Oil Spill Anniversary Coverage: One Notable Exception to the “We Dodged a Bullet” Story Line


With the one-year anniversary of the BP oil spill upon us, we’re seeing a torrent of “follow-up” and “one-year review” stories on the worst environmental disaster in our nation’s history. I’ve been struck by the disparity between what I see and read in the media and what I see down here on the ground everyday in my home state of Louisiana and other parts of the Gulf Coast – sick cleanup workers and coastal residents, oil-soaked marshes, record numbers of dead dolphins and sea turtles, major beach re-oilings, out-of-work commercial fishermen and charter boat fishing captains, and the list goes on and on.

The “year after” mainstream media coverage overwhelmingly toes the “official” BP-government line that the damage wasn’t as bad as expected – that the nightmare predictions didn’t materialize. I can assure you that nobody living in the coastal communities of the Gulf would agree with that rosy, uninformed assessment.

As I’ve noted many times before, it’s amazing what kind of coverage you can “buy” with a couple hundred million in advertising dollars. Remember that BP tripled its ad budget during the spill – shelling out $5 million a week between April and July 2010. That money greased a lot of editorial departments at a lot of media outlets. And although BP has significantly rolled back its advertising campaign, there’s still plenty of cash being thrown around. In addition to the “hush money,” there’s also a pervasive “bad for business” attitude when it comes to covering the spill’s ongoing damages, particularly as it pertains to the seafood and tourism industries. We see the media – the Fourth Pillar of democracy – buckling under these pressures.

This take from Time Magazine is indicative of the mainstream coverage: “…the ecological doomsday many predicted clearly hasn’t taken place.” And this from a recent Associated Press article: “By the fall, there was talk that the crisis wasn’t as bad as feared and that the Gulf might recover sooner than expected.”

BP-friendly coverage is also flowing out of Britain (surprise, surprise). This from the London-based newspaper, the Independent:

One year later something surprising and shocking – and ultimately reassuring – emerges. Little of what they said was going to happen actually did. The wetlands, in all their beauty, remain. The beaches in all four impacted states are all open to the public again

Well, all I can say to that is it’s obvious the Independent editorial staff hasn’t spent any quality time on the Gulf Coast lately.

One notable exception to the wildly optimistic “we dodged a bullet” story line comes in coverage from Al Jazeera news, which is among the few outlets giving what I consider to be an accurate rendering of the current state of the Gulf. The news network’s one-year review, circulating this week, is some of the only reporting I’ve seen that puts a range of local professionals and experts front and center – people with the on-the-ground experience and credentials to really know what’s at stake and have the courage to report the truth (when it’s not at all popular to do so).

Ed Cake, is one such person, identified by Al Jazeera as “…a biological oceanographer, as well as a marine and oyster biologist.” He talks about his “great concern” about “…the fish kills over the last year, which he feels are likely directly related to the BP oil disaster.”

The sheer number of mortality events has Cake worried that there are big problems “cascading” across the entire Gulf ecosystem that we’re only now beginning to see one year later. His prognosis is dire, and his concerns are well founded.

The AJ report quotes Mr. Cake: “The two models of the turtles and dolphins indicate that something is drastically wrong in the marine environment, that I believe point towards the demise of these vertebrates in the Gulf.”

Wilma Subra, a New Iberia chemist and MacArthur Fellow, has conducted research that supports Cake’s concerns: “Tests have shown significant levels of oil pollution in oysters and crabs along the Louisiana coastline. We have also found high levels of hydrocarbons in the soil and vegetation.” That type of contamination can, of course, impact the top reaches of the Gulf food chain, which includes dolphins, sea turtles, and ultimately, people.

Al Jazeera also takes a look at the oil spill’s human health effects, an aspect of this disaster that has been given short shrift by just about every quarter, from the federal government to the mainstream media.

The Tillmans – an extended family from Pass Christian, Mississippi – has been torn apart by the spill. According to the AJ report, 2-year-old Gaven Tillman “has been diagnosed with severe upper respiratory, sinus, and viral infections.” The toddler has been sick since last fall.

