Former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt was clearly taken aback last year when occasional Fox & Friends fill-in host Ed Henry grilled him about a number of ethical scandals facing his administration.
And Pruitt had a good reason to be surprised. In past interviews with President Trump’s favorite cable-news show, the then-EPA chief’s team chose the topics for interviews, and knew the questions in advance.
In one instance, according to emails revealed in a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by the Sierra Club and reviewed by The Daily Beast, Pruitt’s team even approved part of the show’s script.
Fox & Friends has long been a friendly venue for Trump and his allies, but the emails demonstrate how the show has pushed standard cable-news practices to the extreme in order to make interviews a comfortable, non-confrontational experience for favored government officials.
Cable-news veterans told The Daily Beast that it is common for television producers to discuss topics in advance with their subjects; and, on occasion, producers will ask pre-interview questions to understand what a subject has to offer, and why their information is relevant.
However, it is widely frowned upon to offer public officials pre-interviews, as this can help the official avoid difficult questions.
And providing and seeking approval scripts is even more of a taboo.
“Every American journalist knows that to provide scripts or articles to the government for review before publication or broadcast is a cardinal sin. It’s Journalism 101,” said David Hawkins, a CBS News and CNN veteran who teaches journalism at Fordham University. “This is worse than that. It would and should get you fired from any news organization with integrity.”
“I can’t imagine why a high-level newsmaker—like a White House official—would ever receive a formal pre-interview,” added Sid Bedingfield, a former CNN executive who now teaches journalism at the University of Minnesota.
“Those are designed to ensure that the interview subject has something relevant to add to the story—that it is worth spending time and resources to conduct the interview. A top White House official who has the power to shape public policy around a particular issue would obviously be relevant. In those interviews, the journalist should force the newsmaker to defend policy decisions, not help sell them.”
Pruitt resigned from the EPA this year after more than a dozen probes were launched into his handling of the agency. But before that, Pruitt’s team was set on getting him good press, and they focused much of their attention on securing interviews with Fox News.
In multiple interviews on Fox & Friends, Pruitt was essentially allowed to dictate the terms for the interview and avoid any difficult questions.
In May 2017, Pruitt’s staff wanted to set up an interview to discuss how the then-administrator was interested in helping communities his team claimed were “poorly served by the last administration.”
And so then-EPA press secretary Amy Graham proposed an interview to Fox & Friends producer Andrew Murray, who quickly agreed to bring Pruitt on the next day to discuss the topic.
Murray then copied producer Diana Aloi, saying she said she would follow up with “pre-interview questions on the agreed-upon topic, the new direction of the EPA, and helping communities that were poorly served by the last administration.”
In subsequent emails, Aloi repeatedly sought “talking points” and the “top three priorities are for the EPA that Mr. Pruitt would like to discuss specifically.”
Once Graham sent over the talking points, Aloi sought the government official’s approval for the script introducing Pruitt’s segment.
“Would this be okay as the setup to his segment?” producer Diana Aloi asked.
“There’s a new direction at the Environmental Protection Agency under President Trump—and it includes a back-to-basics approach. This after the Obama administration left behind a huge mess more than 1,300 super-fund sites which are heavily contaminated—still require clean-ups. So why was President Obama touted as an environmental savior if all these problems still exist?”
The EPA comms shop was pleased.
“Yes — perfect,” Graham replied.
And when the segment aired the next day, the network stuck to that exact government-approved script.
“President Trump trying his best to drain the swamp and much of that draining happened at the Environmental Protection Agency after the Obama administration left behind—get this—a huge toxic mess,” host Brian Kilmeade said.
“More than 1,300 Superfund sites that are heavily contaminated still require cleanup,” his co-host Ainsley Earhardt added.
Before a separate interview in April, a Fox & Friends producer sent an email to Pruitt’s staff with three topics the show wanted to cover: a lawsuit from right-wing Judicial Watch claiming EPA employees were working against Trump; a claim that environmentalists said Trump’s proposed Mexico border wall would kill jaguars; and Pruitt’s visit to U.S. coal mines.
When the interview aired the next day, the hosts asked eight questions. Six were related to the topics agreed upon by producers and the EPA. Another question related to the agency’s decision to revoke EPA employee gym memberships—a topic the EPA chief’s team successfully pitched as an interview topic the previous day on Trump-friendly Fox Business Network.
The only question that a Fox & Friends host asked that was not previously discussed with Pruitt staff did make an incremental amount of news: Pruitt said he believed the U.S. should exit the Paris climate accord, a small change from calling it a “bad deal” in an interview just a month before.
But after Pruitt stated his view, host Steve Doocy did not press Pruitt. Instead, the host quickly transitioned back to the agreed-upon topic: the administrator’s upcoming visit with coal miners.
In a statement to The Daily Beast on the apparently semi-scripted interviews, a Fox News Channel spokesperson said, “This is not standard practice whatsoever and the matter is being addressed internally with those involved.”
Fox & Friends’ friendly emails are just one of many examples of the network’s cozy relationship with Trump and his allies.
Fox News hosts have spoken at Trump rallies, openly lobbied or partied at the White House, and taken on roles as unofficial White House advisers, at times being included on Oval Office conference calls about policy decisions. Republican lawmakers have repeatedly made direct appeals to the president by appearing on his favorite television shows on the network. Trump’s communications chief of staff is a former Fox News executive who is still being paid by the network, while his former communications director now works as a top spokesperson for Fox News’ parent company.
The FOIA’ed emails showed how Pruitt’s team valued the network, prioritizing cultivating relationships with Fox News personalities and producers.
In the early months of the administration, Pruitt’s staff reached out to numerous Fox News hosts and reporters to set up off-the-record lunches and dinners. When Pruitt had to cancel a Fox & Friends interview last-minute, his team solicited the hosts’ addresses to send them personal apologies for canceling.
And while the former EPA chief’s team often passed on the lower-rated daytime shows, his press arm tried to connect with Sean Hannity and offered exclusives to the fervently pro-Trump host.
In April 2017, EPA press secretary Lincoln Ferguson emailed the Fox star’s producer to say that Pruitt was “eager to get in the studio with Hannity” to discuss the EPA’s accomplishments. Despite the spokesperson’s pleas that the producer pass on to Hannity that Pruitt had “really been wanting to make this happen,” the top-rated prime-time show passed.
And in July 2017, the administrator’s comms team offered to fly Hannity in a private jet with Pruitt to Oklahoma to meet a rural family to discuss the Obama administration’s water policy.
But even for Hannity, the opportunity didn’t appeal.
“Unfortunately it doesn't look like we can make it work this week with Sean’s schedule,” a producer said. “Please keep us posted for other opportunities!”