The Inquirer Takes on the EPA: How Did They Get That Story?

InqEPAIn December 2008, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a four-day series documenting the ills of the Environmental Protection Agency. Lance Duroni spoke to the Inquirer team about why and how they gathered and packaged the series.

THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER series “Smoke and Mirrors: The Subversion of the EPA” was an ambitious piece of investigative journalism in an age when the future of investigative reporting is very much in question due to cascading financial difficulties at newspapers across the country.  The four stories appeared on consecutive days in December 2008, and tried to establish a defining narrative for a trend with individual facets that had been documented elsewhere, but had not been looked at in the broad view, with separate clues and observations tied together into a comprehensive evaluation.  What resulted was a damning repudiation of Bush administration environmental policy that left little doubt about something many observers had suspected for years: The EPA under the Bush administration was compromising its mandate to protect the environment and human health based on an economic ideology that always put industry first.

Each of the four stories covered a discrete angle concerning the insidious drift away from the agency’s principles.  The first, titled “An Eroding Mission at the EPA,” focused on the EPA’s head administrator, Stephen L. Johnson.  It detailed harsh criticisms from EPA staffers, scientists, and government officials who mostly agreed that Johnson allowed the Bush administration to guide regulatory policy at the EPA toward a more industry-friendly approach.

The second article, titled “EPA’s court follies sow doubt, delay” detailed the alarming number of instances in which EPA regulations were thrown out in federal court because the rules were changed, at the Bush administration’s behest, and no longer accomplished what the laws required them to.  This article stressed the decisions and reflections of conservative, Republican-appointed judges in order to dispel any concerns that criticism of the EPA was driven by partisan politics or the embellished claims of environmental advocates.

Next came “Green Club an EPA charade,” a story that delved into an EPA program called Performance Track.  This supposed “Green Club” was filled with businesses that had bad environmental records or individual “green” operations within companies that were known to flout environmental regulations.  The evidence seemed to point to a program that amounted to little more than a taxpayer sponsored public relations campaign for both the EPA and the companies involved.

The final article, titled “Politics choke clean-air efforts,” centered on how the EPA prioritized the political agenda of the Bush administration over the findings of independent scientists.

The series was later assembled on with an accompanying multimedia package.  This package included video of an exclusive interview with Stephen L. Johnson, a timeline detailing suspicious EPA activity from 2005-2008, maps and diagrams related to coal-burning in the U.S., and other supplementary materials.

This exposé took considerable time, effort and initiative to transition from an entry on an editor’s wish list into a meticulously documented report in print.

Investigative reporting is expensive and the environment is not atop the public’s list of priorities—both factors that work against stories like this in an economically constrained media environment.  Interviews with the journalists responsible for this package reveal the nuts and bolts methods that make investigative journalism work.  The analysis also highlighted some of the professional and ethical dilemmas involved with investigative reporting, as well as a general sense of the economic factors reducing its prevalence in newspapers throughout the country.

Vernon Loeb only returned to the Inquirer in 2007 to become managing editor, but an expansive look at the EPA under Bush had been on his agenda for some time.  Previously, he had been the California investigations editor for the L.A. Times and had discussed the idea of a “systematic look at the EPA” with the environmental editor there.  But the idea never got off the ground, according to Loeb, because the investigative team that would be working on it was based in Washington, while the editors who conceived it were in Los Angeles, presenting numerous logistical difficulties.

At the Inquirer, a lucky coincidence brought the EPA story back onto Loeb’s agenda in early 2008.  John Shiffman, a veteran investigative reporter, had recently relocated to Washington, D.C. after his wife got a job there, and the Inquirer decided to keep him on staff rather than lose a talented reporter.  Loeb saw Shiffman’s new location as an opportunity to revisit the story that he was unable to bring to fruition at the L.A. Times.

“Here’s a guy who had been covering the federal courts here, so he had federal sources and was also living in Washington.  And he also really had the chops to take on a story of this magnitude,” Loeb said.

Loeb approached Shiffman about deconstructing what had been going on at the EPA because “it was pretty clear that the Bush years had been ones where the EPA was systematically weakened at the behest of industry.”

