Blackout: WDSU's Scott Walker on media access

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Last night, WDSU aired part two of Scott Walker's interview with former BP subcontractor Adam Dillon — a former site coordinator in Grand Isle who wouldn't let Walker get close to cleanup workers. It's a story that went viral, and soon other reporters nationwide came forward with similar stories: BP security forces, U.S. Coast Guard threats, cleanup workers and Vessels of Opportunity participants fearing job losses if they speak to the press, and straight-up press refusal.

In this week's Gambit, I spoke with Walker and several other members of the press about their experiences chronicling the Gulf oil disaster, before Unified Incident Command amended its safety zone rule. Below is the full interview with Walker:

Are you concerned you won’t be able to do your job, if (the zone ruling) stays in place?

It would certainly make it more difficult, if that new rule holds up. On the beach that makes a huge difference — you’re way back on the beach if you can’t get within 65 feet in front of the boom, so you can’t really get up close to see what’s really going on on the other side of that boom. And as far as I know it’s still a public beach, even though the Coast Guard has now come in and said 'This is a restricted area, you can’t come any closer than this.' It’s frustrating because we really do a have a right to be there if they don’t have anything to hide. It seems like you should have access unless you’re being destructive in any way, you’re not jeopardizing anybody’s safety, it seems like you should have that access to be able to be there.

Are you worried other reporters, maybe in the national media, won’t be able to get that coverage, and maybe limit the perception of what’s happening down here?

It seems the more difficult our job is, the more difficult access is, the more difficult daily coverage is, the less desirable it is to cover. I would hope the local media and the national media would stick with it and fight it and do whatever it can to get the access we deserve.

How long have you been on the coast?

I was down there (June) 7th to 11th, that week, when we did our newscast down there. June 11 is when I had my beach run in with the BP security contractors, so that was the longest stretch I’ve been down there. Since then I’ve been back two or three times for a follow up. I don’t remember exactly how many. Since I anchor so much it’s hard for me to get down there. I’d like to get down there once a week. I know I’ll be going back, trying to work on some things — there’s so many stories to tell down there we’ve only just scratched the surface. There’s just a lot happening. You feel like you’re so invested in this, you want to get down there and do as much as you can with it.

There were calls yesterday or two days ago, calling on Thad Allen to back away from that 65-foot stance. I hope that’s something he considers.

That's kind of one of the big frustrations, too. Everything seems to be a little open-ended, there’s a lot of conflicting information, and everybody can interpret things their own way, and that leads to a lot of confusion among the rank and file when it’s coming down from the top. I think there’s a lot of people down there who just want do their job and do the best they can.

With Thad Allen and Doug Suttles and the Department of Interior, trying to make it clear there is no media restriction…

I’m sill waiting to hear back from Doug Suttles. After our little run in I emailed him several times and tried to get an interview with him to explain it, and I only heard from their media people in an email response in a media statement not even credited to Doug Suttles, it was credited to the media guy.

Where is that break — whether it’s intentional miscommuncation or it’s a break in the chain of command. There’s the guys on the ground, and the guys in the office making those decisions. Someone’s telling someone something different than what’s being told to us?

From what I’ve seen, if you’re initially told, and you’re initially made to sign contracts, include the wording, however it’s put, that you can’t talk to the media. And then later on they take it out of the contracts, and BP, first they said, ‘No, we don’t want you talking to the media or risk being fired,’ and come back and say, ‘OK, feel free to talk to the media.’ Do you really think anyone’s going to talk? Nobody wants to talk. They still think they’re going to lose their job. Everybody I’ve talked to down there, you could tell they were still fearful and they would still say we’re not authorized to talk, and we’d say, ‘Doug Suttles said you could talk,’ they’re like, ‘No, we’re not going to talk.’

So there’s a lingering worry jobs are on the line.

Right. Yeah, you could talk, but if you’ve been threatened before, are you really going to jump out and talk?

I’ve talked to several off camera, but nobody wants me to put a mic in their face. It’s frustrating.

My main mission when I went down there and started to get hassled wasn’t even to really talk to a worker, because I knew they weren’t going to talk. It was just to get the opportunity to ask them if they wanted to talk. I knew they were trying to stop me from even asking a question, speaking to them on a public beach. What I wanted to do where I was down by the boom and walk to one of the tents — we intentionally walked on to the beach in between little guard stations at the entrances. We were about 100 yards from anybody on either direction. But as soon as you walk onto the beach with a camera, they break into an all-out sprint to intercept you before you go anywhere. I wanted to go from that spot over to the tent and try and talk to the workers, ask them if they had anything to say, and I knew they’d say no because… when I was asking them there was a guy over my shoulder saying 'You don’t have to answer any of his questions,' so they’re not going to talk, but I just wanted the opportunity to say, 'Hey, do you want to say anything? If you don’t want to talk I’ll leave.' They said 'I don’t want to talk.' And I left. And I at least got my point across. That was the main objective. And I think it worked, because over that weekend was when BP clarified their policy a little bit more, and Tuesday when we went back for a follow up, we didn’t have any problems. Nobody hassled us, everybody was friendly, it was like, ‘What happened over the past few days, guys?’

‘BP made us a little more clear that we need to do let you do your jobs, as long as you don’t interfere with anything.’

So I like to think we had some sort of impact down there, with the YouTube video blowing up over the Internet over that weekend.

I guess for me, I can kind of move around a little easier because I’m not carrying any equipment…

I’ve run down and talked to regular people, too, with no equipment, it just may take a few seconds longer to get to the people who don’t carry anything.

You think having a camera and a crew adds to that fear of talking, or that worry?

Probably. Anytime you go anywhere as a news crew, you’re immediately subject to more scrutiny because you’re got a camera and a microphone. You’re automatically a little less desirable to be seen than someone who walks up with a pen and paper. I don’t think it helps. People aren’t really comfortable in front of cameras anyway. You put them in a situation where there’s controversy, you’re a lot less susceptible.

I just hope the national media sticks with this ’cause it’s already dropped off a little bit. I know Brian Williams is down here all the time, but talk talking to people on Grand Isle, saying the presence isn’t nearly what it was at the beginning. And what they’re afraid of is, a lot of the restaurants there and everything, it’s the media keeping them going. One person I talked to said what I’m concerned about is three months from now, four months from now, when the story’s not as big, there’s no one here, then we’re going to have a bunch of problems. I just hope this story stays in the forefront. I know the local media is going to stay on it. At least we are. I just wish Grand Isle was a little closer. With our resources and we’re short staffed as it is — we’re committing our resources to it, it’s harder to get there more often, and we wish we could.

We could fill a whole newscast most days with stories from Grand Isle.

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