Media is suppose to remain unbiased in order to accurately report the news. But the EPA's funding of a newspaper that covers the agency raises questions about just how objective that reporting can be and whether taxpayers are getting their money's worth.
Once a month, a free print publication gets delivered to mailboxes, coffee shops and libraries across the Mid-Atlantic with the latest news about how the government and private sector are trying to protect one of America’s natural crown jewels: the Chesapeake Bay.
The Chesapeake Bay Journal looks like any other newspaper, its print and Web editions having become monthly fixtures along the eastern shores of Maryland and Virginia. And its environmental news has even expanded, syndicated into larger daily publications like The Baltimore Sun.
And like many newspapers, it has written about the impact of possible budget cuts on environmental regulation. “Chesapeake cleanup funding at risk in federal budget battle,” one such headline blared.
There’s just one catch: the newspaper’s chief financial backer is also one of its frequently covered subjects: the U.S. government.
For two decades, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has quietly funded the Bay Journal as an experiment in educating the public about environmental issues. Between 2005 and 2010 alone, the federal agency has given $3.5 million to the newspaper’s founding organization, the nonprofit Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, in part to help print and distribute the newspaper, according to documents reviewed by the Washington Guardian.
The newspaper’s editor, Karl Blankenship, says the publication gets about 70 percent of its annual funding from EPA, averaging between $250,000 and $350,000 a year.
But now the arrangement is coming under some uncomfortable scrutiny, both by federal investigators who question whether taxpayers have been getting their money’s worth and by journalism ethics experts who question whether the newspaper has done enough to protect readers from the potential for conflicts of interest.
The EPA’s inspector general, the agency’s internal watchdog, issued a toughly-worded report last month questioning $1.3 million in recent federal money spent on the newspaper, suggesting financial safeguards for the project were lax.
The investigation found the grant money has been awarded for years without any competitive bidding and that documents validating expenses charged to the EPA were lacking. The EPA watchdog recommended taxpayers recover more than $1 million from the newspaper
"When recipients do not complete the required cost or price analysis, we have no assurance that prices are fair and reasonable," the inspector general warned. "Without documentation demonstrating how the recipient evaluated the Bay Journal contractor’s performance, we cannot determine whether the contractor’s procurement of goods and services was proper."
The newspaper, its founding nonprofit parent and its editor all dispute the inspector general findings, insisting EPA has gotten its money worth and that the IG’s questions are really just a matter of some misplaced paperwork and record-keeping.
"The report does not question that the work was completed as required," said Al Todd, executive director of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. "We certainly documented the product that was produced, the quality, numbers and circulation, people’s response to it."
EPA declined comment, referring a reporter to the agency’s statement in the IG report. “We look forward to resolving this matter by researching whether the costs of the contract were fair and reasonable and disallowing any costs over that which is allowable based on the results of our review,” the agency said.
But the inspector general report had another impact: it called attention to the little-known fact that Uncle Sam was essentially in the publishing business, funding a newspaper that writes articles about the government’s own work.
When CNN airs stories about Time Warner, it routinely mentions in its dispatches that it is owned by the media giant so viewers can judge its independence. But when Blankenship wrote a story recently about the impact of possible budget cuts on the EPA, the story made no mention that the federal agency funds the newspaper.
Rather, the newspaper makes a brief reference on the “About” page of its Web site and Page 2 of its print edition: “Publication is made possible through grants from the EPA Chesapeake Bay Program Office, the Campbell Foundation for the Environment, the Town Creek Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Chesapeake Bay Office, the Chesapeake Bay Trust, and by donations from individuals,” it says. “Views expressed in the Bay Journal do not necessarily reflect those of any governmental or grant-making organization.”
And the wire service that syndicates the Bay Journal’s content to other newspapers makes no mention of an EPA connection.
The limited disclaimers, especially in specific stories about the EPA, concern some journalism ethics experts.
"One of the guiding principles for journalistic news organizations is to avoid competing loyalties and conflicts of interest that would undermine the credibility of the journalism," said Bob Steele, journalism ethics professor at DePauw University.
More importantly, Steele said, is disclosure doesn’t fully address the concerns about whether a newspaper funded by the government can independently cover federal issues. "Transparency is helpful in revealing a conflict of interest, but it doesn’t make the conflict of interest go away," he said.
