Coverage Turns, Cautiously, to Spill Impact


And on the 106th day — after all the top kills and top hats and junk shots — the runaway oil well in the Gulf of Mexico finally seemed close to being tamed. Or was it?

It could be “the beginning of the end,” Katie Couric told viewers Tuesday on the “CBS Evening News.” The same phrase, with an extra “perhaps” attached to it, was used over on “NBC Nightly News.” But Diane Sawyer did away with the caveats on ABC.

“Final fix,” she declared Tuesday on “World News Tonight.” “Tonight the permanent seal of the oil spill is under way.”

Newsrooms are grappling with the same questions that the rest of the country is, after spending months watching oil gush into the water: Is the oil spill really over? And how damaging will it ultimately be to the gulf’s environment and economy?

The conundrum for television, print and online journalists alike has been that no one wanted to declare “Mission Accomplished” on the gushing oil portion of the calamity prematurely. But no one wanted to be the last to report that the leak had been plugged.

Assuming the current cement plug holds, any number of dates could qualify as the end of the spill. No significant oil has leaked since the well was tightly capped in mid-July, officials said — an event “NBC Nightly News” also said “could be the beginning of the end.”

This week’s “static kill,” an effort to plug the well with mud and then cement, seems to have worked. But the final stake through the heart — the relief well being drilled to make sure the well is dead — is not expected until later this month.

Then there is the once-bitten, twice-shy phenomenon, some news executives said, citing all the false starts and overly optimistic predictions of the past three months — the initial claim that there did not appear to be a significant oil leak, the vastly underestimated early guesses of how much oil was pouring into the gulf, the overly rosy assessments of past efforts to stanch the flow.

But by Friday, the seal seemed to be holding. Even The Times-Picayune — which has defended local interests in New Orleans and the region by casting a skeptical eye on any premature efforts to declare the crisis over — ran an upbeat headline on Friday’s front page: “End in Sight as Cement Pumped into Rogue Well.”

Now the coverage will shift from engineering to the environment and the economy.

“It’s clear that one part of this story is over, and I think that’s all fine and good, and it took a very long time,” said Jon Banner, the executive producer of “World News.” “I think it’s also clear that another part of this story is far from over.”

With the oil contained, possibly for good, another front has opened in the coverage: questions of how much oil is left in the water, and how damaging it will prove.

Time magazine ran a story questioning if the environmental damage of the spill had been overstated. When The New York Times reported that a federal study had found that nearly three-quarters of the spill had been collected, skimmed, burned or dispersed, some critics complained that it should have been more skeptical. Anderson Cooper, the CNN reporter who became one of the most visible faces of the spill, with weeks of coverage from the gulf, asked on his show last week, “Has the BP oil spill been overblown by politicians and scientists and media, including me?”

Recent reports that much of the oil seemed to have disappeared from the surface of the gulf prompted fierce reactions in the region.

“Some paint a rosy picture of crisis’s end, but experts say looks can be deceiving,” ran a front-page headline in The Times-Picayune. And a blog post on the Web site of The Gambitative weekly paper, suggested that the “most elemental concept of object permanence seemed to elude the national media.”

“Kinda like when you’re playing peekaboo with a baby, you know?” wrote Kevin Allman. “‘Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s gone away.”

Andrew Tyndall, who tracks the evening newscasts, said that the Exxon Valdez oil spill got 203 minutes of coverage on them in 1989, the year of the spill. The BP oil spill, which sent far more oil into the water, also got far more coverage, he found: 1,100 minutes on the three nightly newscasts in just the first three months. In a provocative post last month, he argued that the coverage was excessive, compared with other disasters and major news stories, and suggested less national coverage. “Enough already!” he wrote.

News executives said that they had no intention of heeding that advice, and that they were committed to covering the lingering impacts of the spill.

“The story goes on,” said Bob Epstein, the executive producer of “NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams,” who has crews living on house boats in the region. “Yeah, the Coast Guard and BP have certainly been successful at cementing the well, and the final kill, or whatever they are calling it, happens in a week or so, but we have not scaled back our commitment to the story.”

And there is no guarantee that the “killed” well would not be revived some day.

A BP official left open the possibility that the company could drill again someday in the same area, a mile beneath the surface.

“There’s lots of oil and gas here,” the company’s chief operating officer, Doug Suttles, said, according to The Associated Press. “We’re going to have to think about what to do with that at some point.”

BP later clarified, saying that the future use of the reservoir was not currently under consideration.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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