Journalists aren’t exactly a global corporation’s best friends, but the recent treatment of scribes and photographers at the site of the BP Gulf Coast oil spill has been making headlines nearly as much as the failed attempts to plug the leak. Are journalists being stifled in the name of BP covering its ass? Is BP acting within fair boundaries? Here to discuss are Press Senior Editor Spencer Rumsey, News Editor Timothy Bolger and Jaci Clement, executive director of the Fair Media Council.
Damage control is the order of the day whenever the powerful get into trouble. These journalists are doing what the American public has a right to expect: finding out the full extent of this catastrophic oil spill. Look how long it took before BP even released footage of the oil spewing out of the busted hole. Keeping the pressure on BP and its henchmen is the only way to make sure this terrible problem gets addressed. We’re not living in the Soviet Union, where industrial accidents were routinely covered up. Our Constitution supposedly guarantees us the freest press in the world. So, let them go to work. As we’ve already seen, BP is in too tight with local authorities, the Coast Guard and federal officials, which doesn’t make the journalists’ jobs any easier. But that’s why we need them there now. So many of the richest people in power got their money through Big Oil (think Dick Cheney), and their interests are certainly threatened by this spill. So, it’s up to the press to speak truth to power.
It’s rather appalling that the powers that be—BP, the feds and local authorities—are even capable of restricting press access to scenes of oiled-up beaches on more than 100 miles of coastland across at least two states. Ideally, you’d expect that the combined efforts would be focused on plugging the still-leaking oil well and not dedicating resources to spinning the story. But then again, Big Oil isn’t in the business of ideals. That’s their black gold working its way to Florida’s shores. Makes you wonder how the Sunshine State will handle the influx of oil spill press once the slick reaches the beaches there.
Telling the stories certain entities don’t want told is the highest form of journalism. Unfortunately, it’s also the most expensive form of journalism, which is why the US press is having such a problem covering this story: limited resources and the lack of experienced reporters and researchers (experience is expensive) illustrates how media consolidation is destroying the public’s right to know. I am in the UK right now, where coverage of this issue is different. It focused on the Obama administration distancing itself from BP. This story angle is no surprise, if you know that until 1987 BP was still partially owned by the British government. I would like to see stories focusing on how one company came to own every lease in the Gulf of Mexico as well as BP’s ability to turn major profits despite a track record of serious accidents and human rights violations. Where are those stories?
No question the flacks are winning the publicity wars as news outlets continue to retrench nationwide, and that combined with the heavy-handed spin tactics certainly is not going to help anyone uncover any hidden truths in the Gulf or anywhere else. But if there is any bright side, this is one of those stories that will not be going away anytime soon—especially with the latest reports that the leak won’t be plugged until August at best. The more national and international press descend on the scene and the more pushback they get, the more likely that these beneath-the-surface stories will see the light of day. One can only hope.
I think there may be another bright spot here: The public at large is getting a real-time demonstration on how broken our media system is and why it’s vital that news be treated as a fundamental right, not a commodity.
I expect the Gulf Coast Republican governors to give the media a hard time unless it suits their interests, but I’m annoyed that the president hasn’t made it clear that federal officials should stop coddling BP and start giving the media free access to the entire affected area. Only scrutiny will keep the heat on the clean up.
As the more impactful stories take time, now it’s just up to the readers not to get news fatigue and stop caring about this issue once the true investigative pieces start coming out.