• How BP limits what you learn, and what you know Tuesday, June 8, 2010

    We linked yesterday elsewhere on this site to an item by ABC News about BP buying Google search words to steer Internet browsers past news articles about the Gulf Oil disaster. But that’s only the latest wrinkle in what appears to be a campaign by the oil giant to control coverage of the disaster.

    Individually, these steps are grotesque. Together, they stand as a callous display of corporate arrogance — with the help of U.S. government officials.

    ABC News earlier reported that the in the early days of the disaster, when the only video from the leak showed a single stream of oil from a broken pipe, that there were hours of more damning videos that the U.S. Coast Guard said it couldn’t release because BP officials had refused permission on the grounds that the film contained proprietary details. Hard to believe there’s anything proprietary about a busted pipe. Skepticism suggests BP had bigger concerns — like muting awareness of the scope of the spill, in which its estimates are much lower than independent assessments.

    Or maybe it had something to do with a culture of neglect.

    Local authorities have also worked with BP to stymie media access to the spill, including rousting photographers from public beaches. This Mother Jones‘ article details in chilling detail how much sway BP has over local law-enforcement — and in who gets access to damaged areas. Tourists, yes. Journalists, not so much. And air restrictions are in place. This is from a Newsweek roundup from two weeks ago — and there’s no indication the control has lessened since then:

    The problem, as many members of the press see it, is that even when access is granted, it’s done so under the strict oversight of BP and Coast Guard personnel. Reporters and photographers are escorted by BP officials on BP-contracted boats and aircraft. So the company is able to determine what reporters see and when they see it.

    AP photographer Gerald Herbert has been covering the disaster since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20. He says that access has been hit or miss, and that there have been instances when it’s obvious members of the press are being targeted. “There are times when the Coast Guard has been great, and others where it seems like they’re interfering with our ability to have access,” says Herbert.

    One of those instances occurred early last week, when Herbert accompanied local officials from Plaquemines Parish in a police boat on a trip to Breton Island, a national wildlife refuge off the barrier islands of Louisiana. With them was Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of Jacques, who wanted to study the impact of the oil below the surface of the water. Upon approaching the island, a Coast Guard boat stopped them. “The first question was, ‘Is there any press with you?’ ” says Herbert. They answered yes, and the Coast Guard said they couldn’t be there. “I had to bite my tongue. That should have no bearing.”

    Remember, these are the folks the less-government types think should be allowed to police their own. If there’s any good news, it’s this: President Obama has asked Congress to increase the absurdly low cap in BP’s liability exposure. Pennies on the dollar in terms of the extent of the damage, but it’s a start.

    But he might do us all a bigger favor if he worked to separate our government from BP’s PR machine.