitude of stories.

    TV newscasts in particular will be put in an impossible situation. They can try to drill down and give in-depth coverage to the stories they consider the most newsworthy and important and let the rest escape scrutiny altogether. Or they can try to cover them all, but provide only glancing attention to each. Either way, Trump and McConnell will have dramatically reduced the agenda-setting power of the press.

  • Headlines Tout Trump’s False Claim That Intel Briefing “Was Delayed,” Omitting Intelligence Community’s Pushback

    ››› ››› NICK FERNANDEZ

    Multiple outlets pushed President-elect Donald Trump’s false claim on Tuesday, January 3, that an intelligence briefing had been “delayed until Friday” because officials “needed” extra time “to build a case” regarding Russian meddling in the 2016 election. While some outlets noted in their headlines that intelligence officials have said that there was never a briefing scheduled for January 3, many others simply framed their headlines around Trump’s false claim that the briefing had been “delayed.”

  • Media Are Watching The Trump Transition From The Sidelines

    Blog ››› ››› TYLER CHERRY

    The Fourth Estate is an institution whose power and influence, while not officially recognized, provide a critical role in the checks and balances of political power. With Washington, D.C., entirely under Republican control, the media stands as the best available check against a White House that has signaled its resolve to gaslight its way through the next four years. But if political journalists’ post-election inertia is a harbinger of what role the press will play during a Trump administration, then the Fourth Estate is seemingly shaping up to roll over for the Trump White House.

    In the weeks since Election Day, political journalism has largely fallen short both in style and substance. Journalists watching from the sidelines have been reduced to parroting Trump’s publicly available tweets -- allowing him to drive the news cycle -- and have bungled one of the most important roles the press plays during a transition period: the vetting of President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet nominations and appointments.

    Possibly the most glaring example of the press’s passive Trump coverage has been its coverage of Trump’s tweets. The new era of political journalism is seemingly being played out in the Twittersphere. Faced with a president-elect who is adept at using his Twitter feed to drive news coverage and who has refused to hold a post-election press conference and repeatedly ditched his traveling press pool, reporters have been suckered into relying on his vague, false, or dangerous tweets, frequently reporting his 140-character riffs without context or pushback. The political press is trading in its historical role as antagonistic investigators for the retweet button, letting Trump himself dictate what news is covered (and what isn’t) and how, without any follow-up questions. Trump has essentially reduced political reporters on Twitter to play-by-play commentators who narrate his every tweet.

    When Trump falsely tweeted that “he won the popular vote over Clinton ‘if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,'" reporters "raced to their computers to file stories on Trump's latest outlandish claim, and many of the headlines and tweets that resulted neglected to make clear that he was peddling an erroneous conspiracy theory,” CNN reported

    When Trump vaguely tweeted that he would be leaving his businesses to avoid conflicts of interest, but offered no details of the arrangements, media headlines simply echoed Trump’s tweets, allowing him to drive news coverage with little pushback and no immediate follow-up. Trump ultimately canceled the press conference where he said he would announce these details -- but got the positive news cycle nonetheless. And in fact, American journalists have had to rely on foreign outlets for many of the stories that have emerged since the election about Trump potentially using his new role to further his business interests.

    Likewise, precisely because Trump has starved out the press, his false or misleading tweets about saving jobs at the Indiana-based Carrier facility, keeping a Ford plant from moving to Mexico, threatening Boeing for its contract to update Air Force One, and taking credit for a $2 billion investment from SoftBank have been mindlessly amplified by the press, driving uncritical news coverage on Trump’s terms.

    So far, media outlets have lazily elevated Trump’s Twitter claims with minimal pushback, and often reporters who fact-check a false Trump tweet do so hours, if not days, after Trump’s lie has already spread. Journalists retreating to Twitter for political journalism owe the public aggressive fact-checking not only in accompanying tweets, but also in the print and on-air reports that follow. Anything less, as has happened thus far, amounts to the media failing to do their job.

    Reporting on Trump’s cabinet picks and other top-level appointees has not fared any better. A pattern has emerged in which Trump fills his cabinet with appointees whose personal and professional ideologies are largely antithetical to the agency they could soon be running -- a climate-denier at the Environmental Protection Agency, an anti-worker CEO heading the Labor Department, an Energy Department secretary who has previously suggested shutting down that department, a Putin pal at the helm of the State Department. Tough public vetting is perhaps the most important job the press has during a presidential transition, and yet journalists have stumbled when reporting on Trump’s troubling picks. 

