That battle of EPA vs AP isn't going away

Last week we looked briefly at one of the Hurricane Harvey stories which landed with a bit of a thud. It was some coverage from Associated Press reporter Michael Biesecker which made certain claims about the supposed lack of preparation on the part of the EPA as they dealt with flooding at some toxic Supersites in Texas. The AP later updated their coverage with information the EPA provided, but there was clearly an issue with Biesecker.

The Hill took note of that on Thursday, seeming to take the AP’s side to a certain extent, but also pointing out more of the history of disputed coverage by the reporter, specifically when writing about the EPA and Scott Pruitt. (This isn’t unusual since Biesecker covers environmental issues so you’d expect him to be digging into such stories.)

The Environmental Protection Agency is all over Michael Biesecker, a reporter for the Associated Press. His reading habits, for instance. “We are able to see who opens our emails,” says an EPA official, referring to press-release blasts sent out by the agency. “Michael very rarely opens a positive story about [EPA Administrator] Scott Pruitt. He only opens stories where he tries to create problems.”

In addition to the most recent Harvey story, The Hill reminds us of another story from the same reporter earlier in the year. In that one, Biesecker claimed that Pruitt had, “met privately with the chief executive of Dow Chemical shortly before reversing his agency’s push to ban a widely used pesticide after health studies showed it can harm children’s brains, according to records obtained by The Associated Press.” It was another dire sounding headline, but as the linked article confirms, there was a significant problem with it. That meeting never happened. Once again the AP published a correction, but that leads us to examine whether or not there’s been a pattern developing here. They included some other incidents between the reporter and the EPA Director dating back to his time serving as Oklahoma attorney general which might make you wonder.

While not along the same lines as a directly contradicted fact, it’s interesting that the AP just ran yet another story by the same writer about similar toxic sites in Florida. In fact, it sounds remarkably similar to the Harvey story (and references it) but they go to two curious sources for their information. One is Betsy Southerland, who recently “quit” the agency in a huff with plenty of attacks on the Trump administration (though she actually retired and is collecting a very nice pension). The other is Stephen Sweeney, who they present as a subject matter expert and a former employee in the EPA’s Office of Policy. He does indeed seem to be another “former employee” there, but looking at his Linkedin page and this information from the Federal Data Center, it appears that he was a paid intern with less than one year’s experience who held the title of, Administration and Office Support Student Trainee.

Doesn’t mean that the study information will prove to be off base, but it struck me as odd. I sent a request to the AP editors responsible for the story but didn’t get an answer in time for publication.

With multiple incidents like this, it’s natural to ask how the AP generally handles such issues. Without too much digging you’ll find a similar error which was made back in 2013 by one of their veteran reporters, Bob Lewis. He wound up filing a story about prominent Democrat (and Clinton insider) Terry McAuliffe in which he accused him of lying to federal officials looking into some death benefits scam. It turned out to be an egregious error where McAuliffe wasn’t involved and the AP issued a retraction inside of two hours. But the damage had been done and Lewis was unceremoniously fired. (Per Politico)

Some found the punishment to be a bit harsh, but even the Columbia Journalism Review concurred that the AP was right to fire Lewis. Frankly, even I thought that was a bit heavy handed. But if that’s the standard then that’s the standard.

And yet here we are in 2017 and several such articles requiring significant corrections have come and gone with nothing more than corrections being published. It’s tough to ignore the obvious question here, specifically to ask whether the fact that Bob Lewis botched a story on a prominent Democrat and the incidents with Biesecker involved Scott Pruitt was a factor. This obviously isn’t a war between the EPA and the entire organization of the Associated Press, but when it comes to this one reporter and the subject of his investigative journalism, is there a double standard in effect?