May 23, 2018

For journalists covering government, the Environmental Protection Agency’s strong-arming of a reporter and barring of several news organizations Tuesday was one of the more obvious signs of officials seeking to conduct business under wraps.

Oh, and it happened again, at least the press-barring stuff, on Wednesday. The National Press Club urged a summit between newsmakers and news organizations and condemned the abnormal and possibly illegal exclusion of the public.

"Pushing reporters around is what happens in dictatorships, not in a democracy where the press's right to represent the public is enshrined in the Constitution," said Andrea Snyder Edney, president of the National Press Club. "And why were reporters being kept out of a meeting of major news significance at which a senior official was speaking on the public record? This is unacceptable."

The meeting was to discuss a still-unreleased study, which the EPA sought to block, that shows contamination in drinking water near military bases, chemical plants and other sites from New York to Michigan to West Virginia is dangerous to people at much lower levels than previously publicized. EPA chief Scott Pruitt told about 200 people at the meeting that dealing with the contaminants is a “national priority.”

The Associated Press, CNN and the trade publication E&E were barred from the event. They were told seating was limited, although empty seats remained.

When AP reporter Ellen Knickmeyer, a veteran at covering hot spots and authoritarian governments around the world, asked to speak to an EPA public relations person, security guards grabbed her by the shoulders and pushed her out of the building. Although an EPA official later called Knickmeyer to apologize for how she was manhandled and pledged to look into it, that wasn’t the first instance of rough treatment from this administration.

"The Environmental Protection Agency's selective barring of news organizations, including the AP, from covering today's meeting is alarming and a direct threat to the public's right to know about what is happening inside their government," said Sally Buzbee, AP’s executive editor. "It is particularly distressing that any journalist trying to cover an event in the public interest would be forcibly removed."

A CNN spokesperson said: “We understand the importance of an open and free press and we hope the EPA does, too."

Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico called the intimidation of journalists "un-American and unacceptable." He demanded that Pruitt apologize to the excluded journalists, allow unbiased press access to public events and announcements and release real-time public schedules of his activities, as Pruitt's predecessors did.

By the afternoon, the session was suddenly open to reporters — and Knickmeyer, who said she was not injured, got a personal invitation to return and a promise by an EPA official that the manhandling of her would be investigated.

On Wednesday, the press was barred again, Politico reports. Defying the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which mandates meetings open to the public, the EPA closed the second day of hearings on clean drinking water to state regulators and agencies handling the issue.

Quick hits

HE’S FAMOUS. AND NO ONE KNOWS HIS NAME: He goes by “PFT Commenter,” an alias. He once just ran a parody account. He is now one half of the nation’s most popular sports podcast. His entire persona is satire, aimed at poking fun at traditional sports media, by Rick Maese for The Washington Post.

OVERLOOKED NO MORE: The New York Times is working with Paramount TV to develop a series based on “Overlooked,” a feature of current-day obituaries of extraordinary women who did not end up in the New York Times when they died. “The series will be an anthology – 10 episodes per season, each one telling the story of a different incredible woman who left an indelible mark,” a Times release says. “Each episode will be written and directed by women.” Background: The NYT’s move into television production.

WHOSE NOTES ARE THEY?: A VICE News reporter will go before Canada’s Supreme Court on Wednesday to argue that he should not be forced to turn over his notes to authorities. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police want Ben Makuch's notes from interviews with Farah Shirdon, a Canadian who left to fight for ISIS. Makuch has been fighting an order to turn over all Kik Messenger chats, paper printouts, screen captures and any computer records of all his communications with Shirdon. Makuch called it a fishing expedition, pointed to the U.S. claim that Shirdon was killed in 2015 and argued that a turnover of notes would make reporters accessories to authorities.

THE BIG CHILL: Reporters at a paper owned by hedge-fund Alden Global Capital had to wear gloves and warm hats at their desks because the heat was off one winter day. Bloomberg’s Gerry Smith says journalists will have to get used to hedge-fund ownership: Between Alden, Fortress (Gatehouse) and Chatham Asset Management (a big stake in McClatchy), hedge funds hold sway in a huge chunk of the nation’s papers. Says “Newsonomics” author Ken Doctor of Alden: “They’re not reinvesting in the business. It’s dying and they are going to make every dollar they can on the way down.”

EMAIL IS GOING TO GET WORSE: Hard to believe, since it’s already drowning in spam, forged phishing emails, and other scams and hacks. By Quinn Norton for The Atlantic.

DISTRACTED WATCHING: Companies and networks are shortening commercials. More watchers are slimming their cable bundles or cutting the cord — and splitting attention with their computers, according to a new Nielsen study. Axios’ Sara Fischer reports.

POLITICO IN HONG KONG: Politico has launched into a content-sharing agreement with the South China Morning Post, which has broader geographical ambitions and the desire to spread a more “nuanced” view of China under its owner, Alibaba’s Jack Ma.

DIGITAL PTSD: Journalists are on the front lines of online harassment and violent imagery, and it takes a toll, says Erin Corbett for The Outline.

NAMED: Kristi Waite, who grew email newsletters as a product manager for The Seattle Times, has been promoted to director of development for public service journalism. Publisher Frank Blethen says the unit “has spawned from some of the country’s most innovative solutions journalism, including The Greater Good Campaign, Education Lab, Traffic Lab, Project Homeless and foster care reform.”

THE TWEETING DEAD: Lake Worth, Florida, apologized for a system alert to residents affected by a power outage that mentioned zombies. “I want to reiterate that Lake Worth does not have any zombie activity currently and apologize for the system message,” The Palm Beach Post quoted the city’s public information director as saying. Um, currently?

What we’re reading

HE ALMOST LOST HIS VOICE FOR GOOD: As a young man, cancer took away 40 percent of Tommy Tomlinson’s voice box. As a journalist, that meant listening more, talking one-on-one in quiet places where it wouldn’t strain him. “I find a place where I can be an observer rather than a talker and find moments that speak to the emotion of the moment, rather than what the people say,” CJR quoted Tomlinson as saying. A quarter-century later, the North Carolina journalist is leaning on that voice, uncertain but authentic, for a podcast called Southbound and as a national correspondent for Charlotte’s public radio station, WFAE.

THE PEDOPHILE AND THE PRESIDENT: How George Nader, who spent a year in a Czech prison after his conviction for abusing children, used another convicted felon to shake the hand of President Trump. That’s not even the biggest theme in this 4,000-word investigation by the AP’s Desmond Butler and Tom LoBianco. That’s how Nader and fellow felon Elliott Broidy thought they would reap a $1 billion payday by playing on connections to Trump and getting Washington to punish the Gulf state of Qatar to benefit Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It’s a twisty read.

IS THIS HAPPENING IN YOUR STATE?: Math tests and multiple-choice exams have long been able to be graded rapidly, almost mechanically. But essays? The Boston Globe’s James Vaznis on a new robot grading move in Massachusetts.

REMEMBER VEGAS?: Since the deadly mass shooting that left 58 people dead, more than 4,300 people have been trained in a Las Vegas class that teaches civilians how to tie tourniquets and apply pressure to wounds. Amanda Fortini, writing for California Sunday magazine, found an usher with nightmares, a student who lost her scholarship when her grades plummeted and a police officer still beset with guilt for not helping more people the night of the shooting. Vegas may be strong, but it’s not over.

SCIENTISTS MISSED THEM, TOO: Apparently giant flatworms, normally found in Asia, have invaded France. Or, rather, very quietly invaded France, 20 years ago — and have just been discovered now.


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