Coordination Between Federal Agencies, Fox News May Violate Anti-Propaganda Laws

Suit Seeks Records From Four Executive Branch Departments

Suit Follows Revelation That Fox Submitted Script for Pruitt Interview to EPA Official for Approval – and News That Former Fox News Reporter Was Hired to Lead “Counter Propaganda Efforts”

WASHINGTON, D.C.— Today, Democracy Forward sued the Trump administration to secure the release of documents that could reveal whether four Executive Branch agencies coordinated with certain media outlets including Fox News in violation of federal laws guarding against government-sponsored propaganda. The case was filed against the Departments of State, Treasury and Homeland Security, as well as the Small Business Administration— agencies which have either hired former Fox News contributors in key communications roles, have adopted White House messaging, or whose high-ranking officials frequently appear on Fox News and similar outlets.

This suit follows a December 2018 letter from Democracy Forward and Restore Public Trust to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Inspector General following the revelation that a Fox News script had been submitted to an EPA official for approval prior to being read on-air by a Fox News personality in the lead-in to an interview with EPA then-Administrator Scott Pruitt. In January 2019, Democracy Forward also sent a letter to the Office of the White House Counsel requesting an investigation into whether administration officials engaged in unlawful lobbying and government-sponsored propaganda by coordinating with Fox corporate executives to secure cover from the network they believed was needed to secure passage of the recently-enacted “First Step Act.”

“The federal laws guarding against government-sponsored propaganda are there for good reason—so that Americans know when their government is speaking to them,” said Democracy Forward Executive Director Anne Harkavy. “Hiding that information undermines democracy, and it’s illegal.  The American people deserve to know whether the Trump administration is violating those laws and how widespread the violations are.”

Federal law prohibits Executive Branch officials from creating “covert propaganda,” defined as communications by private individuals that fail to disclose the government’s role as the source of the content. The possibility of such illegal coordination is fueled by the fact that at least a dozen former Fox employees are currently serving in senior communications roles within the administration. For example:

  • Prior to serving as the Director of Communications for the U.S. Mission to the UN, Jonathan Wachtel was a Fox News producer for nearly two decades and worked on projects including a documentary special called, “Donald Trump the Disrupter”

  • Tony Sayegh, the Treasury Department’s Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, was a regular Fox News contributor from 2009 until he entered the Trump administration

The Freedom of Information Act suit against the four agencies was filed today.

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Democracy Forward is a nonprofit legal organization that scrutinizes Executive Branch activity across policy areas, represents clients in litigation to challenge unlawful actions, and educates the public when the White House or federal agencies break the law.

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