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Controlling the Spill

by Published on

For Mark Schleifstein, covering the oil tragedy in the Gulf has to be like revisiting a nightmare. In 2002, the veteran, much-honored reporter wrote a definitive series for The New Orleans Times-Picayune accurately predicting hell on earth was coming in the form of floods. No one heard him. No one answered the questions he was trying to raise. When Katrina landed in 2005, he found himself trying to stay alive in a wounded city … and having to write about exactly what he had said would happen. It was death-grip surrealism. He and his extraordinary colleagues eventually won the Pulitzer for work that revealed to many readers how a criminally inept president, his cronies, and the Louisiana state government had left one of the great cities of the world to rot.

Now Schleifstein and other reporters are covering the BP disaster and, again, it seems as if their questions are going unanswered—if they are allowed to ask questions at all.

As with Katrina, the world craves straight answers—and it needs reporters who know what the hell to ask, how to ask it, and how to determine who is lying to the American people. If folks still think the public’s right to know hard facts is best served by “citizen bloggers” thousands of miles away from the disaster area who theorize wildly about life-and-death complexities, then their brains should be used to dam up the spewing BP pipes.

We need serious journalists holding BP, the Coast Guard, President Obama and anyone else accountable. Especially now that the federal government seems blissfully intent on ceding the flow of information to a private company. “It’s a frustrating situation,” says Schleifstein. During Katrina, “there wasn’t this private entity you had to deal with … they don’t understand the media, and they don’t understand what our needs are.”

It’s not just BP or the feds. Schleifstein runs into walls with state officials. That, perhaps, is not surprising to anyone who knows how Louisiana and Texas are run by Big Oil. For years, he has been trying to get state officials to address a chronically underreported story—what the hell happened to the 8.7 million gallons of oil leaked from rigs and storage tanks during hurricanes Katrina and Rita? “You can’t get any information out of the state on those spills,” he says.

So when reporters learn there is another “press conference,” it is like a flashback to the toxic reporting environment of the Bush era. The briefings are aggressively fire-walled and 15 to 25 minutes long. You’re lucky to be one of the six or seven reporters allowed to ask one question. That’s if you are told where a conference will be.

Sandy Davis, with the Baton Rouge Advocate, had someone climb onto a fire station roof in Grand Isle, La., to examine a 7-mile stretch of coastline to find a press conference. No one would tell her where on the island the event would be held.

All the evasive dancing is designed to avoid culpability. The feds relentlessly point at BP—and BP ducks low as it becomes increasingly worried about bankruptcy. So the big questions go unanswered: Who knew when there was a problem? Exactly how many barrels of oil have been leaked? And who is really in charge—BP or the federal government?

Davis calls BP and is steered to people who offer generally useless drips of information and refuse to give their names. She routinely asks: Can I talk to anyone at all who can be quoted? The Coast Guard spin doctors are in drone mode. “They know nothing beyond how many feet of boom is being laid,” says Davis.

Then there was the deputy sheriff trying to throw Davis and a photographer off a beach. And the sheriff who told her to call BP after she tried to chase down a report about a possible offshore accident.

One day Davis felt she was getting closer to asking the Coast Guard “what they knew and how much they knew.” She was patched through to the inner circle around Adm. Thad Allen, the alleged point person for Obama’s federal response. Then a lieutenant commander told her, “You should be hearing back from BP.”

Of course there was that press conference on Grand Isle. The rooftop spotter spied national TV trucks and determined that’s where the short conference was. (That episode suggests the feds and BP are catering to the networks rather than local print reporters.)

“They are on a learning curve on how to deal with the public,” says Davis. “Their first reaction is to control.”

So she has a modest suggestion: “Don’t worry about what we’re doing. Let us have access … what can you hide in this thing? We’re watching the oil leak in.”