Oil Spill Pictures and the Media Blackout
Something is seriously wrong in our country. British Petroleum has thrown a media blackout over the Gulf Coast, with the apparent complicity of some in our federal and local governments. We are now 51 days into the oil spill disaster, and BP still has such a stranglehold on access to the Gulf that only a few pictures have trickled out of the area. We’ve posted a few pictures of animals in the oil spill, but there haven’t been many of those pictures available for people to see. And the lack of photographs is the direct result of BP’s shutdown of the media.
Oil Spill Pictures Banned by BP.
My concern began weeks ago when my camera crew called from Venice, Louisiana to tell me that they were being denied access to the beach. Nothing significant was going on, and the Coast Guard gave them permission to take pictures, but British Petroleum overruled the U.S. Coast Guard. When and how did British Petroleum get the authority to decide who could walk on public beaches in the United States of America? When (and from whom) did British Petroleum obtain the authority to overrule the United States Coast Guard? Before leaving Venice, my crew heard rumors of dead animals washing up on oil rigs and reefs in the Gulf, but no one was allowed to try to verify the rumors or take pictures of dead animals. Since that time, here’s what’s happened:
- May 20, 2010 – A CBS News crew, trying to film oil-covered beaches, was told to turn around, under threat of arrest by a boatload of BP contractors and Coast Guard officials. The Coast Guard officials said “this is BP’s rules, not ours.” Since when does the Coast Guard follow BP’s rules, rather than the law of the United States of America?
- May 24,201 - Mother Jones reporter Mac McClelland was blocked from Elmer’s Island by four cars of deputy sheriffs who ordered all media to go to the BP Information Center. Based on the pablum that was being served by BP officials, I would venture a guess that a more appropriate name would have been the BP Disinformation Center.
- May 25, 2010 – Southern Seaplane Inc., which planned to take a New Orleans Times-Picayune photographer for a flyover, was denied permission to fly 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,” Southern Seaplane said in a letter to Sen. David Vitter (R-La.). “We strongly feel that the reason for this massive [flight restriction] is that BP wants to control their exposure to the press.”
- Jean-Michel Cousteau, grandson of Jacques, was blocked when he tried to go to Breton Island to study the impact of oil below the surface of the water. A Coast Guard boat stopped Cousteau’s boat and asked, “Is there any press with you?” Cousteau answered yes, and the Coast Guard told him they couldn’t be there.
- May 25, 2010 – Fast Company published an article entitled “”Why Is BP Investing in a Bloated, Ineffective Oil Spill PR Coverup?” Fast Company wrote, “”BP is doing its damnedest to keep reporters out of the hardest hit areas.” Fast Company also posted a video in which BP CEO Tony Hayward took a tour of some Louisiana beaches. In the video, Hayward yelled at a cameraman, ordering him out of the water.
- May 26, 2010 – Newsweek published “BP’s Photo Blockade of the Gulf Oil Spill,” with reports of BP and government officials blocking efforts by photographers to document the effects of the oil spill.
- June 2, 2010 – The San Francisco Chronicle reported on “BP’s photo blackout.” According to the Chronicle, “One [BP] cleanup worker took a New York Daily News reporter on a tour of allegedly forbidden areas after watching pelicans trying to get oil off of themselves — ‘They keep trying to clean themselves. They try and they try, but they can’t do it.’” The reporter saw “a dolphin carcass with oil ‘just pouring out of it.’”
- June 7, 2010 – Discover published “Meet the Oil-Covered Pelicans, Symbols of the BP Oil Spill:” Discover interviewed James Harris, a senior official of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Harris explained why there is anger over images of oil-soaked brown pelicans. “I think it’s possible that [the pelicans] might come to symbolize the whole disaster,” Harris said. “For the people of Louisiana, the brown pelican is just as much a symbol of the state as the American eagle is for the nation as a whole, and to see the state emblem being threatened again and despoiled–people are very upset and angry about that.”
- Discover also interviewed an Associated Press official about pictures of oil-soaked birds taken by AP Photographer Charlie Riedel. “[The pictures of birds are] definitely everlasting at this point. That is the power of still photos…. They have become that iconic yet horrible vision of what people had expected to see…. You will remember a bird completely covered in oil,” the official said. “In the eyes, you can see there’s something wrong. And you can study it. The eyes always tell a story.” (Reidel’s pictures are contained in the video below).
