When the U.S. Government Attacks Reporters

Longtime N.C. reporter angers EPA with accurate story
U.S. Army photo by 1st Lt. Zachary West
Texas Army National Guard soldiers in Houston, Monday, August 28.

Michael Biesecker, an N.C. State alumnus and former reporter at the Winston-Salem Journal and the News & Observer, went to work as a member of the Associated Press’ investigative team in 2011. Based in Washington, D.C., Biesecker covers environmental enforcement and policy and, according to his LinkedIn bio, “the human impacts of climate change.”

It’s apparent by now that those impacts include unusually severe storms, and his reporting on the aftereffects of Hurricane Harvey over the weekend led Biesecker into an unwanted faceoff with the federal government. A couple of weeks back, our latest #discussCLT event covered media, primarily how media outlets can survive as businesses in a digital world. We didn’t discuss the dangers of a government and portion of the public that think of media as an enemy. Maybe we should have.

On Friday, the AP published an exclusive story, co-bylined by Biesecker and fellow AP reporter Jason Dearen, that detailed the flooding by Hurricane (and then Tropical Storm) Harvey of at least seven Houston-area Superfund sites, areas that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has deemed polluted enough with hazardous materials to warrant long-term cleanup plans. The AP knew this because Dearen had gone to each site and found no indication that the EPA had. After the AP put this fact on the wire, the EPA responded with a statement that confirmed that Harvey had flooded 13 of Texas’ 41 Superfund sites, and that the EPA had not yet visited them to assess the damage and environmental risk.

“AP journalists used a boat to document the condition of one flooded Houston-area Superfund site, but accessed others with a vehicle or on foot,” Biesecker and Dearen reported in an updated story Saturday. “The EPA did not respond to questions about why its personnel had not yet been able to do so.

‘Teams are in place to investigate possible damage to these sites as soon flood waters recede, and personnel are able to safely access the sites,’ the EPA statement said.”

At this point, you might expect a federal agency to let it go and concentrate on doing its job, or to explain further its decision not to send teams in while areas were still flooded, or just stand by its statement. Until this year, any of those would have been perfectly understandable responses to critical reporting just after a natural disaster.

Instead, the EPA—publicly, formally, and anonymously—went after Michael Biesecker.

“Despite reporting from the comfort of Washington, Biesecker had the audacity to imply that agencies aren’t being responsive to the devastating effects of Hurricane Harvey,” read an actual news release from the agency on Saturday, attributed to no one specific. “Not only is this inaccurate, but it creates panic and politicizes the hard work of first responders who are actually in the affected area.”

The release went on to criticize Biesecker for leaving out “critical information” that was irrelevant, such as EPA working with state agencies to “secure” the sites before the storm hit—the AP never said it didn’t—and that the EPA had a “team of experts … on the ground responding to Harvey,” although the release does not detail just what they were doing if they weren’t monitoring the Superfund sites.

The release keeps going, though, perhaps tipping off the real reason for this extraordinary attack on an individual by an agency of the U.S. government. “Unfortunately, the Associated Press’ Michael Biesecker has a history of not letting the facts get in the way of his story,” the EPA release reads. “Earlier this summer, he made-up a meeting that Administrator (Scott) Pruitt had, and then deliberately discarded information that refuted his inaccurate story—ultimately prompting a nationwide correction. Additionally, the Oklahoman took him to task for sensationalized reporting.” (This was about a scheduled meeting between Pruitt and Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris that the EPA had listed on Pruitt’s daily schedule in March but later cancelled. The AP published a corrected version.) Pruitt is a former legislator and attorney general in Oklahoma, where he proved a reliable ally of fossil-fuel companies and dedicated opponent of environmental regulations—facts that Biesecker duly reported when Pruitt was sworn in.

This is probably a good time to reiterate that, until Donald Trump became President, the idea of a federal agency personally attacking an individual reporter by name rather than the institution he or she represented was considered absurd, beyond unprofessional, not to mention a potential danger to the person in question. Until Trump, this type of thing was considered the low-rent M.O. of Internet trolls and doxxers concerned mainly with harassment of their perceived antagonists.

You can draw your own conclusions from there, aided by a few other tip-offs: the EPA’s non-mention of Dearen’s name, despite his primary place in the byline; the use of the phrase “from the comfort of Washington” when it was obvious that Dearen was reporting from on the ground in Texas; the repeated invocation of “the Associated Press’ Michael Biesecker,” in those words, suggesting an attempt at search engine manipulation; and that the EPA release links to two news stories: the corrected AP story about the Pruitt-Liveris “meeting” and Breitbart’s efforts to cast the AP correction as “a CNN-level scandal.”

I emailed Biesecker late Monday to request an interview. He referred me to an AP spokeswoman who declined the request and sent the organization’s formal statement on the matter, attributed to Executive Editor Sally Buzbee:

“AP’s exclusive story was the result of on-the-ground reporting at Superfund sites in and around Houston, as well as AP’s strong knowledge of these sites and EPA practices. We object to the EPA’s attempts to discredit that reporting by suggesting it was completed solely from ‘the comfort of Washington’ and stand by the work of both journalists who jointly reported and wrote the story.”

The cloud the EPA’s reaction kicked up was big and thick enough to obscure a fundamental fact: The AP was right. The story was accurate. EPA hadn’t physically been to the Superfund sites. The AP had. The agency couldn’t explain why the AP had gotten there by boat, vehicle, and on foot and the EPA hadn’t. The EPA’s public statement was designed to obscure the accuracy of the AP’s reporting, not counter its inaccuracy. This is the state of our government now in relation to a free and unfettered press. People who value either or both have reason for alarm, and they need to start paying attention while we still have them.


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