Media Fail to See Obama's Fingerprints on Lack of Press Freedom in Gulf

It's been more than 50 days since a BP oil rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana, beginning a massive leak of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Miles of beaches have been soiled and birds, turtles and other sea creatures have died. But the most disturbing pictures of the disaster weren't available to the public for more than 40 days.

That was when many people finally witnessed Louisiana's state bird, the brown pelican, literally covered in thick brown oil. Why so long? Because federal agencies including the Coast Guard and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) were preventing the press from reaching many areas affected by the disaster.

CBS, Associated Press, Mother Jones and The Times-Picayune have all complained about local and federal authorities and and British Petroleum contractors inhibiting their reporting.

But while many in the news media blame BP, the real culprit may well be the Obama administration. When asked, Obama and other administration spokespeople say the U.S. government is in charge of the oil spill cleanup.

The president has openly stated that the federal government is in charge of the oil spill clean up. The Associated Press (AP) reported that "Obama says all steps BP takes to end the huge spill must be approved in advance by the government."

But journalists and the left have blamed BP rather than point fingers up the federal chain of command.

Left-wing magazine Mother Jones called it a "corporate blockade at Louisiana's crude-covered beaches."

Newsweek magazine pointed out the difficulty that photographers encountered when trying to "document the slow-motion disaster in the Gulf." In its article, Newsweek placed the blame squarely on British Petroleum from the headline: "BP's Photo Blockade of the Gulf Oil Spill" to the quote from a Louisiana photographer who said the prefix "BP" ought to be attached to "Coast Guard" on all the vessels.

"It's a running joke among the journalists covering the story that the words ‘Coast Guard' affixed to any vehicle, vessel, or plane should be prefixed with ‘BP,'" Charlie Varley told Newsweek. "It would be funny if it were not so serious."

It's also not funny that many in the news media and on the left would rather blame BP for controlling federal agencies like the U.S. Coast Guard and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) than recognize the similarities between limited media access in the Gulf and Obama's previous actions controlling the press.

Obama also has a long-standing pattern of handling the press, sometimes to the point of blocking access. So now that many reporters are complaining of a lack of access to the oil spill, it is surprising how little blame has been directed at the administration.

During the campaign, he had three reporters from publications that had endorsed John McCain kicked off his plane. Since then he has openly attacked his detractors (including Rush Limbaugh) and was once criticized by a couple reporters (Chip Reid and Helen Thomas) for managing a town hall meeting.

As of February, Obama had held fewer solo press conferences than most presidents -- only George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon held fewer. And he went nearly a year, from July 22, 2009 until last week, without holding a formal news conference.

Despite the failures of regulators at the Minerals Management Service and Obama's own claim that the feds are in charge, a Media Research Center analysis of the oil spill coverage found 95 percent of stories had no criticism of the Obama administration whatsoever (148 out of 157 stories).

Coast Guard, FAA keeps press away from Gulf spill

Even though Newsweek, Mother Jones and others have clearly blamed BP for controlling federal agencies, government officials themselves are the ones that have been turning the news media away.

So far, reporters and photographers from many outlets, including CBS, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Mother Jones and AP have publicly complained about being denied access by local governments and law enforcement, the Coast Guard and the FAA.

"More than a month into the disaster, a host of anecdotal evidence is emerging from reporters, photographers, and TV crews in which BP and Coast Guard officials explicitly target members of the media, restricting and denying them access to oil-covered beaches, staging areas for clean-up efforts and even flyovers," Newsweek wrote.

CBS released video of a boat of BP contractors and two Coast Guard officials telling their reporters to leave an area on May 20. The video shows one man on the boat saying, "This is BP's rules, not ours." As a company, how could they exert authority over the Coast Guard, and why wouldn't the Obama administration make sure that does not happen? 

AP's Matthew Brown was one of the few to attach some blame to government, not solely BP. Brown wrote that different media organizations were being restricted "though not all have linked the decision to BP. Government officials say restrictions are needed to protect wildlife and ensure safe air traffic."

While there was no mention of Obama in Brown's story, Brown said the Coast Guard and FAA told him that "BP PLC was not controlling access."

It is the FAA that has imposed air space restrictions on miles of coastline, according to The Times-Picayune. Flights in certain areas cannot descend below 3,000 feet - effectively preventing aerial photography of the spill's impact.

Rhonda Panepinto, owner of Southern Seaplane charter service, told the New Orleans paper her husband was told "absolutely no media or press on any planes. The press flights are limited to Saturdays only and only in Coast Guard helicopters."

According to The Times-Picayune, the government decides who can fly and who cannot: "the FAA maintains that BP employees or contractors are not calling the shots on who gets to fly into the restricted air space, saying those decisions are made by the FAA and Coast Guard. But agency spokespeople acknowledge that media access is limited, saying they are only allowing flights into the restricted area that are directly related to the disaster response."

A June 9 New York Times story from cited an incident where the Dept. of Homeland Security told Sen. Bill Nelson's, D-Fla., that no journalists would be allowed to accompany him on a gulf trip on a Coast Guard vessel. Though the Times clearly blamed some government agencies, like DHS, it did not mention the Obama administration at all.

Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser condemned the federal response to the oil spill calling for Coast Guard admiral Thad Allen to resign. Nungesser also called on Obama to support Gov. Bobby Jindal's EPA request for dredging permits to protect Louisiana. On May 28, ABC's Jake Tapper reported that Nungesser had a private meeting with Obama. Nungesser said Obama "chewed me out" and said "we need to communicate."

"You pick up the phone and call the White House. And, if you can't get me on the phone, then you can go blast me," Obama reportedly said to Nungesser.

The Coast Guard has defended itself, specifically regarding the CBS incident, by saying that the media do have access: "In fact, media has been actively embedded and allowed to cover response efforts since this response began, with more than 400 embeds aboard boats and aircraft to date."

That wasn't sufficient for Ralph Ranalli, chief blogger for WGBH's Beat the Press website. He chalked up the continued access problems up to "cluelessness" on the part of the Obama administration, but criticized the lame response from the Coast Guard. Ranalli said that the CBS clip should have "shamed" the Obama administration into making "a rational plan for media access."

"Embeds are fine in a war zone. But for the federal government to say the media should be satisfied with ride-alongs with an oil company under criminal investigation for the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history is insane. It just staggers the imagination," Ranalli wrote.

Newsweek also took issue with such embeds arguing that "even when access is granted it's done so under the strict oversight of BP and Coast Guard personnel."

Who's really in charge?

Media outlets have been determined to blame BP for the lack of access, despite the local and federal governments' involvement.

Unlike many reporters, one green blogger did call the president out on the Mother Nature Network. Karl Burkart, an architect and blogger about green technology, pointed out that "The Coast Guard, as one of the branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, answers to the commander in chief - President Obama." Ultimately Burkart said he "believed" Obama was "aiding and abetting" BP.

But the question remains, is the White House powerless to control federal agencies like the Coast Guard? Or unwilling - because more coverage would mean more potential criticism for Obama? Or are these agencies puppets in the hands of BP? No matter the option, things don't look good for the administration.

Robert Gibbs, WH press secretary, deflected criticism of the administration on CBS's "Face the Nation," May 23 saying "There's no doubt that we have had some problems with BP's lack of transparency."

But the White House has been careful to claim that they've been charge of the clean up operations. Carol Browner, Obama's energy and climate czar, said on "Meet the Press" May 30, "the government's been in control from the beginning ... don't make any mistake here, the government is in charge." (Watch video)

Obama told AP the same thing, saying that BP had to get permission from Washington for all the clean up. So it stands to reason that the White House wouldn't have trouble telling BP to allow the media unfettered access to report on the oil spill if it wanted to.

But the Obama administration has a history of managing the press. Despite an often-"fawning" news media that helped get him elected, the president rarely holds formal news conferences. According to Byron York, Obama has done fewer brief Q&A sessions than Bush or Clinton.

Even at a bill signing for the Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press Act May 18, Obama refused to answer questions from CBS's Chip Reid.

Reid asked, ""Speaking of press freedom, could you answer a couple of questions on BP?"

Obama replied, "You're certainly free to ask them, Chip." When Reid pressed further asking, "Will you answer them?" Obama said flat-out: "We won't be answering."

York said that former Bush White House press secretary Dana Perino was astounded by Obama dodging the press. "I think it is astonishing that there isn't carping about this from the press every day," Perino said. "Believe me, they would have nailed us to the wall."

Reid, along with liberal Helen Thomas, also challenged Obama for a "tightly controlled" town hall meeting in July 2009.

"The concept of a town hall is to have an open public forum, and this sounds like a very tightly controlled audience and list of questions," Reid said to Gibbs. "Why? Why do it that way?"

Later in that White House briefing even liberal journalist Helen Thomas accused the administration of "a pattern of controlling the press."

During his presidential campaign, Obama kicked three reporters off the press airplane -  all from conservative papers. ABC wrote, "the papers are calling foul, claiming they were targeted for their editorial-page positions and kicked off while nonpolitical publications like Glamour and Jet magazines remained on board."

The Washington Times, New York Post and Dallas Morning News were eliminated from the airplane.

Since taking office, the Obama White House has hit back hard at critics in the media, including Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge and CNBC's Rick Santelli and Jim Cramer. According to Limbaugh, Obama has simply been following the liberal Saul Alinsky strategy: "Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it."

Jonathan Martin of Politico agreed, saying on March 4, all this isn't coincidence; it is an effort to frame Limbaugh in the Alinsky mode.

After Santelli's rant about bailouts, Gibbs suggested that the CNBC floor reporter didn't understand Obama's mortgage plan. Gibbs also criticized Cramer and attempted to discredit him.

But each of these actions by Obama, Emanuel or Gibbs has triggered a media-feeding frenzy and ensuing grassroots efforts to capitalize on the media attention and destroy the target.

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Julia A. Seymour
Julia A. Seymour
Julia A. Seymour is the Assistant Managing Editor for the MRC's Business and Media Institute.