the observatory

Media Obstruction in Galveston

Press denied access in the wake of Hurricane Ike
September 18, 2008

It was a rough week for the Galveston County Daily News. On Saturday, Hurricane Ike tore off its roof and left reporters with a single cell phone from which to operate, according to the Houston Chronicle:

[Editor Heber] Taylor was blogging as the eye of the storm passed over Galveston Island and the natural gas that powered the generator was cut off. The power went out as Taylor put the period to his last sentence: “We are about to lose contact.”

The newspaper plunged into darkness, and the wind tore off the roof soon afterward, allowing in rain that soaked the interior. The storm surge lapped at the newspaper’s doorstep.

Covering the hurricane’s aftermath brought additional challenges. Literally adding insult to injury, Galveston’s mayor, Lyda Ann Thomas, “on Monday ordered all city employees not to talk to news reporters. She did not say when that order would be lifted,” according to an article by the Daily News’s Rhiannon Meyers:

Thomas and City Manager Steve LeBlanc will be the only officials allowed to talk to reporters… But at a noon press conference Monday, Thomas and LeBlanc talked for less than 30 minutes and refused to answer more than five questions. Thomas said she would try to hold another conference today.

Daily News reporters who tried to speak to city employees were denied and told no one could talk except for the mayor and city manager.

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A conversation about the complaints of media obstruction broke out on the Society of Environmental Journalists’ list-serv. (It is a private, off-the-record list, but the individuals here granted permission to quote their e-mails.) One reporter, speculating that “something’s definitely up,” pointed out a CNN article from last week, which quoted Mayor Thomas saying, “We do not intend to evacuate Galveston Island … It’s the last thing we want to do. Our job is to protect lives and property, [and] right now we feel that sheltering in place is the best action for our citizens to take.”

Hurricane Katrina was proof that such poor advice can come back to haunt a politician. And whether or not Thomas’s earlier decisions factored into her media blackout, authorities are very sensitive to how the public perceives their response to emergencies. On the SEJ list-serv, Dr. William Freudenburg, a professor of environment and society at the University of California, Santa Barbara, concurred:

I’m not sure what’s going on in Galveston, but as someone who has paid attention to disaster research for a very long time, I can tell you that a secrecy instinct actually a fairly common reaction after a disaster. The people we call “officials” feel they’re supposed to be “in charge,” but they don’t know what the hell to do. So they clamp down, in any way they can.

The Daily News was not the only paper frustrated by obstructions to its reporting. New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter Chris Kirkham, who has covered four hurricanes, said in an interview that roadblocks were the biggest impediment to his work. “Usually a press pass gets you through,” he said. But in his opinion local authorities were trying too hard to be “a step ahead of the media.” Earlier this week on the SEJ list-serv, Kirkham wrote:

I was there in Galveston from the beginning, and at one of the earlier news conferences the City Manager said police would take reporters out to certain areas but that “there may be things we don’t want you to see.” Also tried to ban footage of any bodies (though only 5 reported so far).

Of course everyone just went out on their own anyway, but it seemed they were pretty clueless about how to be in the middle of a national story. They also keep restricting access to the heavily damaged west end of the island, for no apparent reason (roads no longer flooded).

Ostensibly, authorities want to exert some measure of information control in order to avert panic and incendiary rumor. As freelance writer Joseph Davis pointed out on the SEJ list:

[I]t’s also interesting to take a few grab samples of the blogosphere-buzz someone referred to — secrecy of course shifts all of us paranoid schizophrenics into overdrive, a category some put me in … So far I have read items suggesting that they will be pulling 20,000 bodies out of there, that there is a bio-defense facility on the island, that FEMA has taken over cell phone service there, etc. I know of no reason to think any of these true.

And fear of Internet gossip should not prohibit responsible journalism. The ABC News affiliate in Houston carried a video of investigative reporter Wayne Dolcefino confronting Texas governor Rick Perry about temporary “no-fly” zones for TV helicopters over parts of the Bolivar peninsula and west Galveston, the hardest hit areas. Later in the video, Dolcefino tells the ABC anchors:

After Katrina, we were able to go to Waveland, Mississippi, and Gulfport, and Biloxi, and places that were devastated, where there were, sadly, bodies on the road. Now that’s a horrible thing to see and a horrible thing to show, but people who live there, who have friends there, who have relatives there, have a fundamental right to know that stuff. They have a fundamental right to know, not just from the words of a politician or public official, but from the news media, which are independent of government and have also the responsibility of trying to help the public evaluate response…

We couldn’t get crews back on Galveston last night and this morning until we complained on the air for about twenty hours. And it’s not because we want to sightsee, guys, it’s because we have the responsibility of telling people… I made it as clear to [Gov. Perry] off camera as I did on camera that this is not going to be tolerated. You know, we hear about disasters in other countries—what was it, Burma, Myanmar—where they won’t let people in to see and you know, this is the state of Texas; this America. And we’re not trying to interfere with rescue and search operations, nor did anyone suggest we would be.

When asked why he thought the government was obstructing access, Dolcefino did not mince words:

I don’t think they want us to see images that may remind people… of the images that we saw in New Orleans. I don’t think they want us to see the images that were seen in Waveland, Mississippi or Gulfport… I think that’s the reality; they do not want us to see yet, until they can control what we see and how we see it. And that is simply, at least in my career, unacceptable. Maybe a lot of reporters won’t say it, but I will. I think they do not want us to see images of potential fatalities that may be on land or on water.

Other reporters didn’t think access was much of a problem. The Houston Chronicle’s Matthew Tresaugue said he wasn’t sure why TV choppers were prohibited from flying last Sunday, but that there were, in fact, reporters in the air. On SEJ’s list-serv he noted that:

The Chronicle had a photographer over Bolivar on Sunday about the same time as the televised confrontation. I flew with a photographer from High Island to Galveston’s west end to Surfside Beach in a Cessna yesterday, and one of our columnists and a photographer got a closer view of the same area from a helicopter. … I think the difference is the television guys wanted to take their helicopters, and we hitched rides. On my flight, I was able to see what I needed and even double back to take second looks. I can’t complain.

At any rate, its’ hard to imagine that information about the government’s response to Hurricane Ike would not get out sooner or later, and access seems to have improved since the weekend. But authorities should realize that obstructing the media’s ability to report in disaster zones only makes the public more suspicious about the adequacy of their response.

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