As oil spread, did BP battle to contain the media?…”It’s almost like there’s a new sheriff in town,”

Friday, June 4, 2010
By Paul Martin

By Dan Zak

NEW ORLEANS — At first, it seemed that a British company might be trying to keep an American journalist off an American beach. Ted Jackson, a staff photographer for the Times-Picayune, drove two hours to Port Fourchon, La., to shoot photos of tar balls on public property but was stopped 100 yards from the surf by harbor police. After 30 minutes of phone calls to higher authorities, Jackson said, the police allowed him 15 minutes of obstructed photographing, out of view of workers who were taking samples from the beach.

Last week, Jackson was also unable to book a flight over Grand Isle from a charter plane company in Belle Chasse, La., because the owner could not obtain permission from BP’s command center to enter restricted airspace. BP, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Coast Guard were refusing access to planes carrying media, according to Southern Seaplane’s secretary-treasurer, Rhonda Panepinto, who fired off a three-page letter to Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) on May 25.

“We strongly feel that the reason for this massive [temporary flight restriction] is that BP wants to control their exposure to the press,” she wrote. “We are all at the mercy of BP, a British-owned company.”

This week, things got better. The FAA sent two special operations managers to the Gulf Coast on Tuesday to oversee flight access, according to Panepinto, whose company flew Jackson around Chandeleur and Ship islands on Wednesday and is fielding requests from other media outlets, with no grief from authorities.

“It’s almost like there’s a new sheriff in town,” Jackson said.

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