Yes, Virginia, Political Appointees Do Meet With Interest Groups: The Importance of Context in News Stories

Secretary Zinke meets with
Outdoor Recreation Industry Roundtable (ORIR)
Photo credit: Tami Heilemann

Ruben Navarrette, a syndicated columnist who shows up in the Colorado Springs Gazette op-ed page, recently wrote a column in which he talks about the importance of context in news stories. I like to think of news stories as newborn babies, and the work of NCFP regulars as wrapping the stories in a warm, fluffy blanket of context. Navarette gives some examples and concludes:

Context changes a minor story from what one president is doing wrong into a major story about what’s wrong with our political system.

What he is saying is that our fluffy blankets of context can add not only to fairness and accuracy, but ultimately also to framing problems differently. Here’s an easy example from our own subject area.

This is from Greenwire via the Society for Environmental Journalism here.

“Andrew Wheeler met with a range of companies and trade groups with interests before EPA after he took charge at the agency….

Wheeler was scheduled to call or meet with executives for the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, BP America, Delta Air Lines and Valero Energy Corp. during that month, according to the document. In addition, he was slated to take meetings with agricultural interests, like the American Soybean Association and CropLife America.”

Wheeler met with groups with “interests before EPA”. Oh my goodness. This news story seems to assume that the best regulation is done without speaking to the regulated about their views and concerns. Logically, then Secretaries of the Interior should not meet with members of the Outdoor Recreation Industry? If, on the other hand, we want to add context, as Navarrette suggests, to “what’s wrong with the political system” we can look across administrations, and also in the eyes of state and local government officials.

Here’s a link to quotes from a letter by former Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal (D), of Wyoming, to then Secretary of the Interior Salazar about changes in oil and gas regulations.

“I appreciate your stated intentions to restore balance to the leasing program. Unfortunately the proposed changes potentially hand significant control over oil and gas exploration, development and production to the whims of those that profess a ‘nowhere, not ever’ philosophy to surface disturbance of any kind,” Freudenthal wrote Salazar on Jan. 8.

“I have always been a strong proponent of balance” but “Washington…seems to go from pillar to post to placate what is perceived as a key constituency. I only half-heartedly joke with those in industry that, during the prior administration, their names were chiseled above the chairs outside the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Lands and Minerals. With the changes announced [by Interior earlier this month] I fear that we are merely swapping the names above those same chairs [with] environmental interests, giving them a stranglehold on an already cumbersome process,” Freudenthal said.

Freudenthal seems to wonder whether citizens are well-served by disruptive flip flops on policy associated with administrations who change the advisory input from “lots of x” to “never, nohow, no way x” based on listening predominantly to one set of interest groups. The impacted states might prefer a more pragmatic and less ideological middle path, with a focus on reducing impacts rather than removing industry. They were good questions in 2010, IMHO, and remain good questions today.

9 thoughts on “Yes, Virginia, Political Appointees Do Meet With Interest Groups: The Importance of Context in News Stories”

  1. The best regulation is done when officials speak to representatives of all affected groups, not just a few of them. Wheeler should also have met with environmental groups, community groups, independent scientists with expertise in matters under consideration, etcetera.

    Of course he didn’t (which isn’t some Trump-era issue; the EPA was notoriously unrepresentative under W. Bush, and not much better under Obama.) Which is how we end up with things like the EPA’s approval this week of antibiotic spraying on citrus crops without any consideration of potential impacts on people eating the fruits, the accelerated evolution of antibiotic-resistance traits in pathogens, and the environmental effects of large-scale microbiome disruption.

  2. What? Sec of Interior meeting with outdoor recreation industry leaders? Dang, how about we have a Sec of Interior who was CEO of a major outdoor retailer that did a huge amount of lobbying on public land policy? Sheesh…

  3. The Greenwire story suffers more from context omitted than from “fluffy blankets of context”. At least that’s how I usually see these kinds of stories. What is not stated in the Wheeler story is what he met with those groups about, what was discussed, and as was pointed out above, who else he might have met with or “should” have met with.

    • D. I agree with you, I was just unclear. I was trying to express that our role at NCFP is to take a produced story and wrap in a fluffy, cozy, fuzzy blanket of context around it. IMHO, there is no way a person writing under deadline can acquire this context for the many stories they need to write nowadays. That’s a gift that we can give to add to these stories.

  4. Another great example is your post last August on Bear’s Ears National Monument. One needs the context of what happened during multiple administrations.

  5. More fossil fuels or even compromise between producers and, let’s call it life, in the age of climate change seems like simply slowing the drive off the cliff. The reports are out, and climate change is no joke. We need a roadmap to solutions now, that prioritizes phasing out of carbon and replacing with cleaner techs. The US is failing us all and agonizing over Dept of Interior’s corrupt and head in the sand approach is silly. If you’re not freaking out, you’re not paying attention.

  6. This is an interesting topic, and I agree that it’s not only important who is met with, but also who is listened to. Undersecretary Mark Rey was repeatedly criticized for meeting with industry groups, but he said he tried to meet with every group who tried to schedule with him, and that seemed to be the case from my viewpoint.

    But look at that picture of the ORIR–all older white men and one single woman. Who’s not at the table?


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