His experience as the Pentagon and national security correspondent for the Washington Post also informed Loeb’s decision to resurrect the EPA story.  He knew that most Washington correspondents were focused largely on issues of national security, especially the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; this concentration still existed almost seven years after September 11th and criticism of the Bush administration was almost exclusively centered on these concerns.  To Loeb, this presented an opportunity to have an exclusive series of stories that went beneath the surface-level, fragmented discussions of EPA malfeasance that appeared in other publications.

John Sullivan, an Inquirer staff writer who came onboard shortly after Loeb and Shiffman hatched the idea, talked about several of the reasons why investigative reports like this never see the light of day, and why “Smoke and Mirrors” was an especially hard sell.

“This is a big concept.  I think if you go to an environmental reporter and say ‘What about taking a very broad, in-depth look at the [EPA],’ they would say ‘Geez, everybody knows this stuff.  It’s been reported to death.’  And it has.  So what about this story is different?”  Sullivan said.

What is different about this story, according to Sullivan, is the selection of storylines that bring into focus the bigger picture, the exhaustive 22,000 words of evidence and testimony that elaborate on what others had only dealt with in passing.  But the nature of this story does not mesh well with most reporters’ ambitions.  Sullivan pointed out that journalists tend to prefer stories that are wholly unique, breaking news that they alone discover rather than an exhaustive investigation of something that has been touched on before.

Conventional news values also work against a story like this.  Sullivan noted that the EPA exposé was not about an earth shattering event or immediate crisis.  “This isn’t the kind of story that bleeds.  It creeps.”

In most investigative reports, sensitive information comes to the fore or accusations are leveled against authority, putting some sources in a compromised position.  This is especially true when dealing with government sources and matters that affect the lives of millions, like environmental regulation.  This often leads to the granting of anonymity to some sources.  The oversight involved in granting anonymity has been a hot topic in media circles recently.

But Loeb said that no oversight was necessary in this case.  He said that in his experience the decision of whether to let a source remain anonymous was left to the reporter with no editorial interference.  Also, his trust in Shiffman eliminated any need for excessive oversight.  He did, however, offer a hypothetical exception to this guideline in which a well-known figure requests anonymity on a matter of grave importance, and this person’s on-the-record statements are so crucial to the story that it might not float without them.  In this situation consulting an editor for approval would be prudent.  But nine times out of ten, according to Loeb, the reporter makes the call.

Loeb’s view of the duties of the editor in granting anonymity differ significantly from the policy put in place at the New York Times in 2005 following the recommendations of a committee formed after the Jayson Blair debacle.  The ombudsman for the Times, Byron Calame, wrote in 2005 that the paper had adjusted its policy so that at least one editor would be informed of the true identity of any anonymous source.  The new policy also mandated that the readers be notified of why the paper decided the circumstances warranted anonymity—a slight change from the previous standard where the readers were told only why the source requested that his identity be concealed.

Loeb’s unequivocal description of the standard, along with his extensive experience in many of the nation’s top newsrooms, might cast some doubt on the purported policy at the Times.  The public relations inspired promises of the ombudsman may not exactly be carried out as advertised in the newsroom itself.
The landing of an exclusive interview with EPA chief Stephen L. Johnson was a coup for the EPA investigation.  Sullivan said this was achieved through simple persistence and experience, commenting that Shiffman had a knack for getting people to talk to him and pretty much “badgered” Johnson into granting the interview.

There was also an intriguing internal debate that went on during the many months that “Smoke and Mirrors” was being crafted with regards to Johnson: How much attention should be paid to a man that was, by many accounts, just doing the Bush administration’s bidding?

“People thought of [Johnson] as a cog in the administrative wheel; he wasn’t the bold thinker that was making these decisions, it was the White House,” Sullivan said.  “Therefore, this presents a dilemma.  If the guy is really making the decisions… then he’s worth a profile.  But in Johnson’s case, he was kind of a toady.  Do you profile a toady? I mean does he really merit this much space?”
The decision was made, according to Sullivan, to keep the focus on Johnson because of the principle involved.  Johnson was a lifetime bureaucrat who may have been appointed by the Bush administration, but he was bound first and foremost to the EPA’s mission—to protect the environment and safeguard human health, goals that Johnson had ostensibly been aspiring to for almost 30 years.

The Bush administration could not have pushed their agenda without Johnson’s complicity; it was also within Johnson’s power to resist executive pressure, but he declined again and again, most notably when the administration demanded the revision of an important agency declaration regarding the threat of climate change.  This dereliction of duty kept Johnson squarely in the investigative team’s crosshairs—and also, conveniently, gave them the obligatory personal angle to work with.

