BP, Government Still Thwarting Press Access

Despite promises to facilitate oil spill coverage, limited transparency persists in the Gulf

Despite repeated promises to improve transparency, BP, the United States government, and their contractors are still inhibiting the media’s ability to cover the largest oil spill in the country’s history, which began April 20 with the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.

The first reports of journalists being denied access to beaches and flights over the offshore spill area surfaced in late May, drawing the ire of many news outlets and sparking some coverage of the obstructions. In response, Adm. Thad Allen of the Coast Guard, who is overseeing the federal response to the oil spill, issued a memo (pdf) ordering greater transparency:

This correspondence serves as a written reminder to all parties involved, in any matter whatsoever, and at any level of the response organization, that media shall, at all times, be afforded access to response operations and shall only be asked to leave an area when their presence is in violation of an existing law or regulation, clearly violates the written site safety plan for the area or interferes with effective operations.

BP’s Chief Operating Officer, Doug Suttles, followed up on June 9 with a letter (pdf) to response personnel, stating that “BP fully supports and defends all individuals’ rights to share their personal thoughts and experiences with journalists if they so choose.” At the same time, however, Suttles argued that, “Recent media reports have suggested that individuals involved in the clean up operation have been prohibited from speaking to the media, and this is simply not true.”

Whether he is simply ignorant or willfully prevaricating (as BP has been known to do throughout this ordeal), Suttles was dead wrong, and a lack of transparency continues to be one of many pockmarks marring industry and government’s response to the oil spill. On Wednesday evening, the Associated Press produced a terrific article that highlighted ongoing access problems and catalogued half a dozen instances of media obstruction since the beginning of June.

One of those instances involved WDSU, a New Orleans television station, which reported last Friday that:

Private security guards patrolling an oil-stained portion of Grand Isle attempted repeatedly to prevent a WDSU news crew from walking on a public beach and speaking with cleanup workers — a confrontation that followed a BP corporate promise not to interfere in such a manner.

It was the second day in a row WDSU News anchor Scott Walker was approached by hired security in the area.

On Monday, USA Today published an editorial complaining that:

BP maintains these are anomalies. But every such attempt deepens the impression that BP, having caused the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, is trying to manipulate what the public sees about it….

Just as outrageous have been the government’s controlling actions.

According to the Associated Press article, AP’s senior managing editor, Michael Oreskes, wrote to White House press secretary Robert Gibbs on Wednesday, “demanding that President Barack Obama’s administration improve media access.” The article also noted that:

AP first contacted Obama on June 5, outlining its concerns in a letter from President and CEO Tom Curley. Gibbs followed up with a call to AP editors and a written response. If journalists have concerns, Gibbs said, they can call to report their experiences with a joint information center run by the federal government and BP in Houma, La.

Oreskes called the number from his office in New York on Tuesday and left a message, but has not received a response. Also on Tuesday, however, the Unified Area Command overseeing the response efforts announced that it was moving its offices from Robert, Louisiana to New Orleans in order to “facilitate continued 24-hour activities and decision making … [and] move response command staff closer to operational locations along the coast.” At the same time, the Unified Command also announced two new phone numbers for reporters to contact the Joint Information Center: (713) 323-1670 and (713) 323-1671.

Moving the command center was one of the suggestions for improving media access contained in a letter that the Society of Environmental Journalists sent to Adm. Thad Allen of the Coast Guard, expressing the society’s concerns about media obstruction in the Gulf. The letter also recommended that the Joint Command provide detailed, daily situation briefings and make them available online; bring on-the-ground experts to press conferences; encourage responders to talk to reporters; and direct them to allow the media to access contaminated areas. (The society also posted an account of the ongoing transparency problems on its WatchDog TipSheet on Thursday, which includes an excellent roundup of numerous articles from around the Web about the media’s woes.)

These are all great ideas. Whether or not they’ll come to pass or improve media access remains to be seen, of course. Until then, it is incumbent upon all reporters to continue their valiant efforts to cover the spill and remove the barriers that inhibit their work.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.