Published: Nov. 12, 2018
Eric Lipton speaking at the CEJ Ackland Lecture in Journalism. (Photo by: Shannon Mullane)

The Center for Environmental Journalism hosted three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Eric Lipton for its second annual Ackland Lecture in Journalism on Oct. 22.

Lipton’s lecture centered around his efforts to bring more transparency to the federal government through his reporting on environmental issues. Lipton walked the audience through his reporting process, some of his recent stories and what it’s like working for the New York Times.

Lipton has recently turned his investigative eye toward the Trump Administration, with a focus on environmental policy and the Trump family business operations.

“The theme of the talk is transparency, and that’s what I’m all about,” Lipton said. “I think what I’m fixated on doing is undermining people who are gaming the system without transparency.”

In “How $225,000 Can Help Secure A Pollution Loophole at Trump’s E.P.A.”, Lipton exposed a web of influence that allowed semi-truck owners to evade sleep restrictions, a highway construction excise tax and EPA air pollution regulations.

During his reporting, Lipton visited a dealership where he looked like he was interested in buying a semi-truck. There, a salesman enthusiastically told him how the trucks would allow him to avoid the cost of modern emissions controls.

In addition to interviews, Lipton used emails, social media posts, campaign contribution records and more. Through these documents, Lipton linked Tommy Fitzgerald, an owner of Fitzgerald Glider Kits, the industry’s largest glider dealer, to Rep. Diane Black, a former gubernatorial candidate in Tennessee. More documents connected former Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt to a corrupt research study from Tennessee Tech University. The end result? Industry-influenced environmental regulation changes.

Lipton talked about other stories, the reporting process behind them and the industry influence at play.

He reported on a neurotoxin pesticide that put the health of farmworkers’ children at risk. He tracked how Pruitt overruled the opinions of the EPA’s own scientists and how Nancy Beck, former American Chemistry Council executive, rewrote the rule on toxic chemicals regulation. Lipton reported that, at one point, Beck changed regulatory documents for the man overseeing the rule-writing for the agency.

“She took the pen from him and rewrote the rule herself,” Lipton said.

Lipton bases his reporting on documents.

“One of the reasons that I back up my stories with so many documents is that the documents speak for themselves,” he said, “If you want to tell me my story is biased, point to the thing in the story that is not substantiated.”

Lipton is able to do this reporting because of the The New York Times rarely limits his funding and gives him the freedom to pursue a story for as long as he needs to.

He has traveled to Montana to report on coal, Tennessee for trucks, Ohio for regulation enforcement, Texas and Louisiana for offshore drilling, California for pesticides and Wyoming for public lands, oil and gas.

“Although when I chartered the boat (for the offshore drilling story), that was a little difficult,” he said, drawing a chuckle from the crowd.

As the news landscape changes, the real casualty is local news, according to Lipton.

“So much of the United States no longer has local news coverage, and that’s really unfortunate,” he said. Lipton started out as a local government reporter, but “that industry is never going to recover.”

For Lipton, it’s an incredible privilege to be a part of the machine of the New York Times and benefit from its extensive resources, but it is also a huge responsibility.

“At The New York Times, I have this platform to communicate to the world…. It’s like, how do you go out to lunch and waste an hour when you’ve got that seat?,” he said. He feels compelled not to slow down, “because if I slow down, I’m burning a resource that is such a rare thing… I can’t let that resource be burned.”

Lipton won his first Pulitzer in 1992 when he was a reporter at the Hartford Courant for an explanatory journalism piece about a flaw in the mirror of the Hubble Space Telescope. In 2015, Lipton won his second Pulitzer Prize for an investigative series of stories on how the lobbying of state attorneys general by several industries resulted in unprecedented state policy changes. Most recently, in 2017, Lipton won his third Pulitzer as part of a team of New York Times reporters for their coverage of Russian meddling in Western democracies, including the 2016 U.S. elections.

Lipton's lecture can be viewed here.