May 29, 2018
Press Blackout Leads to Backlash
It’s no secret that some press agencies have a contentious relationship with the current U.S. presidential administration. Generally, disputes or dustups between the two sides are supported along roughly partisan political lines. It’s rare that voters and consumers react in one voice to an action taken by the administration… But that was the case when it was announced that certain press agencies would not be permitted to attend a recent Environmental Protection Agency meeting.
The “summit” was supposed to focus on water contaminants, but the headlines shifted when representatives from CNN, the Associated Press, Politico, and others were told by security they were not welcome to attend.
People across the political spectrum heard the press was barred from a government meeting and were not having it. In an early response, EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox added fuel to the fire by trying to cite legal precedent for barring the media from government meetings with outside parties:
“The National Leadership Summit on PFAS scheduled is not a federal advisory committee event… The purpose of this event is for EPA’s state, tribal, and federal government partners and national organizations to share a range of individual perspectives on the Agency’s actions to date and path forward on PFOA/PFAS. The Agency looks forward to hearing from all stakeholders on these crucial issues.”
That statement caused a good number of constituents to ask, “Hey, wait a minute, aren’t we stakeholders too?” This narrative went viral on social media, and a lot of phone calls were made to elected officials. Meanwhile, Politico editor Carrie Budoff quipped, “I would much rather be writing about the agency’s efforts to address this health problem than about reporters being excluded.”
That struck a nerve, and Budoff followed with this context: “The summit was focused on an important public health crisis that has affected drinking water supplies across the country, and chemicals that are present in the bloodstreams of nearly all Americans… We believe it is important that the news media have access to the entirety of this discussion to keep the public informed with fact-driven, accountability coverage of this important issue.”
The public latched onto this narrative. After all, what’s more important than clean drinking water? That position put the EPA in a very difficult position. If they held their ground, they might make some of the representatives in the meeting happy, but they ran the risk of enraging an already upset voting public. In the end, officials reversed the earlier media ban:
“EPA is opening the second portion of (the) PFAS Leadership Summit to press. The first portion was available via livestream…”
When all the dust settled, this turned out to be an example of “becoming the story” followed by making it worse and, finally, listening to a very upset focus group. In the end, the EPA tried to make the best of an earlier bad call.