    After Trump announced ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as his pick for secretary of state, morning news shows and newspapers noted that prominent figures including James Baker III, Robert M. Gates, and Condoleezza Rice had expressed support for Tillerson, with some mentioning that such support adds credibility to the pick. But those outlets failed to disclose that all three figures have considerable financial ties through their businesses to Tillerson, ExxonMobil, and the oil company’s Russian business ventures.

    Likewise, several media outlets reporting on Trump’s selection of Tillerson have uncritically described Tillerson as accepting of climate change and supportive of a carbon tax. But these reports ignored scientifically inaccurate claims Tillerson has made about climate change, Exxon’s continued financial support of groups that deny climate science, inconsistencies by both Tillerson and Exxon on whether they truly support a carbon tax, and fierce opposition to Tillerson’s nomination from leading environmental groups -- not to mention the fact that Exxon is under investigation in several states for possibly violating state laws by deceiving shareholders and the public about climate change.

    The media’s lackluster vetting efforts didn’t stop with Tillerson. CNN’s Alisyn Camerota whitewashed Trump’s choice for EPA administrator, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, by falsely claiming he “hasn’t denied global warming.” And some of the nation’s most prominent newspapers glossed over the discredited economic arguments peddled by Andy Puzder, Trump’s Labor Department pick, to justify opposition to raising the minimum wage, expanding overtime protections, and extending the scope of the Affordable Care Act.

    The public deserves a tough and thorough vetting of Trump’s cabinet picks, especially given that the Republican-held Senate will presumably confirm most, if not all, of his picks with minimal scrutiny. But if the media is idle during this critical time, the question becomes: At what point will they come off the sidelines?

    The media establishment is perhaps one of the last standing checks on the incoming Trump administration, and that role should be taken seriously. After all, if history is any lesson, an indolent press corps that allows a White House to run roughshod over reporters presents a very real danger to the American public at large.

    As detailed by Media Matters’ Eric Boehlert in Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush, “the mainstream media completely lost their bearings during the Bush years and abdicated their Fourth Estate responsibility to report without fear or favor and to ask uncomfortable questions to people in power." Motivated by promises of access and by fear of being painted as “liberal,” political journalists, argued Boehlert, rolled over for the Bush White House time and again, helping to spin, justify, and normalize the administration’s actions regarding the run-up to the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, the “Swift Boat” campaign against John Kerry, and Bush’s military record.

    Working for CNN at the time, now-Fox News host Howard Kurtz wrote in March 2013 that “the media's greatest failure in modern times” was that they “aided and abetted the Bush administration's march to war on what turned out to be faulty premises. All too often, skepticism was checked at the door, and the shaky claims of top officials and unnamed sources were trumpeted as fact.”

    The parallels between the Bush White House’ treatment of the press and the signals of how Trump will (continue to) treat the media are striking. In a PBS interview, New Yorker columnist Ken Auletta noted that “the Bush administration [did] not accept that the press has a legitimate public interest role." He said administration officials wanted “to figure out a way to deliver their message” without engaging the press and they worked to justify “having so few press conferences.” He added that because Bush was “angry at the press,” the White House decided “to aggressively go after reporters.”

    Accordingly, Auletta concedes, “the press went through a period of time where their coverage was too soft on Bush and [had] not enough skepticism.”

    Trump seems similarly poised to continue icing out the press, in turn creating dangerous barriers to solid, aggressive reporting and, alternatively, incentives for favorable, pulled-punches coverage. He has yet to hold a post-election press conference, has spent the last month attacking the media, and is toying with the idea of eliminating White House press briefings. These assaults on the media, combined with an ongoing noneffort by the media to cover Trump vigorously, portend great trouble for the media's ability to serve as an institutional check on a Trump White House.

  • Twofer: Editorial Proves Wall Street Journal Is In Denial About Fracking AND Climate Change

    Blog ››› ››› ANDREW SEIFTER

    The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) final report on the drinking water impacts of hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking) has provoked howls from The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, which blasted EPA analysts as “science deniers” pushing “fake news.” But the editorial’s deeply flawed reasoning is the latest evidence that the Journal is in denial when it comes to scientific findings that conflict with its pro-fossil fuel agenda, whether they relate to fracking or climate change.

    In the December 18 editorial, the Journal misrepresented the changes the EPA made to its draft version of the report, which was released in June 2015:

    After being barraged by plaintiff attorneys and Hollywood celebrities, the EPA in its final report substituted its determination of no “widespread, systemic impact” with the hypothetical that fracking “can impact drinking water resources under some circumstances” and that “impacts can range in frequency and severity” depending on the circumstances.

