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Confusion, secrecy and lies blight oil spill coverage

Posted by Mark Leccese  May 28, 2010 11:51 AM

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GateKeeper_LiveFeed_May27_4.30pm.jpgMedia coverage of the “top kill” on the ruptured oil well in the Gulf Of Mexico over the past 48 hours has been, to put it kindly, bewildering. Without access to the site, journalists have had to depend on their sources — primarily BP and U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen — and those sources were either inaccessible for long stretches of the day, issued oblique statements, or just lied.

This morning’s lead story in the New York Times summed up Thursday’s coverage.

BP officials, who along with government officials created the impression early in the day that the strategy was working, disclosed later that they had stopped pumping the night before when engineers saw that too much of the drilling fluid was escaping along with the oil.

The confusion started Thursday morning at 7 when the Los Angeles Times website (in a story taken down from the site that night) “‘Top kill’ stops gulf oil leak, official says.”

Engineers have stopped the flow of oil and gas into the Gulf of Mexico from a gushing BP well, the federal government's top oil-spill commander, U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, said Thursday morning.

The story spread quickly throughout social networking sites and was the top story on the Google News aggregator, which ranks stories partly based on links and hits. It seems Americans wanted to believe the LA Times story.

But it wasn’t true. Or maybe it was true for a moment, or not completely untrue, or a misunderstanding. It depended on how reporters interpreted a quote given to a local radio station by the government’s top man on the scene, Adm. Allen: “They’ve stopped the hydrocarbons from coming up. They've been able to stabilize the well head, they are pumping mud down it.”

The New Orleans Times Picayune, in a story posted at 8:15 a.m., read Allen’s quote differently than the local radio station and the LA Times.

An attempt to kill the runaway Deepwater Horizon well spilling oil into the Gulf of Mexico is going according to plan so far, leaving the coast guard admiral in charge of managing the spill “cautiously optimistic” but unwilling to say the well is capped.

The main page of the BP website — where the company would be expected to proclaim the oil spill had been stopped if it had — displayed only a terse three-sentence statement it did not change throughout the day.

Update on Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill — “Top kill” operations continued over the night and are ongoing. There are no significant events to report at this time. BP will provide updates on progress as appropriate.

All day Thursday, news organizations reported some variant of a story that went something like this: “Efforts to stop the oil leak are going well so far but it will be hours but we know for sure.”

Then, at 5 p.m., the New York Times reported that what the public had been led to believe was the essence of the “top kill” strategy, pumping drilling fluid into the oil well, had been stopped by BP 16 hours ago.

BP temporarily stopped pumping drilling fluid into its stricken oil well in the Gulf of Mexico late Wednesday night after engineers saw that too much of the fluid was escaping along with the leaking crude oil.

Lisa Desjardins of CNN tweeted at 6:15 “#OilSpill more: BP says it stopped pumping mud into well 16 hours ago, but will pump again soon. Waited until end of business day to tell us,” and then, a few minutes later, “Why did BP/response team wait 16 hrs to reveal it suspended Top Kill to reassess? Did Coast Guard commandant know? #oilspill.”

Adm. Allen was wrong when he said Thursday morning “they are pumping mud down it.”

On the 8 p.m. CNN news cast, Rick Sanchez summed it up when he said to the two offshore drilling experts he was about to interview: “I’m really confused. I was reporting on this very set three hours ago that it looked like things were going pretty well.”

One of the experts, Ed Overton of Louisiana State University, said he guessed “they ran out of mud.” That, he said, was “a wild guess on my part but it’s probably pretty close.”

And that’s the how Thursday’s media coverage went: The lack of accurate and timely information from BP and confusing information from the government reduced experts to making wild guesses and journalists to building stories from scraps of vague and sometimes statements from their sources.

The most informed speculation was at the website The Oil Drum (which crashed Friday morning), where dozens and dozens of anonymous posters, including many who said they had extensive experience in offshore drilling, watched the grainy underwater video stream provided by BP and offered theories on what was happening. The posters did not think it was going well.

As all this was happening, the government announced that this is the biggest oil spill — several times worse than the preliminary estimates by BP and the government — in American history.

And there were reliable reports that BP and local law enforcement officials were blocking photographers and reporters from documenting the effects of the oil spill. Mac McClelland of Mother Jones wrote a grimly amusing first-person account of being turned away from Louisiana’s Elmer’s Island. Newsweek reported “news photographers are complaining that their efforts to document the slow-motion disaster in the Gulf of Mexico are being thwarted by local and federal officials — working with BP — who are blocking access to the sites where the effects of the spill are most visible.”

I got an e-mail from Lloyd Nelson, a reporter who works for the The Daily Comet in Lafourche Parish, Louisiana, a few minutes ago.

I’ve been on Fourchon Beach and Grand Ise Beach to see the brown oil wash upon the shore. It looks like a very thick brownie mix.

The trips to the beach have been heavily monitored by the parish government, supposedly at the request of BP. I’ve tried to verify that with BP, but their unified command center is only unified in avoiding answering any question a reporter might have. It’s frustrating.
Media has been regulated to two trips per day to Fourchon Beach. The trips, 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., last approximately 15 minutes and are always under the supervision of a sheriff’s deputy and a parish official.
And trying to get the cleanup crews, the guys raking oily sand into clumps and throwing it into a clear plastic bag, to talk is futile. BP apparently said that’s a no go. Those guys won’t even admit that they’re raking oily sand, let alone give a name for a photo cutline.

This morning, Adm. Allen said on the ABC News program “Good Morning America” that “they have been able to stop the hyrocrabons from coming up the well bore.”

That’s the same thing he said yesterday morning.

Quickly, The New York Times posted this:

By injecting solid objects overnight as well as heavy drilling fluid into the stricken well leaking oil into the Gulf of Mexico, engineers appeared to have stemmed the flow of oil, Adm. Thad W. Allen of the Coast Guard, the leader of the government effort, said on Friday morning. But he stressed that the next 12 to 18 hours would be “very critical” in permanently stanching what is already the worst oil spill in United States history.

The BP website, of course, was giving nothing away by mid-day Friday.

Update on Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill — Operations on the top kill procedure continue. Heavy drilling fluids were pumped under pressure into the BOP starting May 26 at 1300CDT, and top kill operations continue through 2400CDT on May 27. It is estimated that the full top kill procedure could extend for another 24 to 48 hours.

When reporters can’t see and confirm for themselves what’s happening, all they can do is report what their sources tell them. And when the sources conceal, give out inaccurate statement and lie, the public is left in the dark.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Mark Leccese, a journalism professor at Emerson College, covered Massachusetts politics, business and the arts for more than 25 years as a newspaper reporter, editor and magazine writer. He has More »

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