In Reporting on Oil Spill, Limits Persist on Media Access in the Gulf
BY: BRIDGET DESIMONE
Health Correspondent Betty Ann Bowser and I spent last week reporting the health impact of the oil spill in Plaquemines Parish -- Louisiana's southernmost parish, where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico.
During that time local officials and media contacts at the Unified Command Center Operations were mostly helpful in finding answers to our questions and providing us information about scheduled media boat tours of the cleanup operations (even if it did take sometimes take them a few days to get back to us).
But there's one roadblock that we encountered that mystified us -- and, we understand, many other journalists. It has been virtually impossible to get any information about the federal mobile medical unit in the fishing town of Venice, La. The glorified double-wide trailer sits on a spit of newly graveled land known to some as the "BP compound." Ringed with barbed wire-topped chain link fencing, it's tightly restricted by police and private security guards.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services set up the facility on May 31. According to a press release, the medical unit is staffed by "a medical team from the HHS National Disaster Medical System -- a doctor, two nurses, two emergency medical technician paramedics (EMT-P) and a pharmacist."
For over two weeks, my NewsHour colleagues and I reached out to media contacts at HHS, the U.S. Coast Guard and everyone listed as a possible media contact for BP, in an attempt to visit the unit and get a general sense of how many people were being treated there , who they were and what illnesses they had. We got nowhere. It was either "access denied," or no response at all. It was something that none of us had ever encountered while covering a disaster. We're usually at some point provided access to the health services being offered by the federal government.
We tried the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals who told us to talk to HHS. HHS said they couldn't provide us access and said they would get back to us about our questions.
We reached out to local parish officials, who told us to talk to Unified Command Center Operations. Unified Command Center Operations told us to talk to HHS... noticing a pattern here?
NewsHour colleagues -- correspondent Spencer Michaels and Producer Joanne Elgart Jennings -- warned us of the wild goose chase they were sent on two weeks ago while they were in Venice trying to find out what goes on there.
We found we weren't the only ones. Fox News' Dr. Manny Alvarez was also denied access to the unit.