Once or twice a week I attend conference calls with public officials or lobbyists to get a briefing on their latest projects. Sometimes the information is useful and I write it up, others are saved for later and still others provide information that is not really new and is ignored. But at all times, the information on the call is on the record and the person the providing the information, be it a Congressman, lobbyist or corporate communications executive is allowed to be named in the story. Obviously this is important as the attribution gives the reader context for the information. Or at least proves that the reporter didn’t invent the information.
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.
Justifiably, reporters are getting very angry Robert McClure a 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.
Adora — I’m Robert McClure with InvestigateWest in Seattle. We met at a clean-energy event here a few months ago. I also serve as the Society of Environmental Journalists Board of Directors liaison to SEJ’s FOI Task Force. I understand that you are about to start a press conference on coal ash in which you are asking that everyone briefing journalists, except Administrator Jackson, be on background. Coal ash is a subject of great interest to SEJ members and their readers, viewers and listeners.
SEJ’s internal procedures require for me to consult with several others, not all of whom are available on short notice, to produce an official SEJ position. So I cannot object on behalf of SEJ. But I can tell you that I personally object, and that my discussions with the Task Force and SEJ President Christy George would lead me to believe that they, too, will object.
I urge you to allow the lower-ranking EPA officials to be quoted by name. Failing that, please ask Administrator Jackson to answer the questions herself. There is no need for this charade in a truly open and transparent government, which the Obama administration has said is its goal.
McClure was Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), where McClure is a member and sits on the , sent a formal letter of complaint to the EPA which said in part:
“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 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:
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.”
Making maters even worse complained some reporters said, the EPA press spokesman did not even mention the names of two other agency officials taking part in the call until near the end of the teleconference,and only after after a number of journalists protested.
“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.”
According to CJR, 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.
“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.’”
Transparency would be a wonderful thing if the administration backed up its words with deeds. Thankfully in the case of the EPA,the reporters are pushing back hard revealing a public spat you will never see with the mainstream media, at least with this administration.