How the documentary “The Naked Truth: Wasteland” explored Scott Pruitt and the fossil fuel lobby.

Behind the scenes, Climate Journalism Lab, Interviews
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Shortly after Donald Trump’s election, when Scott Pruitt took the reins at the Environmental Protection Agency, longtime EPA staffers began seeing a severe scaling back of the protections they were tasked with devising and keeping in place. It was a tumultuous time. The now-departed Pruitt was all too happy eliminating agency regulations that were protecting the public’s health by applying constraints on industries and their waste disposal practices.

But why was Pruitt so eager to tear it all down? Journalists Kristofer Ríos and Connie Fossi-Garcia answered this question in their recent documentary for Fusion, entitled “The Naked Truth: Wasteland,” an ominous portrayal of Pruitt’s cozy relationship with the American fossil fuel industry. The film follows Pruitt’s literal shaky past in his home state of Oklahoma, where his largest oil and gas partnerships were fostered.

Storybench sat down with Ríos and Fossi-Garcia to get a better idea of what goes into making an environmental documentary during a time in which the country couldn’t be more polarized about the role of the media – and the effects of climate change.

A still from the documentary “The Naked Truth: Wasteland.”

What made you want to make a movie on Oklahoma’s oil addiction? Why did you feel it was a good representative of a larger issue?

Connie Fossi-Garcia: We tried to find a story that was both political and environmental, something that a lot of people could relate to – people not connected to the day-to-day about environmental policy. When we tried to define how environmental policies impact people daily in Oklahoma, we agreed this was a perfect marriage of these concepts. We found those personal stories and made a larger documentary based on those stories: each coming from environmental, health, and political angles.

Kristofer Ríos: Environmental stories are inherently very complex. When we started, Scott Pruitt had just been appointed [to the EPA]. We didn’t really know what was going to happen during this administration. Oklahoma is a very interesting place, so we tried to do a story that was political and environmental and something everyone could potentially relate to. In TV, visual journalism is really important. The issue seemed to present itself to us. The challenge was figuring out how to communicate all the policy aspects of oil in a state like this. We found a space that had a record of dealing with issues in OK. It was hard not to do it. Pruitt was potentially a problem, but we knew what his record was in OK.

How long did it take to film?

Fossi-Garcia: Five site trips, each usually a week or two in length. We tried to take advantage of each trip, but it took roughly ten months to a year to do this piece. Our first trip was really without camera, we just wanted to talk to people and meet with people to get them into the story.

Your film focuses on human subjects, like the victims of the earthquake in Cushing. Is it easier for people to wrap their heads around industrial pollution when they see the humans affected?

Ríos: I’ve been trying to do a story about climate change and water scarcity in Latin America. I find that the story and issue is there, but it’s very hard to get people to immediately connect with things that are far off. From housing to education, to criminal justice or climate change, unless you use visual stories [for these broader topics] it’s hard to get people to care. It’s easier when the issue is affecting someone who looks like you and the problem could be happening at your doorstep.

“It’s easier when the issue is affecting someone who looks like you and the problem could be happening at your doorstep.”

Oil and gas are the number one employer in the state. So, most of the people we interview are in support of the industry, but, like [former oil and gas lobbyist] Mickey Thompson, many are beginning to feel that the industry is going way too far. Even tax breaks have caused four day school weeks, in a state where tax revenue is going to something like oil and gas.

What visual techniques do you feel are necessary to employ to keep the audience’s attention these days?

Fossi-Garcia: We needed to show scope, for one thing – hence the drone shots. I didn’t know much about Oklahoma when I first went. I thought it was just farming, oil, etc. But it’s a beautiful state! We learned that capturing that contrast between industry and the state’s beauty was, at least in the bigger language, necessary to keep people’s attention. Never forget that the intention of a documentary is to take people to that place. We didn’t want to just show the bad, but capture the essence of the state.

 

A drone shot from the documentary “The Naked Truth: Wasteland.”

 

What are your next plans going forward with Fusion and other documentary work?

Ríos: I think our colleagues and other news outlets have done a really good job in crystallizing what it means to cover Scott Pruitt. Scott Pruitt, in my experience, is an incredibly difficult person to report on.

Unfortunately, The Naked Truth team no longer exists because of changes at Fusion. Still, the alumni of that team continue to do excellent work at other media outlets or in other places. I think I speak for most of us when I say that working on that team was a truly exceptional experience. It’ll for sure be a defining moment in my career. I should also mention that our project was a finalist for the Livingston Awards. While we didn’t win, it was a true honor to be recognized alongside a phenomenal team and to be in the company of other excellent journalists. In short, it was a bitter-sweet way to end my tenure at Fusion. All that said, the work doesn’t stop. I’m currently working on a long-term independent documentary project tackling another big policy issue: housing in America.

Fossi-Garcia: It’s been a privilege to be a part of this ecosystem. We were in Oklahoma for months and didn’t receive a comment [from Pruitt]. It is ominous when one of the main characters of your stories never speaks. They didn’t even offer us a “no comment,” but instead escorted us off federal property.

 

Daniel Hentz is a graduate student at Northeastern’s School of Journalism.

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