According to his grandmother and former BP cleanup worker, Shirley Tillman: “[Gaven] has been seen by nine different doctors and had twenty-four doctor and ER visits. Some of his diagnoses include severe inflammation of his upper sinuses, upper respiratory infections, ear infections, sore throats, headaches, fever, vomiting and diarrhea.”

Shirley Tillman suggests the spill contaminants are airborne, which is a frightening but very real prospect for tens of thousands of cleanup workers and people living in coastal communities. From the AJ report:

“We expected to find BP’s toxins in our bodies after working in the VOO [Vessels of Opportunity] program,” [Shirley] added, “But we did not expect our two-year-old grandson to test positive for having them too, with levels higher than ours. He has not been to the beach and has not eaten any seafood. Therefore, it is in the air.”

Both Shirley and her husband Don have tested positive for chemicals from BP’s crude oil – and now Gaven has too.

Again, research sheds light on the health effects the Tillmans, along with so many other Gulf Coast families, are now facing. We hear from Dr. Riki Ott, “…a toxicologist, marine biologist, and Exxon Valdez survivor,” who told Al Jazeera that:

“The dispersants used in BP’s draconian experiment contain solvents such as petroleum distillates and 2-butoxyethanol…solvents dissolve oil, grease, and rubber”, she continued, “It should be no surprise that solvents are also notoriously toxic to people, something the medical community has long known…they evaporate in air and are easily inhaled, they penetrate skin easily, and they cross the placenta into fetuses.”

So, an objective person might think, if things are so bad and so many people are getting sick, why aren’t physicians speaking out? Enter Dr. Mike Robicheux, who according to Al Jazeera is “…a doctor in Louisiana who has been treating scores of people he says are being made sick from BP’s toxic chemicals.”

The local doctor says new patients suffering from exposure are coming to his office on a daily basis. He believes the “broader medical community” is either “unwilling or unable to deal with the crisis.”

Says Dr. Robicheux: “The medical community has shut this down. …They either don’t understand or are afraid to deal with it properly because they are afraid of the oil and gas industry.”

Once again we hear dire predictions from another person who is on the ground dealing with the day-to-day fallout from this disaster. According to Robicheux: “This is the biggest public health crisis from a chemical poisoning in the history of this country. We are going to have thousands of people who are extremely sick, and if they aren’t treated, a large number of them are going to die.”

Of course, my inner cynic wonders if Al Jazeera has the advantage of not receiving any of the hundreds of millions in BP advertising dollars, and if its reporters have less reason to stay in the “mainstream” as defined by corporate journalism in the United States.

Hey, in my mind, any news agency that my friend Donald Rumsfeld (wink, wink) attacked as “vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable” should get the benefit of the doubt. A more serious reason to give Al Jazeera some street cred is that it was essentially built on the bones of a BBC effort to establish an English-language Middle East news service in the 1990s. Right after that ended in 1996, many of those BBC guys went to Al Jazeera – that’s why it can have that BBC-ish Brit accent. Now even Hillary Clinton and the rest of the Obama Administration offer praise for the news network (see link below).

Here’s a breakdown from Ian Richardson, now director of Richardson Media but a former managing editor of BBC Arabic Television:

Al-Jazeera Satellite Television went on air at the beginning of November 1996, staffed chiefly by former members of BBC Arabic Television, all of them fervent believers in the BBC ethos of balance and fairness. The BBC lost a channel that was both unique and prestigious, but there are times when I have to confess to myself that maybe the baton that was accidentally handed to Al-Jazeera should now be left with it. While BBC Arabic Television itself may be dead, its editorial spirit, its style and even its programmes, albeit under different names, live on – transmitted from the tiny Gulf state of Qatar.

That a Middle East news organization is a champion of straight-shooting Gulf coverage is not my biggest shock – nor biggest disappointment – of the BP spill. But it’s certainly troubling that the most accurate and informative coverage at the one-year mark comes from a foreign news service.

Here’s the must-read AJ story: http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/features/2011/04/20114161153981347.html

Here’s a good Politico story about the Obama Administration’s acceptance of Al Jazeera: http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0411/53339.html

© Smith Stag, LLC 2011 – All Rights Reserved

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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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