Well, who’s going to believe Fox News when they complain about access to the federal response in the Gulf? After all, they’re nothing more than a part of the right-wing noise machine, right? Why, I’ll bet that Sean Hannity has — er, what? It’s not Fox News? Must be the New York Post, then. Rupert Murdoch wants to destroy the Obama presidency — oh, wait, it’s not the Post either. Nor is it the Wall Street Journal or Andrew Breitbart complaining that the feds are restricting media access to their response in this crisis. In fact, it’s …. PBS?
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?
We certainly have noticed a pattern. Ever since Barack Obama took office, the White House has claimed to provide “the most transparent administration ever.” Instead, we’re seeing new frontiers in opacity. Lobbyists refuse to disclose $40,000 payoffs when they take jobs in the administration, the President refuses to hold press conferences, key officials hold meetings at Caribou Coffee with lobbyists to avoid disclosure, and use private e-mail to evade the Official Records Act.
For all of the faults of the Katrina response, the media had full access to it from the beginning. Unless the White House needs to declare a quarantine and an epidemic of some disease in the Gulf, the media should have access to this emergency response as well. But at least the White House isn’t alone in hiding its failure, and the media aren’t the only people being kept out, as J.E. Dyer notes in the Green Room today:
This is hilarious. Suddenly, the House Democrats are rewriting the rules for funded travel because a group of Republicans (and one Democrat) wants to visit the Gulf in July. Well, “rewriting” makes it sound like something official and accountable is going on. “Remaking it up as they go along” would apparently be more accurate.
The New Orleans news site Nola reports that the Democratic leadership in Congress won’t allow members to use their official accounts to pay for travel to the Gulf and to assess the administration’s response for themselves:
House members who had planned to travel to Louisiana next week for a tour and meetings on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill being organized by Rep. Steve Scalise won’t be able to tap their member accounts to cover the costs, the Republican congressman said he was told Tuesday.
The travel would appear to be to in the category of “general oversight” into an issue in which several committees have already been authorized for member visits to the Gulf Coast, said Kyle Anderson, spokesman for House Administration Committee Chairman Robert Brady, D-Pa. Such trips, Brady said, are “not eligible for payment from the financial accounts” that finance members’ offices. …
California Rep. Dan Lungren, the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, said barring “some extraordinary reason to prohibit this trip,” which he said hasn’t been communicated to anybody on the Republican side, “this is an unacceptable departure from past practices.”
“This is an educational trip for members using their own representational budgets to see, firsthand, the devastating impact of the Gulf spill,” Lungren said. “Our travel regulations permit this type of travel in support of our official representational duties, and unfortunately, this disaster is already having environmental and economical implications for the entire country, not just those districts represented by members sitting on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.”
The Scalise trip, scheduled for July 9, was to include a breakfast overview of the spill in New Orleans, a flight over the Louisiana coast, a meeting with local officials on Grand Isle and a boat tour of outer islands to see how the spill has affected wildlife.
Clearly, Democrats don’t want the media or our elected officials to see what’s happening in the Gulf, and it’s about time people started demanding an answer from them for it. When PBS can’t get into the response effort, something is being covered up.
Update: I’m going to use Glenn Reynolds’ line here: “They told me if I voted for John McCain that the press would get silenced and the executive branch would block accountability. And they were right!”