See No Evil, Report No Evil

Covering the oil spill, reporters must ensure that what’s out of sight isn’t out of mind

The gall of BP and their federal overseers in withholding the fact that the “top kill” effort was suspended for much of yesterday is almost too outrageous to be believed. Officials from both the oil giant and the government gave the impression Thursday morning that their efforts to plug the gushing well with heavy drilling mud were working—even though the company had stopped pumping mud around midnight on Wednesday. The obfuscation continued until late in the afternoon, when a technician told the New York Times that BP had suspended the operation the previous night because too much mud was leaking from the riser along with the oil.

This afternoon, it appears that the optimism, if not the substance, of what was conveyed may have been warranted. BP now says that it has suppressed the flow of oil in the Gulf by supplementing the mud with an injection of bulky items, termed the “junk shot,” and will maintain the pressure and attempt to cap the well with cement. But the failure yesterday to alert the public as the process unfolded is good evidence that BP is ignoring the first lesson in disaster management PR: transparency. It also serves as a troubling reminder that so much of what is happening with the spill, almost a mile underwater, is beyond the scrutiny of truly independent oversight. As late as Thursday afternoon, Coast Guard Admiral and National Incident Commander Thad Allen, who has seemed like a reliably straight shooting source of information thus far, said in his typically jargon-heavy language that BP was continuing to pump mud into the well and that hydrocarbons had stopped leaking into the Gulf. Neither of those claims was true at the time, if today’s media reports are accurate.

Update, 11:30 p.m.: Late Friday afternoon, The New York Times ran a story online that appeared on the front page of Saturday’s paper, which reported that BP was still not shooting straight with the media or the public. Again, BP and the Coast Guard did not acknowledge a twelve-hour interruption and issued ‘mission accomplished-esque’ comments that are misleading at best. Here’s the relevant quote from the Times story:

BP suspended pumping operations at 2:30 a.m. Friday after two junk shot attempts, said the technician, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the efforts. They resumed the procedure at about 3:45 local time, after the nearly 12-hour interruption.

The suspension of the effort was not announced, and appeared to again contradict statements by company and government officials that suggested the top kill procedure was progressing Friday.

The disturbing and intentional miscommunication should sharpen journalists’ skepticism about reports on things they can’t see with their own eyes. Unfortunately, in the case of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, that category contains much of what is actually going on. But beyond that, even what should be plain to see is being hidden. The misinformation about the stalled top kill follows reports about BP’s attempts to thwart photographers and camera crews on the ground or in the water from documenting the crude that’s washing ashore. The local cops are helping to run interference, and Newsweek’s Matthew Philips reports that BP has also sought to prevent overflights by journalists. This is unacceptable, and may be even illegal on its face, but Philips notes the broader significance: the pictures of stricken wildlife provide the most tangible and gut-wrenching evidence of the suffering this catastrophe has and will continue to cause:

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. 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, despite growing frustration over the company’s inability to cap the leaking well. Obviously, pictures are emerging from this spill, but much of the images are coming from BP and government sources.

Increasingly, though, stories are emerging that document the plight of the impacted wildlife. The Washington Post reports that “in the Louisiana marsh, oil-coated pelicans flap their wings in a futile attempt to dry them. A shorebird repeatedly dunks its face in a puddle, unable to wash off. Lines of dead jellyfish float in the gulf, traces of oil visible in their clear ‘bells.’” A powerful photo gallery narrated by the Associated Press photographer and Louisiana native Gerald Herbert aired on PBS’s NewsHour Wednesday night, and was featured by Newsweek online Thursday.

The images are bound to mount. The Deepwater Horizon spill is now officially the worst in U.S. history. New estimates released yesterday gauge the leak between 12,000 and 25,000 barrels of oil a day. The largest estimates, according to a report obtained by NYT today, peg the spill at about 30 million gallons to date—almost three times the amount that fouled 1,000 miles of coastline in Alaska in 1989 after the Exxon Valdez foundered in Prince William’s Sound. The new figures are several times the BP/Coast Guard official figure of 5,000 barrels a day, which has been reported over and over again since it was released about one week after the rig exploded, even though evidence existed then and has grown since that it was a gross underestimate.

If BP’s latest efforts succeed in capping the well, the press, of course, will increasingly focus on the cleanup. The pictures of flailing pelicans and lifeless sea turtles are dramatic and sickening, but we should remember that what is seen on the surface of the Gulf and along the coastline is arguably no more important in the long term than what is hidden from view in the water column. The direct application of chemical dispersants to the mile-deep leak is an unprecedented experiment that has probably prevented large amounts of oil from ever coming into view. No one knows what the effects will be; fears are that the oil could poison the food chain from bottom to top, starting with the plankton on up to the larger species, including filter feeders and others that are now spawning in what could be a very toxic brew, and others that are now spawning in what could be a very toxic brew.

Earlier this week, more than a month into the disaster, we saw the first images of an underwater plume. For some reason, we had to wait for Philippe Cousteau Jr., the grandson of undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau, to take this initiative. But some news outlets have begun giving the unseen dangers their due. The Washington Post story mentioned above and many others on Thursday cited the ominous discovery of a huge plume of dispersed oil underwater, which could be the first of many:

[S]cientists from the University of South Florida reported the discovery in the gulf of a “plume” of dissolved oil that was six miles wide and up to 20 miles long. The plume extended from the surface down to a depth of 3,200 feet.

The oil is entirely dissolved in the water, which appears clear, USF professor David Hollander said. That seemed to confirm the fears of some scientists that, because of the depth of the leak and the heavy use of chemical dispersants, this spill was behaving differently than others. Instead of floating on top of the water, it may be moving beneath it.

That could hamper containment efforts and would also be a problem for ecosystems deep under the gulf. There, scientists say, the oil could be absorbed by tiny animals and enter a food chain that builds to sportfish such as red snapper. It might also glom on to deep coral formations.” End block quote.

So much of what happens going forward won’t be plain to see. The pictures may never get as brutal on as large a scale as those that documented the fallout from the Valdez. By nature, we are extremely visual creatures. The challenge the media faces is to engage the public, and keep pressure on government and industry, when many of the most pressing issues may be largely “invisible.” Looking forward, we have to make sure that what’s out of sight doesn’t slip out of mind.

[Correction: The text of this article has been changed to reflect that sperm whales are not filter feeders. We regret the error.]

Brett Norman is a reporter for Politico.