Almost five years ago, I and the rest of the country watched the results from the Corp of Engineers faulty New Orleans levee’s and then the equally disastrous response by Bush and his buddies at FEMA as they spilled out across the major news networks. The original story pointed the finger of blame at the then President and the equally inept FEMA director, but over time coverage of events started to change, as stories of looters dominated the news, of first responders being shot at, of the pronouncements by then Chief of Police, Eddie Compass and Mayor Nagin and then finally, months later…repetitive reports of FEMA fraud by citizens.
Now, if the papers in the UK and British Petroleum have their way, stories of fraudulent fisherman will be coming soon to a media outlet near you.
Meet oysterman Pete Vujnovich, in time his name could become very familiar. Mr. Vujnovich related an experience he had a few days ago where two strangers approached with documents, asking him to sign. The documents were intended to prove to BP they worked for him, thus enabling the two men to then submit a claim for reparations from the oil company. The oysterman rightfully told the two men where they could put their documents.
Mr. Vujnovich’s story is becoming more familiar to some because the UK’s Daily Mail and Telegraph newspapers have both quoted him in their argument about the potential rash of fraudulent fisherman who are about to try to rob British Petroleum. Also quoting Mr. Vujnovich is the BBC News. So has the website for Defend New Orleans. So has Democratic Underground. So has the Energy Tribune, WLTX.com, Daylife, the USA Today website…and today you’re hearing his name and story from me.
Now I’d like you to meet Bernard Cohen: in 1963, he had the following to say about Agenda Setting, “The press may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about.”
The concept of Agenda Setting essentially follows two principles:
1. The press and the media do not reflect reality; they filter and shape it.
2. Media concentration on a few issues and subjects leads the public to perceive those issues as more important than other issues.
In the days of twenty-four news networks, if there is one thing we have learned since Katrina (and much longer) it is that news stories will be found to fill any vacuum. As one story runs out, the media will pick up and follow another, piggybacking each other until the story is exhausted or people have stopped paying attention.
For the past four months or so, the Gulf Coast has definitely benefited from this concept. It’s one of the reasons that Anderson Cooper was pinned down in New Orleans for so long. It’s why the news had been dominated with story after story about the Gulf Coast. And as far as news media was concerned, it was an incredible story. It had the tragedy of fishermen losing everything, careers, cultures and the potential to even lose their families. The wildlife was found dead and dying. Corporations were trying to keep the media out. Everywhere one looked…environmental chaos and destruction. The oil slicks were omnipresent, fed by the drama of a sea floor gusher nobody could figure out how to control; it all had such tremendous urgency…and there were clear, defined bad guys…BP and a slow-moving federal response. The good guys were just as clear…every suffering family and every dying pelican, and the media was all over everything the response teams would let them get close to. Each new story fed another story and all the networks and newspapers were flooding the scene as they did during Katrina, setting the agenda with each new headline, shaping the perceptions of the American people and the world, working independently, yet together to dictate and filter the terms of the story and influence the way people thought about it with much of this coverage benefiting the people of the Gulf Coast. National anger and disgust with British Petroleum reached a crescendo…and then the well-cap was set in place.
The oil stopped flowing into the Gulf…the urgency of the story began a long, slow fade.
British Petroleum did the static kill, and the oil still didn’t flow into the gulf. 20 billion dollar escrow…no oil. The EPA said Corexit wasn’t harmful…no oil. The FDA said the seafood is safe, the NOAA couldn’t find any oil slicks, the marshlands are showing evidence of recovery…no oil. The government produced mystical diagrams showing how 75% of the oil was gone. Millions of gallons of oil in the Gulf remain, much of it submerged by dispersants making it even more toxic than a slick, but also, invisible….and the agenda continues to change.
The luster of British Petroleum’s guilt, it begins to fade like mainstream media images of…oil.
And Feinberg hasn’t even begun to pay out reparations yet.
British Petroleum’s guilt may be true, but it becomes old news…tired, done to death by every news outlet.
And in walks oysterman Pete Vujnovich.
I’d like to believe his story will fade as well. Nobody remembers the first person charged with Katrina Fraud or the article written about it, and it doesn’t really matter. What does is five years ago the narrative started to slowly change in the California press I was reading at the time, as well as in many other places across the country. And while nobody ever forgot that Bush and FEMA were utter assholes for what they did, or more specifically didn’t do, those repetitive stories of fraud began to subtly alter the country’s perceptions of the New Orleans people. Each story of fraud eventually, over time, took a bit more heat off FEMA and Bush as the newspapers and magazine articles piggybacked each other with story after story until the victims of New Orleans lost some of their innocence by group censure.
So yes, it’s true, there has been an increase in fishermen license applications on the Gulf Coast and yes, some of those people did apply for those licenses for the purpose of committing fraud and yes, Allen Carpenter, regional manager for British Petroleum was more than likely correct when he was quoted in the UK’s Independent saying, “Probably about 10 per cent of the claims filed after any major event can be looked at as fraudulent or potentially fraudulent.”
But let’s all take a step back from that precipice and remember a few things, especially those reading this who do not live near the Gulf Coast:
1. The real villain here is BP, the poor federal response and the bullshit information being thrown around by far too many government agencies about what is safe and what is not. We must continue to think for ourselves and keep media outlets, corporate and government officials from shaping our perceptions to suit their agendas.
2. 90% of those claims made against BP are real, and life-sustaining for the people who apply.
3. The overwhelming majority of fisherman who are legit would probably themselves spit on those attempting fraud.
4. Though that fraud figure of 10% may be true, how about, unlike five years ago, we not allow it to become 75% of the story.
For the ongoing real story about reparations, please visit:
Have a nice day.