‘N.Y. Times’ Examines News Media’s Denied Access to Gulf Oil Spill

By: E&P Staff

The New York Times reported Wednesday that an airplane carrying a photographer from The Times-Picayune of New Orleans was denied permission to fly over oil-fouled waters of the Gulf of Mexico by a BP contractor who answered the plane owner’s telephone call to the local Coast Guard-Federal Aviation Administration command center.

In his story, Jeremy W. Peters quoted Southern Seaplane co-owner Rhonda Panepinto saying, “We were questioned extensively. Who was on the aircraft? Who did they work for? The minute we mentioned media, the answer was: ‘Not allowed.'”

The report notes that journalists trying to cover the runaway-well story are constantly refused access to public areas affected by BP, its contractors, local law enforcement, the U.S. Coast Guard and government officials.

It quotes Representative Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who fought BP to release more underwater video of its well saying “I think they’ve been trying to limit access. It is a company that was not used to transparency.”

An FAA spokeswoman said there was essential-flights-only policy when the Coast Guard-FAA command center turned down Southern Seaplane’s request. A BP contractor answered the phone, she added, because the operations center is in a BP building. The Times quoted her saying, “That person was not making decisions about whether aircraft are allowed to enter the airspace.”

BP and government officials called media-access denials anomalies, saying they had helped hundreds of journalists cover the story. Responding to Southern Seaplane’s denied access, the FAA revised its restrictions, now permitting news media flights on a case-by-case basis.

“Our general approach throughout this response,” a BP spokesman told the Times, “has been to allow as much access as possible… without compromising the work we are engaged on or the safety of those to whom we give access.”

Still, reporters and photographers are prevented from some coverage. Among instances it includes, the report recalls last week’s attempt by Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida, to allow a few journalists to join his Gulf trip on a Coast Guard vessel. In spite of what the senator’s office said was Coast Guard consent, the night before departure, a Department of Homeland Security staffer called the senator’s office, saying no journalists would be allowed.

A Coast Guard spokesman said that early on the Coast Guard enforced a policy against news media accompanying candidates for public office on visits to government facilities, to manage the many requests for visits by both the media and officials.

Also last week, a BP contractor called a sheriff when a reporter and photographer from New York’s Daily News tried to enter a public beach on Grand Isle, La. The sheriff told reporter Matthew Lysiak that paperwork was required before a BP official would escort them to the beach.

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