As oil spread, did BP battle to contain the media?

As BP works to control the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, local wildlife struggle for survival.
By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 3, 2010

NEW ORLEANS -- At first, it seemed that a British company might be trying to keep an American journalist off an American beach. Ted Jackson, a staff photographer for the Times-Picayune, drove two hours to Port Fourchon, La., to shoot photos of tar balls on public property but was stopped 100 yards from the surf by harbor police. After 30 minutes of phone calls to higher authorities, Jackson said, the police allowed him 15 minutes of obstructed photographing, out of view of workers who were taking samples from the beach.

Last week, Jackson was also unable to book a flight over Grand Isle from a charter plane company in Belle Chasse, La., because the owner could not obtain permission from BP's command center to enter restricted airspace. BP, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Coast Guard were refusing access to planes carrying media, according to Southern Seaplane's secretary-treasurer, Rhonda Panepinto, who fired off a three-page letter to Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) on May 25.

"We strongly feel that the reason for this massive [temporary flight restriction] is that BP wants to control their exposure to the press," she wrote. "We are all at the mercy of BP, a British-owned company."

This week, things got better. The FAA sent two special operations managers to the Gulf Coast on Tuesday to oversee flight access, according to Panepinto, whose company flew Jackson around Chandeleur and Ship islands on Wednesday and is fielding requests from other media outlets, with no grief from authorities.

"It's almost like there's a new sheriff in town," Jackson said.

Perhaps the gulf operation is smoothing itself out after a month and a half of oil gush and media crush. Authorities had weathered criticism for a series of minor run-ins that gave the impression that BP was calling the shots.

Last week a Mother Jones reporter was told she couldn't see Elmer's Island without being accompanied by a BP representative, because it's "BP's oil." Two weeks ago Coast Guard officials cited "BP's rules" when demanding that a CBS News crew leave a beach area. (Representatives from CNN, ABC and local CBS affiliate WWL-TV in New Orleans said last week that their journalists had not encountered significant obstacles while covering the oil story.)

"Neither BP nor the U.S. Coast Guard, who are responding to the spill, have any rules in place that would prohibit media access to impacted areas and we were disappointed to hear of this incident," said Rob Wyman, a lieutenant commander for the Coast Guard, in a statement responding to the CBS episode. "In fact, media has been actively embedded and allowed to cover response efforts since this response began, with more than 400 embeds aboard boats and aircraft to date."

On Saturday, a University of North Carolina energy blog titled Powering a Nation posted images of a BP contract that barred owners of vessels it chartered from making "public statements." A BP spokesman said the company has standard contractual language designed to protect proprietary information, and that it has allowed media to cover its Vessels of Opportunity program, which employs local boat owners in cleanup efforts.

The FAA responded to initial criticism over air traffic restriction by citing security concerns and asserting that BP employees and contractors were not involved in those decisions.

Hundreds of media outlets are demanding access to a highly mutable, complex situation, and local, state and federal officials say they are working together -- under the majestic heading of Deepwater Horizon Unified Command -- to streamline the responses to both reporters and the public.

"With regards to media, we follow an incident command system, a tried-and-true way of responding to crises," said a spokesman for BP from the Unified Command's headquarters in Robert, La. "You have public information officers and you have a joint information center that includes the responsible party, BP, as well as government agencies who have involvement and oversight for this spill, the Coast Guard being the federal on-scene coordinator. We have state people, NOAA, representatives from Transocean [the company that owned the rig that created the spill]. We've had MMS. What we do is use information that comes in through our operations and create, if you will, the message to share."

That message, right now, is that the authorities want to provide access to the story while maintaining the proper safety parameters for both cleanup workers and the environment itself. But there might be more obstacles down the road if the situation intensifies, according to Chip Babcock, a trial lawyer specializing in media and First Amendment cases at the Houston legal firm Jackson Walker, which brought suit against FEMA when it blocked journalists from covering the removal of dead bodies in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina.

"There's going to be, I think, a natural hesitancy to let journalists show images of the horrific scenes that are going to happen purely in the next few weeks," Babcock said. "You'll see these beaches clogged with oil, and animals suffering, and I think -- human nature being what it is -- there's going to be some people who don't want those images shown."

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