A handful of media outlets have reported that their reporters were denied access while trying to cover the oil spill in the Gulf, leaving some journalists worried that BP is deciding where they can and can't go. Times-Picayune photojournalist Ted Jackson recounts his access problems while Lieutenant Commander Chris O'Neil of the US Coast Guard explains that BP is definitely not calling the shots.
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BOB GARFIELD: Over the past few weeks, some news organizations have reported a disturbing trend. They say they've been denied access to beaches near and the air space over the Gulf oil spill, denied access by British Petroleum employees. BP is, of course, the company responsible for the spill. A CBS news crew trying to reach an oil-soaked beach taped an incident documenting the problem. Near the end of the clip, you hear a faraway voice saying, “This is BP’s rules, not ours.”
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: When we tried to reach the beach, a boat of BP contractors with two Coast Guard officers on board told us to turn around, under threat of arrest.
MAN: This is just BP’s rules, it’s not ours. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: Just the suggestion that BP is making decisions about the movements of journalists caused an outcry, and by midweek the Coast Guard had stepped in to clarify its media policy and to reiterate that BP is definitely not making the rules. But by that point, a few journalists had already been running in circles, including Times-Picayune photojournalist Ted Jackson, trying to do a routine flyover. Jackson had hired a seaplane to get aerial shots of the spill.
TED JACKSON: Typically, you call the FAA and request permission to get below the temporary flight restriction, and the flight restriction that day was 3,000 feet, which is way too high to make a picture. So we requested to be able to fly lower than that, and the authority asked who was on the flight. And he said, I have the Times-Picayune photographer. And the answer was immediately, no then, you cannot have this exemption. The seaplane company owner asked him, can I get your name so I can put your name in the file of people who were denying this request? He told him his name, and he said that he was a BP contractor hired to handle aviation requests. And that was just very disturbing to think that I was being denied access from a BP representative.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, for a newspaper to invest in the kind of seaplane and boat rides isn't nothing. Are you getting to the point where some of these wild goose chases are going to limit the amount of journalism you can do?
TED JACKSON: Well, that’s exactly what’s happening. You’re spending 1500 dollars for a seaplane or a helicopter to fly two-and-a-half hours or three hours, or whatever it takes, and you get there and you’re turned around. You just can't afford to do that day after day after day, and so you just quit taking those flights.
BOB GARFIELD: Have you heard similar stories from colleagues?
TED JACKSON: The Associated Press has had problems. CBS, I understand, had problems getting to the sites.
BOB GARFIELD: I know the Coast Guard has been trying to take some reporters and photographers to the scene. Have you participated in any of these excursions?
TED JACKSON: Yes, we've done several of those flights. And uh, those are great, because it gives you the access. You don't want to turn down an opportunity. But I kind of liken that to going to Paris and shooting your pictures out the tour bus window. It’s just not the way to do journalism. You don't get to investigate, you don't get to get off the beaten path and to see what’s really out there.
BOB GARFIELD: You didn't get the sense they were propaganda tours, that they were showing you what they wanted you to see and, and hiding from you what they didn't?
TED JACKSON: I didn't get the sense of that. I try not to see the world that way. But, at the same time, I know that I'm not being able to visually ask the questions that I want to ask. The good example of that was just the other day when I went on the air boat tour to a cleanup site, and through no fault of the Coast Guard – I mean, they, they organized it very well, they got us on the boat -- and once there, it was very difficult to get the boat driver to position into an area that I needed the picture because he wasn't working for me. He was working for BP.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, we're speaking on Thursday. You say that as of Wednesday, things seemed to have changed.
TED JACKSON: Correct. We are now able to fly at the 1500-foot ceiling instead of 3,000-, which is a huge difference. And I think if we made a request in the air to go lower, then I think the decision would be made on a case-by-case basis, if it was safe or not. And, and we're fine with that. But we just don't want to be summarily dismissed because we're media. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Ted. Many thanks.
TED JACKSON: Thank you very much.
BOB GARFIELD: Ted Jackson is a photojournalist at The New Orleans Times-Picayune. Lieutenant Commander Chris O’Neill is the chief of media relations at the U.S. Coast Guard. I asked him what role the Coast Guard plays in granting access to reporters.
CHRIS O'NEILL: We have a leading role in the process. You have the Coast Guard that serves as the federal on-scene coordinator ultimately responsible for making decisions, but those decisions get made in a collaborative environment where you have representation from the responsible party in the spill, which in this case is BP, you have the Coast Guard and then you have representatives from the state and local governments.
BOB GARFIELD: We spoke to a photographer from The Times-Picayune who told us that after a whole bevy of complaints from himself and his colleagues that things suddenly changed along around Wednesday. Is that your view of the situation, that there was a problem that got fixed?
CHRIS O'NEILL: I don't know if there was a problem that got fixed. I think we’ve reiterated policy that had been clearly communicated, specifically reminding all parties involved in the response that the media shall at all times be afforded access to response operations and shall only be asked to leave an area when their presence is in violation of an existing law or regulation or clearly violates the written Sight Safety Plan or their presence interferes with effective operations. When you tell people, uh, specific steps they have to take when they encounter that kind of situation, for example, if the presence violates a part of the Site Safety Plan, the worker is required to tell the media how they might remedy the situation without having to depart. And it could be something as simple as putting on splash goggles or some other protective gear.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, I guess not everybody got the memo. We have the incident where the Times-Picayune reporter is told, no, because he’s a journalist he can't go below the 3,000-foot flight threshold.
CHRIS O'NEILL: Well, sure, there’s not unlimited access, and that would be, frankly, unsafe and unproductive. Flight restrictions are in place for a number of reasons, and one of the primary reasons was for the protection of the wildlife. There’s also a matter of deconflicting airspace, so, so there have to be constraints.
BOB GARFIELD: Granted, there’s been a limited number of untoward episodes reported but, you know, I think it’s fair to say that if people think that BP is in any way calling the shots on media access that they would freak out, we would freak out.
CHRIS O'NEILL: I can actually absolutely assure you that the U.S. Coast Guard and the federal government are the ones setting media policy for the Deepwater Horizon response. I think these incidents that have been reported are isolated. They're unfortunate. They're regrettable. It leaves a bad taste in everybody’s mouth, and it’s certainly not the outcome we want. And I think the more than 500 or so media embeds and the coverage that the international community and the national community are seeing in the media of the event shows that we have a very proactive policy and are working very, very hard to embed as many media as possible.
BOB GARFIELD: Well Chris, thank you very, very much.
CHRIS O'NEILL: I really appreciate the opportunity to uh speak with you and your listeners today.
BOB GARFIELD: Lieutenant Commander Chris O’Neill is the chief of media relations for the United States Coast Guard.