Senator Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who serves on the Finance Committee, said the EPA needs to be cautious about how it spends money.
“Tax dollars are limited," he said. "Government agencies should be careful about all spending, including contracts for educational materials that may not be the best use of tax dollars. Any government-sponsored educational materials should be labeled accordingly. The reader should have the benefit of knowing the source of the content and funding. Otherwise, the publication loses credibility with the reader. If the EPA is distancing itself from the contractor’s editorial content, maybe the agency should put out material under its own name, not through a private organization.”
Recently when some, like former Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie and Federal Communications Commissioner Michael Copps, suggested it might be time for the federal government to bail out or assist the financially struggling newspaper industry, the profession reacted coolly to the idea.
"Fully 75 percent of all news executives surveyed—and 88 percent of newspaper executives—said they had 'serious reservations,' or the highest level of concern, about direct subsidies from the government," the Pew Research Center found in a 2010 poll.
Blankenship, the editor-in-chief of the Bay Journal, makes no apologies for taking the EPA money and doesn’t think the newspaper needs to do more to disclose its connections to the federal agency. Both the EPA money and the paper have a single objective, he argued.
"The grant is to do education and outreach," he told the Washington Guardian in an interview. "And what we do has proven to be an effective way to do education and outreach. The product speaks for itself."
The paper was not started by the EPA, Blankenship said. It was created by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay to meet a government mandate to inform the public about environmental issues during the 1980's.
"Taxpayers, the thinking went, had a right to be informed about what the issues were, what was going on, how their money was being spent and whether the public was getting results," Blankenship said.
About $110,000 of the newspaper’s annual EPA funding goes for printing and publication costs, while the rest funds the salaries of two full-time and one part-time employees, Blankenship said. The paper has since expanded to four full-time employees.
"Certainly no one's getting rich off this," he said.
He said he has tried to maintain independence for the 30,000 circulation paper. The Bay Journal was a publication from the EPA-funded Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay until Blankenship formed his own group to run it - Chesapeake Media Service.
“It’s an organization that has a number of professional journalists on the board," he said. "So there's somebody to say there's journalistic integrity to what we’re doing.”
But ethics concerns can linger, said Steele, who is also the director of the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw.
“The problem that exists when a news organization takes funding from government organizations, especially those that they cover, is that the reporting can be and should be called into question," he said, noting readers don’t know what stories for instance the paper chose not to report that could have affected EPA.
"The editor may argue that they are always objective, and perhaps their journalism has been pretty good over the years, but they can’t prove that this funding from the EPA has not influenced the journalism.”
There have been some editorials by the Bay Journal News Service that support EPA viewpoints and are critical of GOP lawmakers wishing to curtail the power of the agency.
“The fact is, environmental protections create jobs,” one recent column declared. “Big polluters, in fact, oppose regulations largely because regulations require more jobs. More jobs reduce profits for corporate owners.”
At other times, the media outlet has been critical of EPA, such as an opinion piece written by Blankenship entitled “EPA torches public’s right to know.” The article charged the EPA was preventing the public from learning about violations from companies using toxic chemicals.
Nontheless, the Bay Journal’s wire service does not disclose on its website that several of its opinion writers get part of their pay from EPA.
Blankenship said he doesn't feel the need to expressly tell outlets picking up stories that funding comes partially from the EPA.
"The Bay Journal is pretty well recognized," he said. "It's been around for 20 years."
The Baltimore Sun, one of the publications that has syndicated some of the Bay Journal’s content, said it doesn’t plan to change the way it handles such columns. “The Baltimore Sun is aware that Bay Journal receives some funding from the EPA as it is disclosed on their website along with funding from private donations and other foundations. We do not anticipate any changes in the handling of Bay Journal content on our Op-Ed pages,” spokeswoman Renee Mutchnik said.
Todd said the Bay Journal “tries to provide that middle ground, that unbiased view. EPA gets to present its view, but so do others."
And the advisory board for the paper is there "not to serve the EPA, but to provide their independent viewpoint,” he added.
The Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, is the government's environmental advocacy and regulatory agency.
The Office of Inspector General, or IG, is an independent investigative agency within each government department that is charged with finding waste, wrong doing and areas for improvement.