BP has understandably tried to play down the amount of attention paid to its Gulf oil spill. The company is trying to preserve what's left of its badly tarred image and doesn't want the public to dwell on the enormity of its ecological disaster.
What is truly inexcusable is the collusion of law enforcement and public agencies with BP in trying to cut off press access to the spill. The New York Times reported this week:
"Journalists struggling to document the impact of the oil rig explosion have repeatedly found themselves turned away from public areas affected by the spill, and not only by BP and its contractors, but by local law enforcement, the Coast Guard and government officials."
Reporters trying to visit coastal public parks and lands in a Louisiana community were repeatedly turned away by BP officials. When they complained to the local sheriff, he referred them to a number to obtain written permission. It was a BP phone number.
According to the Times, the Coast Guard suddenly reversed itself on allowing a small group of journalists to accompany Florida Sen. Bill Nelson on an inspection trip aboard one of its vessels. When the Democratic lawmaker's office asked the Department of Homeland Security for an explanation, his aides were given the patently ridiculous excuse that it was department policy not to allow elected officials and reporters on the same "federal asset."
A Louisiana seaplane operator who wanted to fly a photographer for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans was denied permission to enter the controlled airspace over the spill — by BP.
Most recently, Matt Gutman of ABC News was hassled by a BP manager when he set up his equipment for a live Web chat on a public beach in Alabama while a cleanup crew worked quietly in the background. And CBS News told the Times that one of its crews was threatened with arrest for filming on a public beach.
Gutman told his network, "It's incredibly frustrating working here because of those conditions. Everywhere you go, you find police barricades, people telling you, 'you can't do this, you can't do that, or you can't talk to these people.' We're not exactly sure why that is."
The whole policy of secrecy is puzzling in any case. What, do they think that if the press is blocked from filming the tides of black and brown goo, the tar balls and the dead and dying marine life that nobody will notice?
National incident commander Adm. Thad Allen says he has issued written orders that "the media will have uninhibited access anywhere we're doing operations, except for two things, if it's a security or safety problem." It seems a lot of people aren't getting the message.