Are Journalists Being Kept From the Oil Spill?

Not if you ask Thad Allen or BP

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On Wednesday, the Jeremy Peters of The New York Times reported on a neglected aspect of the spill: the media's difficulty in covering it. Journalists "have repeatedly found themselves turned away from public areas affected by the spill, and not only by BP and its contractors, but by local law enforcement, the Coast Guard and government officials."

While reporting two sides of the story--both the journalists who are frustrated with "flight restrictions over the water" and the FAA's response that such measures aim "to prevent civilian air traffic from interfering with aircraft assisting the response effort"--Peters also lists a number of restriction cases that seem decidedly iffy. One example: "journalists being told they cannot go somewhere simply because they are journalists." Other reports have mentioned situations in which cleanup workers seemed to have been instructed not to talk to the media.

Yet at the same time, National Incident Commander Admiral Thad Allen, questioned by Mediaite's Tommy Christopher, has insisted he's instructed BP to let journalists go anywhere where safety and security are not a problem.

Meanwhile, BP has responded to allegations of interfering with the media with an unambiguous statement:

Recent media reports have suggested that individuals involved in the clean up operation have been prohibited from speaking to the media, and this is ismply untrue. BP fully suppots and defends all individuals rights [sic] to share their personal thoughts and experiences with journalists if they so choose.

So what's actually going on here? The Wire has collected three firsthand accounts of difficulties covering the spill, as well as a few opinions on how the effort to control information is playing out.

  • We Saw the Real Deal New York Daily News' Matthew Lysiak and Helen Kennedy tell the story of "a BP contract worker who took the Daily News on a surreptitious tour of the wildlife disaster unfolding in Louisiana. His motive: simple outrage." After mentioning the rotting dolphin carcass they saw, they quote the worker saying that "[BP] specifically informed us that they don't want these pictures of the dead animals. They know the ocean will wipe away most of the evidence." Lysiak and Kennedy see barrier islands protected by booms that are clearly failing to keep the oil out. "BP's central role in the disaster cleanup has apparently," they write, "given the company a lot of latitude in keeping the press away from beaches where the oil is thickest. On Monday, a Daily News team was escorted away from a public beach on Elmer's Island bycops who said they were taking orders from BP."
  • The People Who Won't Talk to Me At the end of May, Mother Jones's Mac McClelland wrote up her experiences trying to get to a wildlife refuge on Elmer's Island in Louisiana. "I've been stymied at every turn by Jefferson Parish sheriff's deputies brought in to supplement the local police force of Grand Isle," she writes. She tells of her wild goose chase contacting local authorities to request a press liaison, "only to get routed to voicemail for Melanie with BP." She also reports his interactions with the cleanup crew: "The spill workers staying at my motel later tell me they've been specifically instructed by BP not to talk to any media, but they're pissed because BP tried to tell them that the crude they were swimming around in to move an oil containment boom was red tide, dishwashing-liquid runoff, or mud."
  • Barred from the Beach Julie Dermansky for The Atlantic writes of her experience being invited by "Grand Island Street Superintendent Christopher Hernandez ... to see firsthand that BP is hardly doing all it can to clean up the oil." Hernandez "was dumbfounded when he was barred from stepping onto the oil-polluted beach without having his hands and shoes decontaminated. He found it absurd that his slightly soiled shoes could make the beach worse." She herself, walking along the beach, "withing minutes" found herself followed by "two men in a beach buggy":
They blocked my way and told me I would have to wait until a crew came to decontaminate me. I asked them whom they worked for, and they told me vaguely that they were under the umbrella of BP.
  • Why This Matters "The ability to document a disaster, particularly through images, is key to focusing the nation's attention on it, and the resulting clean-up efforts," explains Newsweek's Matthew Philips. "Within days of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, pictures of dead otters, fish, and birds, as well as oil-covered shorelines, ignited nationwide outrage and led to a backlash against Exxon. Consumers returned some 10,000 of Exxon's 7 million credit cards. Forty days after the spill, protestors organized a national boycott of Exxon. So far, no national boycott of BP is in the works." He also points to another problem with the spill management: "even when access is granted, it's done so under the strict oversight of BP and Coast Guard personnel ... So the company is able to determine what reporters see and when they see it." Meanwhile, "local fishermen and charter boat captains are also being pressured by BP not to work with the press."
  • The Information Is Getting Out, but Slowly Clarissa Pinkola Estes, deputy managing editor for The Moderate Voice, is enraged at the sight of the few photos AP photographer Charles Riedel did manage to take in the past few days. They show birds completely covered in oil. Executive director of the Sierra Club Michael Brune, writing at The Huffington Post, is similarly furious.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.