Public perception of environmental issues in the Mid-Atlantic region and beyond is regularly shaped by the Chesapeake Bay Journal, a 50,000-circulation newspaper staffed by veteran journalists that has been published for a quarter-century. Its aim is to raise public awareness of environmental issues related to the bay, which it does with extensive reporting of recognized high quality along with opinion coverage that is sometimes pointed and goes after named officials.
Casual readers of its work, which is widely reprinted elsewhere, may or may not be aware that the journal is also in part the result of a federal government effort to shape public awareness and opinion in pro-environmentalist directions. For its entire lifespan the publication has been supported in part by grants from the federal Environmental Protection Agency; in recent years EPA has been giving the paper $325,000 annually. Lately a miniscandal has called attention to that funding, and although the scandal has quieted down, the questions it raises should not.
The brouhaha unfolded after a Trump appointee, having noticed that the journal was extensively covering proposed EPA budget cuts and framing them as threats to the bay, struck back by going after the journal's federal grant. It didn't help appearances that the appointee was a political one involved in electoral campaigns, or that the cutoff would have come in the second year of a six-year contract. After a minioutcry, the mobilization of pro bono lawyers, and grilling at a hearing from Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt called the decision to cut off funds a mistake and reversed it.
To be sure, it’s a problem if the federal government can defund advocacy journalism in a fit of political pique. That’s a species of an even bigger problem, which is that it shouldn’t be funding advocacy journalism in the first place. The new flap directly recalls Obama-era cases in which EPA grant-making was revealed to be funding public opinion campaigns at the expense of the federal taxpayer, including billboards in Washington state urging tougher environmental regulations on farmers and grassroots organizing in support of a wider interpretation of EPA’s own powers under the Waters of the United States rule. The premise of current federal law on agency-paid advocacy is that such measures to shape public opinion are improper if not plainly disclosed. But disclosure isn’t the ultimate issue. Propaganda is propaganda, even if there’s fine print confirming that you as taxpayer paid for it.
Recommended for further reading is a paper last October by John Maxwell Hamilton and Kevin R. Kosar for the R Street Institute: “Government Information and Propaganda: How To Draw A Line?” The paper has examples ranging from Woodrow Wilson’s wartime mobilization of public opinion to more recent Cabinet department advocacy of minimum wage hikes and Obamacare. Because judicial remedies are few, they note that vigilance by Congress, including budgeters, can be vital in monitoring the floodgates. And they quote law professor and First Amendment expert Geoffrey Stone:
As a constitutional matter, we tend to give broad leeway to the government’s own propagandizing, and there is not judicial precedent declaring government speech itself unconstitutional under the First Amendment. But even if there is no constitutional barrier to government advocacy of its own policies, there are certainly limits on how far the government should go. The line between responsible advocacy and irresponsible manipulation of public opinion may not be legally enforceable, but it is critical as a matter of sound governance.