    [...]

    The EPA now asserts that “significant data gaps and uncertainties” prevent it from “calculating or estimating the national frequency of impacts.”

    In reality, all of the findings the Journal pointed to in the final version of the report were also present in the draft version. The draft version stated that “there are above and below ground mechanisms by which hydraulic fracturing activities have the potential to impact drinking water resources,” identified “factors affecting the frequency or severity” of those impacts, and acknowledged that "data limitations" prevent the agency from having "any certainty" of how often fracking has actually impacted drinking water.

    The one change the Journal correctly identified was that in the final version of the report, the EPA rescinded its draft conclusion that there was no evidence fracking has “led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources.” But contrary to the Journal’s claim that the EPA disavowed that finding because the agency had been “barraged by plaintiff attorneys and Hollywood celebrities,” it was actually changed after the EPA’s scientific advisory board, which evaluates the agency’s “use of science,” pointed out that the draft conclusion wasn’t supported elsewhere in the report:

    The [Science Advisory Board] has concerns regarding the clarity and adequacy of support for several major findings presented within the draft Assessment Report that seek to draw national-level conclusions regarding the impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources.

    [...]

    Of particular concern in this regard is the high level conclusion statement on page ES-6 that “We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.” The SAB finds that the EPA did not support quantitatively its conclusion about lack of evidence for widespread, systemic impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources, and did not clearly describe the system(s) of interest (e.g., groundwater, surface water), the scale of impacts (i.e., local or regional), nor the definitions of “systemic” and “widespread.” The SAB observes that the statement has been interpreted by readers and members of the public in many different ways. The SAB concludes that if the EPA retains this conclusion, the EPA should provide quantitative analysis that supports its conclusion that hydraulic fracturing has not led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources.

    EPA Deputy Administrator Tom Burke recently confirmed that the EPA chose to remove the “no widespread, systematic impacts” language after receiving feedback from the science advisory board, and “Burke said the EPA opted to remove the phrase because it ‘could not be quantitatively supported’ and it ‘showed that sentence did not clearly communicate the findings of the report,’" as American Public Media reported.

    The Journal further claimed that “the EPA’s faulty construction of a monitoring well caused contamination” in Pavillion, WY, citing that situation as an example of how “any technology has the potential to inflict some damage” if mismanaged. However, that claim – which has been pushed by a fossil fuel industry front group – has been debunked by experts at Stanford University, as the Casper Star-Tribune reported:

    Industry critics once argued samples from the EPA’s groundwater monitoring wells should be discounted because of faulty construction. But the compounds found in those monitoring wells are more commonly associated with fracking—not the cements used to encase a well, [Stanford researchers Dominic DiGiulio and Robert Jackson] say.

    The Journal concluded its editorial by asserting that it is “ironic” that liberals who “denounce anyone who cites uncertainties about carbon’s climate impact as ‘deniers’” are now “justifying their opposition to fracking based on scientific uncertainties.” As quite possibly the most frequent purveyor of climate science misinformation in the entire media landscape, the Journal has rightly received substantial criticism for its climate denial. The difference, of course, is that there is near-universal scientific consensus that carbon pollution is warming the planet, whereas both the draft and final versions of the EPA report show that no such consensus yet exists about the impacts fracking has had on drinking water resources.

    Such false equivalency only goes to show that the Journal editorial board is in denial about both climate change and fracking.

  • Trump Reportedly Considering Non-Economist CNBC Pundit To Head Council Of Economic Advisors

    Media Explain Trump’s Decision: “Kudlow Isn’t An Economist, But He Plays One On TV”

    Blog ››› ››› CRAIG HARRINGTON

    President-elect Donald Trump is reportedly considering CNBC financial pundit and conservative political commentator Larry Kudlow to replace economist Jason Furman as the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors (CEA). Kudlow built his career in conservative media as an advocate of failed trickle-down economic policies, and he is notorious for making faulty predictions and sharing misleading analyses. He may soon be rewarded for those efforts with one of the most prestigious economic jobs in the United States.

    According to a December 15 report from The Detroit News, discredited right-wing economic pundit and Trump adviser Stephen Moore told the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce that the president-elect planned to name Kudlow as the chairman of the CEA before the end of the week. Moore later told the paper that he “misspoke” and that Kudlow is “on the short list” for a CEA appointment, but it is not “a done deal.”

