She turned a blind eye and a deaf ear.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, who has faced rising criticism the past few weeks for allegedly failing to cooperate with the press, entirely snubbed members of the media Thursday – and did so in, of all places, the National Press Club in Washington.
“It's disappointing to hear,” says Beth Parke, executive director of the Society of Environmental Journalists. “It certainly fits a pattern. Engaging with journalists, getting her to answer substantive questions from journalists, is elusive.”
Last month, Bloomberg BNA Energy reporter Ari Natter was briefly detained by Capitol Police while trying to ask McCarthy questions as she left a forum on the Hill (the officer alleged he'd been bumped by Natter – the police later apologized). Meanwhile, last Friday, the SEJ sent a letter to the EPA to “register our strenuous objection to the way the EPA rolled out its Clean Power rule.”
The rule, aimed at existing power plants, embodies one of the most sweeping federal environmental measures in history. It spanned more than 600 pages and dealt in arcane carbon emissions rules, yet the agency offered only “a truncated, anonymous 'background’ tele-briefing for news media representatives,” the SEJ alleged.
“Given the complexity and significance of this regulation – and its importance to the public – it seems incongruous and myopic for the agency to give such short shrift to the role journalists could play in informing the public about it,” the society said in its letter.
The Columbia Journalism Review later declared, "EPA Goes on Background, and Journalists Revolt." Nevertheless, reporters were stood up just the same Thursday.
McCarthy was speaking at an "Energy Efficiency Forum" co-sponsored by the United States Energy Association and Johnson Controls – a private event using the Press Club as a venue, meaning that speakers there were not under club requirements to talk with reporters.
"It's not unusual for groups to speak to industry groups and not reporters, but we always prefer people who come to events to take questions from reporters," says Press Club Executive Director William McCarren.
The administrator chose not to. She delivered prepared remarks, took two questions – neither of them from a reporter – then promptly left, not stopping to speak with the dozen or so members of the media who had assembled in the hall.
An EPA spokeswoman who stepped out to talk with reporters initially shifted blame onto event organizers: The lack of time for questions, she said, “was their choice, not hers. You’ll have to ask the event organizers.”
A spokeswoman for Johnson Controls, though, said it was, in fact, the EPA that had placed restrictions on the event.
“We took as many questions as time permitted given the administration’s schedule,” says Sarah L. Zwicky, manager of global public relations for Johnson Controls. “The administrator needed to leave at a certain time.”
The EPA confirmed Zwicky's account.
“She had a flight to catch,” spokeswoman Liz Purchia says. “She’s going to be in LA tomorrow doing a press event.”
Purchia declined to state what time McCarthy’s flight was scheduled to depart or which airport it left from. She did, however, dismiss the SEJ’s concerns out of hand – not to mention questions from U.S. News about the event Thursday.
“We have been open,” Purchia contends. “She’s done interviews this whole week. She was in Colorado where she talked with a bunch of reporters. She’s done a lot of interviews.
“I don’t really think it is a story. I know SEJ has some concerns, but the administrator has been out there.”
The EPA, in a June 10 response to the society’s letter, listed 17 media outlets that it said held interviews with McCarthy during the previous week, from The Wilmington News Journal to The New York Times.
Parke acknowleged that McCarthy has apparently been more open to press while on the road, but added that the EPA's response in its letter also “misses the point.”
“There’s a difference between these media events that they arrange … with
news organizations they select, and then background briefings available to
journalists who are listening in,” she says. “You think of the thousands of
news outlets out there, the agency for whatever reason isn’t working effectively
with the broad swath of today’s press corps.”