Mother Jones’s Mac McClelland tore into the AFP, in particular. After reading its report, she sent text messages to a Bloomberg reporter on Grand Isle and a member of American Bird Association on Isle Grand Terre, asking how things looked from there. Both replied that globs of crude were readily apparent, and McClelland criticized the media for “whitewashing” the story:
If I managed to find that much oil with my BlackBerry without getting dressed or leaving the house, let’s hope Thad Allen, who is quoted in the article as saying, “What we’re trying to figure out is where is all the oil at and what can we do about it,” can locate some more with the staff and craft of the United States Coast Guard at his disposal.
McClelland’s ire is understandable, but any misimpression about how the threat to the Gulf has now passed seems, in this case, due more to the media’s reporting than to Allen himself. On Wednesday, for instance, a front-page article in The New York Times ran a quote from Allen that the AFP and BBC should have included as well.
“I think we all need to understand that we, at least in the history of this country, we’ve never put this much oil into the water. And we need to take this very seriously,” he said.
[Update, 8/3: On Tuesday, the Times reported that federal scientists and engineers “believe that the current estimates are accurate to within 10 percent. They also reported that of the roughly 4.9 million barrels that had been released from the well, about 800,000 had been captured by BP’s containment efforts. That leaves over four million barrels that gushed into the Gulf of Mexico from April 20 to July 15.”]
While the Times should be commended for delivering a more nuanced account of the situation than the AFP or BBC, however, its article also could have done more to emphasize the lingering threat of oil. The top half of the story is devoted to a discussion of the “good news” that oil on the surface of the Gulf is dissipating quickly. But a quote in which Jane Lubchenco, the head of that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) stresses that “less oil on the surface does not mean that there isn’t oil beneath the surface … or that our beaches and marshes are not still at risk,” probably should have run higher than the fourteenth paragraph.
“We are extremely concerned about the short-term and long-term impacts of the gulf ecosystem,” Lubchenco said.
A shorter article in The Washington Post on Tuesday deserves credit for highlighting that concern immediately after the disclosure that the surface slick has receded. And a front-page story that it ran on Thursday is commendable for describing the oil as “unaccounted for” rather than “vanished” (the Times’s term). Yet the latter article loses points for leading with the suggestion that former BP CEO Tony Hayward was right when he said back in May that “the Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean” and the that the amount of oil was small by comparison. After all, eight paragraphs down Lubchenco makes it clear that diluted does not mean benign.
That point was also picked up by the Los Angeles Times, which had one of the best ledes (buried on page twelve, unfortunately), accentuating the fact that:
Even though significantly less crude is now floating on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, federal officials warned Tuesday that the region could still suffer long-term negative impacts from the spill, particularly from oil beneath the water’s surface.