As BP makes its latest attempt to plug its gushing oil well, news photographers are complaining that their efforts to document the slow-motion disaster in the Gulf of Mexico are being thwarted by local and federal officials—working with BP—who are blocking access to the sites where the effects of the spill are most visible. More than a month into the disaster, a host of anecdotal evidence is emerging from reporters, photographers, and TV crews in which BP and Coast Guard officials explicitly target members of the media, restricting and denying them access to oil-covered beaches, staging areas for clean-up efforts, and even flyovers.
Last week, a CBS TV crew was threatened with arrest when attempting to film an oil-covered beach. On Monday, Mother Jones published this firsthand account of one reporter’s repeated attempts to gain access to clean-up operations on oil-soaked beaches, and the telling response of local law enforcement. The latest instance of denied press access comes from Belle Chasse, La.-based Southern Seaplane Inc., which was scheduled to take a New Orleans Times-Picayune photographer for a flyover on Tuesday afternoon, and says it was denied permission once BP officials learned that a member of the press would be on board.
“We are not at liberty to fly media, journalists, photographers, or scientists,” the company said in a letter it sent on Tuesday to Sen. David Vitter (R-La.). “We strongly feel that the reason for this massive [temporary flight restriction] is that BP wants to control their exposure to the press.”
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.
The U.S. Coast Guard insists that they and BP have gone to great lengths to accommodate journalists and “roughly 400 members of the media have been given tours of the spill on either BP-contracted aircraft or Coast Guard helicopters,” says U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer David Mosley, who is based at the BP command center in Houma, La. (BP referred all questions to the command center). “I understand there may be some frustration [among the press], but there is a constant ongoing effort to fulfill media requests.” Mosley defended flight restrictions as a necessary safety precaution. Since the flight restrictions were expanded on May 11, private aircraft must get permission from BP’s command center to fly over a huge portion of the Gulf of Mexico encompassing not just the growing slick in the Gulf, but the entire Louisiana coastline, where oil is washing ashore. If a request is denied, aircraft must stay 3,000 feet above the restricted area, where visibility is minimal.
Photographers who have traveled to the Gulf commonly say they believe that BP has exerted more control over coverage of the spill with the cooperation of the federal government and local law enforcement. “It’s a running joke among the journalists covering the story that the words ‘Coast Guard’ affixed to any vehicle, vessel, or plane should be prefixed with ‘BP,’ ” says Charlie Varley, a Louisiana-based photographer. “It would be funny if it were not so serious.”
The problem, as many members of the press see it, is that even when access is granted, it’s done so under the strict oversight of BP and Coast Guard personnel. Reporters and photographers are escorted by BP officials on BP-contracted boats and aircraft. So the company is able to determine what reporters see and when they see it. AP photographer Gerald Herbert has been covering the disaster since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20. He says that access has been hit or miss, and that there have been instances when it’s obvious members of the press are being targeted. “There are times when the Coast Guard has been great, and others where it seems like they’re interfering with our ability to have access,” says Herbert. One of those instances occurred early last week, when Herbert accompanied local officials from Plaquemines Parish in a police boat on a trip to Breton Island, a national wildlife refuge off the barrier islands of Louisiana. With them was Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of Jacques, who wanted to study the impact of the oil below the surface of the water. Upon approaching the island, a Coast Guard boat stopped them. “The first question was, ‘Is there any press with you?’ ” says Herbert. They answered yes, and the Coast Guard said they couldn’t be there. “I had to bite my tongue. That should have no bearing.”
Local fishermen and charter boat captains are also being pressured by BP not to work with the press. Left without a source of income, most have decided to work with BP to help spread booms and ferry officials around. Their passengers used to include members of the press, but not anymore. “You could tell BP was starting to close their grip, telling the fishermen not to talk to us,” says Jared Moossy, a Dallas-based photographer who was covering the spill along the Gulf Coast earlier this month. “They would say that BP had told them not to talk to us or cooperate with us or that they’d get fired.”
Some Gulf Coast watermen find BP’s desire to limit press access obvious. “If there was a major fire in a warehouse, would you let reporters go inside and start taking pictures?” asks Peace Marvel, a charter-boat captain in Venice, La. Job one, he says, is to clean up the spill, and running members of the press around only gets in the way and makes things worse. “Nobody wants this marsh saved as much as we do.” Since the spill, Marvel has turned his 15 years of experience into helping coordinate the logistics of ferrying BP officials around the Gulf Coast to deal with the spreading disaster. His current contract with BP lasts for 30 more days, and he says he’s making more money working for BP than he did as a charter-boat captain. “I’m hustling for business,” he says.
So are the reporters and photographers trying to cover the worst environmental disaster in the history of the U.S. waters. They’ll have to do it without the help of people like Peace Marvel, and against the will of BP.