One aspect of this personal angle created another dilemma for the reporters and their editors.  Johnson is a devout Christian and graduated from Taylor University, an evangelical school.  His faith was part of his bond with George W. Bush, and he spoke extensively about Christianity’s influence on his life and work.  Also, as an administrator charged with making decisions based on scientific evidence, an overemphasis on religion might present a conflict of interest in certain situations.  It was an intriguing angle, but one that could lead into dangerous territory if the subtle implications were not connected to the main points of the story.

Loeb said there was a good deal of debate about whether Johnson’s religious beliefs were entirely relevant.  But in the end they dedicated a decent amount of print in the first story to this topic, as well as a segment in the multimedia package.  The multimedia element was an excerpt from a promotional video for Christian Embassy, a religious group that evangelizes to government employees, where Johnson discusses the role of faith in his life.  The references to Johnson’s faith raised plenty of questions about his cozy relationship with Bush, and maybe a few about his integrity as a scientist.  But they were never really connected to the broader analysis in any concrete or substantive way; they were just left hanging in the air, like some forbidden fruit for thought.

When asked about whether the currently woeful economic climate in the newspaper industry affected this particular investigation, Loeb said that it did not.  He went on to talk about a common debate that is going on in many newsrooms: whether to have a freestanding investigative unit or have investigative reports come from within established beats.  He explained the lines of reasoning that favored each method.  According to Loeb, some of the best investigative reports “bubble up” from a reporter’s familiarity with their beat.  The downside is that the bulk of the beat reporter’s time is spent covering breaking news, leaving precious little time for investigations.  The case for a freestanding investigative unit is that it affords those journalists the time to tackle really ambitious projects.  Loeb was fairly certain that the EPA report would not have been possible without the Inquirer’s stand-alone group of investigators.

Loeb prefers having the freestanding unit, but worries that the current economic problems in the industry will make this practice less common.  The Inquirer has only six reporters remaining in its investigations division.  Loeb says this small number is only possible because the paper has an “unusual commitment to investigative reporting.”

John Sullivan had a few additional tidbits of investigative reporting wisdom do pass on during the interview.  He had no contacts within the EPA prior to this investigation and explained what he used as a starting point in this daunting situation.

“The most important thing is to contact the mentors of the people who are in power.  Everybody who is in power learned from somebody, and those people can tell you a lot about the character of the person you’re writing about, as well as a lot about the agency,” Sullivan said.  “And they give you some credibility.”

Reporters investigating the environment are always guaranteed some much needed assistance, according to Sullivan.  “The environment is the one area where you have a really aggressive, anti-government, critical movement.  They’re always suing, they’re always getting documents, they’re always getting the shit that you need to understand what’s going on,” he said.  “There are thousands of pages of documents out there that these non-profits and advocacy groups have made available on web sites and so forth.  The only challenge is reading them all.”
Sullivan’s biggest contribution to “Smoke and Mirrors” was his investigation into the member companies of the EPA’s Performance Track program.  After realizing that many of the EPA’s own records were flawed, Sullivan took an alternate route.  He looked into all the companies that had violations with the EPA that went to court.  Sure enough, many of the Performance Track companies had been to court with the EPA, and the Justice Department had detailed and undeniable proof.  Sullivan even saved himself some time and energy in the process.

According to him, this kind of flexibility and creative thinking is essential when investigative reporters hit a dead end.

With President Obama promising to make the environment a priority and return science to its proper place in informing policy, the “Smoke and Mirrors” exposé lends itself nicely to a follow-up investigation.  What will the Obama administration do, if anything, to right the ship at the EPA?  Vernon Loeb feels that they now have an obligation to keep reporting on the EPA.  This obligation may be aided by the recreation of an Inquirer Washington Bureau, something that Loeb hopes for, but is realistic about with the current troubles at the paper.

John Sullivan is also interested in following up on the EPA series, but not because he envisions a feel-good story about America’s commander-in-hope setting the EPA back on the green track.  “[Obama’s] administration has a tendency to come out very strongly, and make some very surprising and aggressive statements reversing major decisions of the Bush administration.  And then they have a tendency to kind of go into low gear on that issue.”

