When WDSU-TV anchor Scott Walker visited a Grand Isle beach in June to speak with oil cleanup workers, representatives from "Talon Security" — hired by BP — prevented him from getting any closer than the beach. A BP subcontractor, Adam Dillon, told Walker he wished he could say more on camera — but he couldn't.
Walker's encounter, caught on video, went viral on YouTube, blogs and other news outlets; he was interviewed on MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann. Soon, other reporters fired back, reporting similar access (or lack thereof) to the Louisiana coast in the wake of BP's oil disaster.
A month later, Walker spoke again with Dillon — who had been fired. Dillon described BP's deliberate attempts to keep the media at bay and the public in the dark, saying anyone who talks to reporters would face termination.
Is getting fired what it takes to get people talking?
BP contractors and cleanup workers are given cards and guidelines so they know how to deal with media — but it's not making the media's jobs any clearer. Even as officials assert there is no media blackout along the coast and that workers are free to speak with the press, it's often not the case, at least on camera or on the record. Recent attempts by Unified Incident Command (which includes BP, the U.S. Coast Guard, Transocean and several government agencies) to bar media members from a 65-foot "safety zone" near boom and oil operations were scrapped after howls from reporters, photographers and even Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser. Today, members of the media need "credentials," a simple Microsoft Word document exempting them from the 65-feet restriction — as long as they are traveling by boat. Access to beaches and other oil-related areas is still left to the discretion of those controlling them. Violating the law is now considered a Class D felony with a fine of $40,000 and up to five years in prison.
But under whose authority are these restrictions enforced?
"We have no idea," says Marjorie Esman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, which, she says, has been flooded with complaints from members of the press who've experienced access problems. "One of the concerns we've had all along is nobody seems to know who's making these decisions — whether it's BP telling the Coast Guard what to do, whether it's the Coast Guard telling BP what to do, we don't know. It's an important distinction because we can't have a private company running our government."
In May, a CBS News crew was prevented from filming an oil-covered beach by BP officials, who were accompanied by two Coast Guard officers on a boat. After threatening to arrest the reporter and cameraman, the Coast Guard seemed to apologize to the news crew when it told them, "This is BP's rules. This is not ours."
Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based school and resource for journalists, says BP doesn't have any right to restrict citizens from anything other than BP's private property.
"They can keep you off the oil rig, but they cannot keep you from a beach or a wetland, and it doesn't matter how much they're spending on the cleanup — they don't own the property," McBride says. But things get complicated when private security forces are involved, along with an "impenetrable conglomeration of local law enforcement, Coast Guard, BP and the FBI," McBride says.
"We really do a have a right to be there if they don't have anything to hide," Walker says.
Restricted access could just be an honest miscommunication as word flows down the chain of command — or it could be a deliberate attempt to ban media by BP, its subcontractors, the Coast Guard, local law enforcement — or any combination of these.
"There's a lot of conflicting information, and everybody can interpret things their own way, and that leads to a lot of confusion among the rank and file when it's coming down from the top," Walker says. "There's a lot of people down there who just want do their job and do the best they can."
And those jobs are on the line. Walker says BP first told its employees they might be fired if they spoke to the media, though National Incident Commander Thad Allen and other officials, including those from BP, have clarified that there is no restriction.
"If you've been threatened before, are you really going to jump out and talk?" Walker says.
"I'm like the dark cloud they don't want hovering over them," says WWL-TV reporter Bigad Shaban, who also reports difficulty speaking with cleanup workers. "It's not their fault. They're told something, and their livelihood is at stake. You take it for what it is."
Mother Jones human rights reporter Mac McClelland has been in Grand Isle and along the Gulf Coast since May 3, where she's kayaked over and photographed booms, witnessed what she says are lazy cleanup operations and relied on a BP "mole" who says he is under a strict "no talking or you're fired" rule — despite a BP document provided to workers that says "BP supports the rights of all individuals to share their personal thoughts and experiences with journalists, if they so choose," and "BP has not and will not prevent anyone working in the cleanup operations from sharing his or her own opinions."
McClelland says BP is either "outsourcing the blame" to its subcontractors who are pushing reporters off the beach, or the blackout is a "willful, dishonest propaganda scheme," where the media and public are told one thing while oil responders have "purposefully been keeping us away this whole time, and they were just paying lip service to the idea of treating us fair."
Compare this to Pensacola, Fla., where McClelland says the difference is significant. "They'll let you do whatever the f—k you want in Florida," she says. "You can take pictures, talk to cleanup workers, there's no cops. It's not like here where there's a creepy, police-state feel. The only thing I reported on site in Florida was they apparently don't care."
On a July 10 trip to Grand Isle, Talon Security employees (the same company that intercepted Walker) instructed Gambit editor Kevin Allman to get no closer to the shoreline than a fence set up away from inflatable Tiger Dam boom — which, Allman says, was "stretched across the beach like police tape."
Allman and his party were approached by a "beach volunteer," he says. "She was an older woman who said she had worked for an oil company all her life, and was now volunteering with BP — almost like a Walmart greeter," he says. "She talked about how the workers were taking the sand away to have it cleaned in a machine that was like 'a big Maytag,' and that when they were done, the beach would be 'better than new' — but she had no idea where the 'big Maytag' was."
While attempting to photograph oiled marsh in Grand Isle State Park that day, Allman says, a pickup truck with blue lights materialized behind his car. "The guy said I couldn't park on the side of the road, and he meant business," Allman says. "I didn't know if he was state police or private security. There was no one else around, no witnesses, and we didn't push the point."
Shaban was also denied entry at Fort Jackson's Bird Rehabilitation Center in Buras, La. — even though he had permission not only from Sen. David Vitter, R-Metairie, who invited Shaban, but also from Unified Command. Vitter and Coast Guard Lt. Commander Christian Lee spoke in private for 15 minutes after Vitter argued to let Shaban and his crew inside. Shaban never got an answer why he couldn't enter, other than that he would "disturb the wildlife" — though the Coast Guard allowed Vitter to enter the center with 20 others, a scene broadcast on WWL-TV.
"I don't think the oiled birds were worried about a reporter coming in. I think they're worried about the oil covering their entire body," Shaban says.
Some journalists say breaking the rules isn't out of the question, especially when it's the only way to tell a story as important as the oil disaster.
"Journalist loyalty resides with uncovering the truth and sharing that with his audience," McBride says. "Oftentimes there will be barriers, often legal barriers, to get at the truth. And journalists then face a choice: Do they uphold these laws or search for a way to tell their audience a story? That said, there's nothing that will protect a journalist if they're arrested for breaking the law. ... Sometimes you have to say, 'OK, I pay the fine. To tell the audience the truth, that's what I have to do.' I would never encourage a journalist to think he's above the law, but I would encourage him to take risks and endure the consequences to get a story."
McClelland says if the 65-feet rule — which was enacted in July — had applied to her coverage from the beginning of the disaster, "I probably would've only written half the stories. ... I feel like my readers would have my back. I feel like I could raise that $40,000, easily.
"If I see something I really need to see, I might go anyway. I don't like conflict. I've already been yelled at by so many police officers — not a good way to spend your day. ... I haven't decided what my strategy is yet. It seems to be kind of stupid to say I'm just not going to follow that. How could they arrest me? Could they really? Are they really going to arrest anybody? Part of me wants to be a jerk and kind of call their bluff."
Those threats may also be keeping national attention from the story as it unfolds. Walker says the media presence in Grand Isle isn't nearly as strong as it was at the beginning of the disaster, and locals fear they, and their businesses, will suffer for it. They want their stories told.
"I just wish Grand Isle was a little closer," he says.