BROOKE GLADSTONE: If the cataclysmic implication of global warming is overlooked by news outlets, imagine how much they miss in the dreary prolixity of the Federal Register. And yet, what scoops are hidden therein. Some examples: the administration scrapped a rule mandating tuberculosis testing for employees in hospitals and prisons. A few word changes in a regulation freed up miners to blast the tops off of mountains across Appalachia. The EPA downgraded its classification of the health hazards of mercury. It also authorized the continued use of an herbicide now banned in Europe. Where are the front page headlines? You don't see them, because the Bush White House often changes policy through regulation rather than legislation. That way, it sidesteps the publicity of a congressional debate. It also slips under the radar of reporters. Washington Post reporter Rick Weiss recently contributed to a three-part series on Bush's regulatory record. He says there's another reason you don't hear more about these things. Boring.
RICK WEISS: They're boring because they appear first in something called the Federal Register, which is a booklet of bureaucratic stuff that's going on in the federal government, day after day, and inside those thousands of words are buried a few key ideas that I think actually are very interesting but are hard to find.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So there's no one at the Post who will read the Register, say, on a daily basis to catch the important regulatory news.
RICK WEISS: That's right. And it's actually something that occurred to me as we were putting this series together -- that this ought to be a beat. It would be a, a stultifying beat most of the time, because most of what's in there just doesn't matter all that much on the level of what's breaking news. But every day there's at least one thing, and often there are several things that I think people really would like to know about.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You said that these things are very hard to find. I guess partly because the reporters aren't assigned to find them, but also because the word changes are so subtle that they might even pass under the radar of people who are really trained to know what they're looking for. Can you give me an example of some subtle word changes that had a far-reaching impact?
RICK WEISS: Well, one of those had to do with the topic of mountain-top mining that you mentioned. At one point, a regulatory change went through where the word "waste" got changed to the word "fill," and the tons and tons of rock and dirt and slurry that is the result of blowing the tops off of mountains, trying to find coal or minerals, because it's now called "fill," you can go ahead and just pour all that stuff into stream beds, and destroy stream beds completely, whereas while it was "waste," you weren't allowed to do that. Similarly, with the mercury pollution coming out of power plants. The word "hazardous" used to apply to that. The word "hazardous" was removed. There wasn't even another word put in its place. But the simple removal of the word was proposed in a way that would have added 15 years to how long companies had to clean up these plants.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is it harder to sell stories about regulation to editors because of a perception that readers won't be interested?
RICK WEISS: I think there is a fear that it's just too technical, too bureaucratic and too much, in the end, of a little bit of see-sawing and he said and she said -- and I think the amount of work it takes and on top of that the fear that in the end it just isn't going to be interesting enough, and I can tell you that until the end of this process, we ourselves were sometimes not sure if anyone was going to really care enough to read it. It ends up being a risky investment, from the news point of view.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Obviously, though, it is the media's job to keep an eye on regulators and the businesses that they regulate. But it's also Congress's job, right? If Congress drops the ball and doesn't keep its eye on the regulators, does that make it harder for the press to do it?
RICK WEISS: It certainly makes it harder, and I think there are two things going on in this administration that exacerbate that problem. One is that when you have the same party in control in the executive and legislative branches, I think you're going to be less likely to see some real careful oversight going on. And the second problem, of course, is that Congress has been, like the rest of us, very distracted by international events and the war on terror and so on, and so there hasn't been a great focus -- in fact, there's hardly been any focus -- on something as seemingly arcane as domestic regulatory agendas.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Rick, I'm sure you noticed that the New York Times ran a story the day before your series hit the presses that was also about the Bush administration's regulatory record and also about the fact that relatively little attention has been paid to the important rule changes that have been made in the past few years. Does this suggest a trend to you, that Bush's under-covered regulatory policies are suddenly getting more play?
RICK WEISS: Well, I'd love to know more details about why the New York Times ran a story very similar to ours one day in advance-- [LAUGHTER] but [LAUGHS]-- I think the specific timing actually has more to do with the fact that people in government who are being interviewed by, say, the Washington Post in preparation for a big series sometimes will take it upon themselves to talk to the competition and hope that the competition might write a story perhaps a little more favorable to them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But aren't you celebrating the fact that, due to the rivalry of the nation's two greatest newspapers, twice as many people get to hear about Bush's regulatory policies?
RICK WEISS: I'm, I'm all for putting aside professional rivalries in the interests of getting the public educated.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Rick Weiss, thank you very much.
RICK WEISS: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Washington Post reporter Rick Weiss.