Blackout: Mac McClelland on reporting from the Gulf



Mother Jones human rights reporter Mac McClelland has been on the Gulf Coast since the early days of the Gulf oil disaster, and she's documented every last drop of it, it seems, from the Gulf's coastal communities, particularly from Grand Isle. Her most recent entry for Mother Jones is filled with oil wrestling, bar fights, sexual aggression (and frustration) and racism in the summertime getaway town that's now BP's Ground Zero. In this week's Gambit, I talked with McClelland about media restrictions reporting from the Gulf — before the "amended" safety zone ruling — as she was on her way back to Louisiana. Here's more:

You’ve run into consistent problems getting access, but you’ve also gotten pretty close. Where in the chain of command is this miscommunication — where BP, the Department of Interior, U.S. Coast Guard, have all said there is no media restriction, when on the ground, there is.

I wonder if it’s a miscommunication so much as a willful, you know, dishonest propaganda scheme. ... If I was a conspiracy theorist, which maybe I’m not, but if I were, I feel like that would be evidence that they’ve purposefully been keeping us away this whole time and they were just paying lip service to the idea of treating us fair. ... I feel like even while they’re saying, “Yeah, press can go wherever they want,” they’re definitely not telling their employees that. I mean, I’ve had cleanup workers who work with subcontractors say specifically, “We were told we can’t let people through here.” I feel like people aren’t being assholes just because they feel like it, I feel like they’re definitely being told the opposite of what the American public is being told.

Any idea who is telling them that?

In some cases it might be subcontractors. BP isn’t doing that much personally. They’re paying other people to do it, so they can even say, “No, we didn’t say people couldn’t talk to people. That’s the subcontractors.” So they’re outsourcing the blame on that situation. ... I would guess these conversations are being had in the creepy, incident command centers they’ve been setting up, between the local authorities, the cops and the corporations. If only anybody could get into one of those meetings, I feel that would probably answer a lot of questions.

How long have you been reporting from the Gulf?

I've been here since May 3. I went to San Francisco for, like, two days and then I came back. I don’t really count that time I was in California. I've totally been staying with locals. I used to live here. I went to the University of New Orleans for grad school. That’s what’s allowed me to stay for so long, that Southern hospitality. I work for a nonprofit magazine that would’ve never been able to afford a hotel bill for 10 weeks. I don’t even have a return ticket home yet, so I might still be here for another couple months. I’ve been staying with friends, people on vacation, so they have houses open, and when I was in Grand Isle I ended up staying with strangers who were following me on Twitter and told me I could sleep at their house anytime. Which is totally invaluable because the subcontractors have totally taken over Grand Isle and there’s nowhere to stay. I got the hook up. Louisianans are awesome.

Thank God for social networking, I guess.

Seriously. It’s the most useful thing it’s ever done for me.

These safety zones — will it affect the way you report, or has it? Will it limit your coverage?

The day they announced that I was on my way to Florida for a couple days, and I’ll tell you what, the difference between Florida and Louisiana is staggering. They’ll let you do whatever the f—k you want in Florida. The beaches are open because they don’t want to discourage tourism, so anybody has total run of anything they want — you can take pictures, talk to cleanup workers, there’s no cops, it’s not like here where there’s a creepy police state feel. The only thing I reported on site in Florida was they apparently don’t care. I haven’t experienced it yet, but I bet I will soon. In the next couple days I’ll be back in Louisiana. To be honest I haven’t decided what my strategy is yet, it seems to be kind of stupid to say I’m just not going to follow that. How could they arrest me? Could they really? Are they really going to arrest anybody? Part of me wants to be a jerk and kind of call their bluff.

I was thinking the same thing —

Go try and get arrested? And hope to God you can raise enough donations over the Internet to pay your $40,000 fine?

On one hand I feel like it’s a public relations nightmare for that to happen, but I feel as if they’re being really serious, and they’re not going to take it lightly, and use it as an example. I would be worried it would compromise the truth, I guess, and I wouldn’t be reporting what I need to be reporting — some innocuous thing outside the safety zone. Are you worried that’s a possibility?

If I were going to follow the rules, and I’m not saying definitively that I’m not, yeah. All the stuff that I did so far, I was way closer than 65 feet. Every picture I’ve taken of any oil related stuff was by boom. When I was kayaking around the barrier islands I had to go over boom, and all that’s a felony now. It definitely would have inhibited my ability… I probably would’ve only written half the stories I would’ve written if I had to stay that far away. Are they really not going to do that, just empty threats and a diversion tactic, or are they going to arrest the first person they can to make an example of that. If (I'm) the first person to get arrested, I feel like my readers would have my back. I feel like I could raise that $40,000 easily. At this point I’m not totally prepared to let that — if I see something I really need to see I feel like I might go anyway. I don’t like conflict. I’ve already been yelled at by so many police officers. Not a good way to spend your day. I hope I won’t have any problems with it. I guess by this time next week, I’ll know how that drama is going to go down.

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