    As The Washington Post pointed out, Kudlow’s rumored consideration for a key White House appointment is “another unorthodox pick” for the incoming administration because Kudlow “lacks a graduate or undergraduate degree in economics and has not written scholarly papers on the subject.” As has been the case with more than a dozen Trump appointees and rumored selections, Kudlow’s primary qualification for serving as the president’s chief economist is that “he plays one on TV,” as David Dayen explained in The Nation:

    The overriding quality necessary for landing a position in Donald Trump’s administration is that Trump has to know you from TV. Most of his cabinet selections have logged plenty of time in cable-news green rooms.

    [...]

    So in that context, floating Larry Kudlow to run the Council of Economic Advisers is perfectly apt. Kudlow isn’t an economist, but he plays one on TV. And more important, he confidently (and usually wrongly) favors what has to be seen as the dominant economic gospel of the Trump administration: tax cuts.

    Over the course of his long career as a right-wing media personality, Kudlow has become synonymous with the failed trickle-down economic agenda favored by conservative politicians. He has also established a track record of being “usually wrong and frequently absurd” with faulty predictions and analysis that could undermine the economic security of hardworking Americans. As outlined by The Huffington Post, Kudlow’s “spectacular record of wrongness” may be what makes him a “perfect” adviser for Trump.

    Kudlow Totally Missed The Financial Crisis, Refused To Acknowledge Recession

    According to the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), an award-winning nonprofit research organization that is perhaps best-known for determining a chronology of American business cycles and recessions, the Great Recession began in December 2007. Yet Kudlow published blogs on December 5, 6, and 7 of that year titled “The Recession Debate Is Over,” “There Ain’t No Recession,” and “Bush Boom Continues,” in the conservative National Review. By July 2008, as the unemployment rate continued to balloon in the seventh month of recession, Kudlow was still arguing in National Review that there was no recession or housing crisis. In May 2016, having finally come to terms with reality of the housing crash, Kudlow co-authored an op-ed in the right-wing Washington Times blaming Bill and Hillary Clinton because of a legislative initiative in the 1990s that made lines of credit more accessible to low-income families.

    Kudlow Is A Notorious Poor-Shamer

    During a March 2016 appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Kudlow participated in a panel discussion where he lectured single parents in low-income families about poverty despite professing to have “virtually no knowledge in this field.” He bragged that he is "ignorant" of many issues facing such families, but said he felt he could speak to them because "there's enough documentation for ignorant people" to talk effectively about the supposed cause-effect relationship between poverty and single parenting. In November 2014, Kudlow spoke on the same subject at the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation. Kudlow also used his National Review blog to promote a column by right-winger Cal Thomas that praised his misleading remarks. Kudlow’s position that marriage is a silver bullet solution to poverty is common among right-wing media personalities and conservative politicians, but the idea has been completely discredited by experts.

    Kudlow Thought War In The Middle East Might Boost The Stock Market

    In a June 2002 column, Kudlow lamented that “the economy is doing fine but the stock market is slumping” and argued that “decisive shock therapy to revive the American spirit would surely come with a U.S. invasion of Iraq.” Kudlow apparently hoped newfound wartime confidence and a surge of military spending would inflate the economy, but as economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) concluded in a May 2007 report on the economic impact of the Iraq War, “Military spending drains resources from the productive economy.” Kudlow’s views Middle Eastern warfare and the stock market were not isolated in Iraq, in an August 2006 column, he claimed that “global investors are cheering Israel’s advance” in a war against Lebanese fighters that left thousands of soldiers and civilians killed or injured.

    Kudlow Is A Climate Science Denier

    Media Matters conducted a study of CNBC’s coverage of climate change in 2013, finding that several CNBC figures, including Kudlow, denied the science of man-made climate change altogether. Kudlow attempted to further muddy the waters on climate science in an October 2014 blog by hyping a deeply flawed op-ed published by the conservative Wall Street Journal that misleadingly claimed “Climate Science Is Not Settled.” Kudlow’s continued aversion to the scientific consensus on climate change presents problems for U.S. economic stability, as dozens of business and industry leaders have already begun taking climatic shifts into account in their long-term planning.

    Kudlow Actually Disagrees With Trump On Trade

    One of the few economic policies at the core of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was his opposition to major international trade deals. He spent months attacking his opponents for their support of free trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and promised to immediately withdraw from the deal after taking office. Kudlow has been a major TPP supporter and wrote in a May 1, 2015, column for National Review that “Obama deserves credit” for trying to get the deal signed and ratified. In a March 11 column for CNBC, in which he responded to severe criticism from fellow conservatives, Kudlow stated, “I continue to oppose Donald Trump’s trade policies.”