- June 7, 2010 – WAGA-TV (Atlanta, Georgia) reporter George Franco was arrested and charged with battery for allegedly shoving and grabbing a British Petroleum employee on a Pensacola, Florida beach. The 52-year-old reporter “was in the general area (of a clean-up site) in a staging area,” Escambia County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Melissa Aiken Rawson told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “A BP contract employee asked him to leave the area.” Franco allegedly grabbed the BP employee, spinning him around. Sheriff’s deputies tracked down Franco and put him in handcuffs, authorities said. He was booked into the Escambia County jail and was later released on $500 bond.
- June 8, 2010 – CNN’s Anderson Cooper, standing outside a building in Louisiana where oil-soaked birds were being cleaned, reported that he and his crew had been refused admission to the building by federal wildlife officials. CNN was not allowed inside to take pictures of birds affected by the oil spill.
Oil Spill Pictures and the First Amendment
It’s understandable that British Petroleum would not want the American public to see pictures of birds soaked in oil. Pictures of animals struggling to survive underneath a heavy coat of crude is bound to elicit compassion and indignation on the part of Americans, and those are emotions that don’t serve the financial interests of British Petroleum. So it makes sense (in a purely selfish way) for BP to use heavy-handed methods to prevent photographers from taking wildlife pictures. What’s hard to understand is why federal and local officials would cooperate in this media blackout. Has BP’s money really bought that much influence?
Maybe we Americans need to be reminded who and what British Petroleum is. BP is a corporation, and a corporation differs from a human being in several important respects. A corporation is a legal entity created in a lawyer’s office for one purpose, and one purpose only–to make as much money as possible for its shareholders. It has been said, and I believe it is true, that a corporation has no heart, soul, or conscience. It has also been said metaphorically that a corporation has a pocketbook in the place where a human has a heart. Although BP may have a Facebook page, BP is incapable of being our “friend.”
We don’t have to wonder if British Petroleum views the U.S. as a friend. BP’s Swedish Chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, said in a newspaper interview exactly how he sees the relationship: “The U.S. is a big and important market for BP, and BP is also a big and important company for the U.S,, with its contribution to drilling and oil and gas production. So the position goes both ways.”
Well, I’m sorry, but I don’t believe the position goes both ways. The United States of America is a sovereign country, and is responsible for furthering the hopes and dreams of hundreds of millions of Americans and, yes, protecting their rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. British Petroleum is a foreign corporation, and its only interest is making money. In my opinion, the only appropriate response to BP’s media blackout is outrage. Britain doesn’t have a First Amendment (instead, it has a watered down “free expression” law). But the First Amendment still guarantees Americans the constitutional rights to freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly.
The facts leave this inescapable conclusion: the media blackout is not the sole responsibility of British Petroleum. I’m sure the U.S. government did not actually endorse or agree to the blackout, but somehow some members of the U.S. Coast Guard, federal wildlife officials, Louisiana sheriff’s deputies, Florida sheriff’s deputies, and air traffic controllers have become complicit in the cover-up. I can’t explain it, but I suspect it may have something to do with the federal government’s stance that BP is the “responsible party” and our somewhat “hands off” position on the cleanup. We have argued here at BPOilNews.com that the federal government should take control of the on-the-ground cleanup effort, and this media blackout is just one more argument in favor of federal control. But whether or not the federal government completely takes over the oil spill cleanup, the government cannot ignore the blackout or allow it to continue any longer. President Obama should publicly renounce BP’s media blackout, and should instruct all federal officials to guarantee that our first amendment rights are not denied.
If the Ayatollahs Can’t Stop Twitter, BP Can’t Stop Us
A media blackout may have been possible before the days of Twitter, Facebook and the Internet. But if people in Iran can use Twitter to share news of anti-government demonstrations, people in the U.S. can “crowdsource” photographs and video of the oil-soaked wildlife killed and injured by British Petroleum. Every person with a camera and access to the beaches and marshes should join together in a movement to show the world this man-made disaster. If you can and will help, please contact me by commenting on this blog, using the Contact Form, messaging me at Twitter @BPOilNews, or posting to www.Facebook.com/BPOilNews or Facebook.com/DearPres.Obama.