Sullivan thinks this is a pre-meditated tactic to convince the public that the administration is completely reversing course, when, in reality, they are only making minor adjustments.  He suggested that this tactic might be employed to create the appearance of major improvements at the EPA, especially considering Obama’s campaign connections with the coal industry.

“Obama gets a shitload of money from coal companies for ‘Clean Coal.’  And I’d be very curious to see what he does with [EPA restrictions on] the coal industry.  My guess would be not much.”
A review of articles from other publications dealing with The EPA’s record under Bush confirmed Loeb’s description of the material: the subject had been covered extensively, but not in the same comprehensive manner and without all the little touches and connections that revealed the extent of the EPA’s wholesale abandonment of its mission.

One article from the Washington Post approached the matter by looking at the drop off in the total number of prosecutions initiated by the EPA.   Many other articles had similar surface level investigations, but none of them connected all the dots or had the kind of damning testimony from inside sources that was prevalent in the Inquirer stories.  In fact, most of the other Bush-EPA coverage seemed as if all the investigation could have been done from the office, relying entirely on the Internet and maybe a few phone calls.  Comparing this coverage to “Smoke and Mirrors” really illustrates what stands to be lost with the decline of investigative reporting.  Some research just cannot be done on the fly and through an Internet browser.

The New York Times Magazine published a piece in 2004 that could be considered a precursor to the Inquirer series.  It focused on the circumvented EPA policy of New Source Review, where companies were forced to submit to an EPA review whenever they expanded or upgraded facilities.  One of the Inquirer stories covered this as well, but with more evidence and detail from within the EPA.  Also, the New York Times Magazine article was published before Bush’s first term was even over, so the subversion of the EPA had not yet reached such dreadful proportions.  Taken together, this article and the EPA series present a complete picture of Bush’s dreadful environmental record and the dastardly bureaucratic tricks employed to weaken environmental regulations on his watch.

Overall, I think the editors and reporters responsible for this piece handled most of the ethical issues and journalistic quandaries they faced in a responsible manner.  But I think that, in a strange world where journalistic ideals are our only concern, I would have a done a few things differently.

First, I would have included much less about Johnson’s religious beliefs.  Certainly, they deserve some mention as an integral part of the profile subject’s life and as a possible connection with the man who Johnson was deferring to on almost every decision he made—President Bush.  But the Johnson-Bush religious connection never really panned out in the story.  Neither did the question directed at Johnson about whether he believed in evolution, nor all the subtle implications that maybe a science related post was not the best place for an evangelical Christian to be appointed.

Had Johnson’s religious beliefs been shown to affect his scientific judgment in a very obvious incident, then I think it should have been a major part of the story.  But as it stood, the discussion of Johnson’s religion really just raised questions that were never resolved.  It was not exactly inaccurate, but possibly irrelevant, and maybe even misleading to the reader.  Though, outside my role of defending journalistic ideals, I will say that as a reader I enjoyed the angle.  The Christian Embassy, Johnson and Bush all seemed dangerously close to violating the principle of the separation of church and state.  I was intrigued by visions of fundamentalist Christian conspiracies and such—a perfect example of the sort of images the Inquirer should not be summoning into people’s heads without proper evidence.

Another aspect I think the investigative reporters could have handled better in this instance was the development of local angles.  This story was really expansive and abstract.  How much does the average Philadelphian really know or care about the nuances of the regulatory process or the federal courts?  A few better-developed local angles could have helped this.  There were fleeting attempts to bring Philly into the picture: in one instance, after mentioning the estimated deaths nationwide due to particulate pollution, the writer added, “in Philadelphia alone, hundreds die each year.”  Other attempts at pursuing the local angle were equally awkward and weak.  With the wholesale abandonment of the EPA’s principles described in the series, there had to be some misconduct or totally unnecessary pollution that filtered its way down to Philadelphia, and a little extra effort in uncovering this might have opened the story up to a wider audience.
Finally, hearing Sullivan talk about his reliance on environmental advocates for some of his information made me a bit suspicious.  Some of the more unscrupulous environmental groups are just as adept at fudging numbers and using misleading data as industry PR departments.  There is a lot of great work and sound research being done by environmental advocates, but sometimes it takes a keen eye to separate those dedicated to science and reason from those simply pushing an agenda.  After talking to Sullivan, I am sure that he has the knowledge and perception to do this, but if I were his editor I would thoroughly vet any of the environmental groups he was pulling information from in the name of accuracy.

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