As a New York Times reporter, Eric Lipton is committed to writing about federal environmental regulations but also telling the backstory.
“These are things that have real consequences for everyone in this room,” Lipton told more than 200 people during a public presentation as UW–Madison’s Public Affairs Journalist in Residence.
The La Follette School hosted Lipton’s presentation, The Hot Zone: A Look at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the Era of Trump, on October 9 at the Discovery Building. In addition to the La Follette School, the Journalist in Residence program is sponsored by University Communications and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
The recipient of three Pulitzer Prizes, Lipton spoke about his reporting on Scott Pruitt’s efforts as EPA administrator to roll back regulations related to chemicals, pesticides, truck emissions, and other safety issues.
One policy change allowed a small group of diesel freight-truck manufacturers to increase production of glider trucks, which produce “as much as 55 times the air pollution as trucks that have modern emissions controls,” according to his July 6 story.
During the public comment period before this regulatory change, Lipton saw truck manufacturers, major fleet owners, the American Lung Association, environmental associations ,and others coming together in rare consensus opposing the increase in glider truck production. That piqued his curiosity.
“Most of the time, whether it’s Democrats or Republicans, there’s a constituency that you can understand why this change in policy is occurring,” Lipton told the audience of UW–Madison students, faculty, and staff as well as community members.
He didn’t understand how one company in Tennessee had such great capacity to make such a significant impact. Using freedom of information requests and public documents, Lipton uncovered campaign contributions, meetings, and other communications that raised ethical questions about Pruitt.
At one point, Pruitt asked his aides to schedule a meeting with Chick-fil-A’s chief executive to discuss the possibility of Pruitt’s wife opening a franchise of the fast-food chain. “That’s a violation of federal law,” said Lipton, adding that several Republican lobbyists even said Pruitt’s actions were irresponsible. Pruitt resigned in July.
Lipton also noted that many of the rules the Trump administration is rolling back are the same ones that President Obama enacted through Executive Order. During his second term, “Obama used his executive powers out of his frustration with Congress to an extreme, and we are in the midst of a backlash against it,” he said.
Finding the backstory, though, requires significant time, document collection, interviews, and travel.
“None of this for me is partisan,” Lipton said. “I’m all about finding people that are manipulating the system to their advantage and expose them through transparency and public documents.”
The Journalist in Residence programs are sponsored by University Communications and campus partners, including the La Follette School of Public Affairs, the Wisconsin School of Business, and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, with support from the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association. Lipton's public presentation was co-sponsored by UW–Madison's Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, Department of Political Science, and Law School.