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BP pays travel writers to 'make it right'

September 28, 2010 |  4:11 pm

Pensacola
Sometimes with major news stories it takes time and distance for the truth of something to come out. Often, that requires tenacious reporting by dedicated reporters.

Take the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, for example.

Sure, national and international media outlets dispatched hundreds of reporters to gulf states for months last summer to monitor the effort to clean up more than 200 million gallons of oil. True, too, photojournalists and video crews captured images of oiled wildlife and devastated fishermen and followed President Obama as he chatted with beach cleanup crews. 

But we haven't heard the real story until now, according to a group of six travel writers just back from a whirlwind tour of Florida's beaches. Turns out their all-expenses-paid weekend of fact-finding was funded by BP.

According to the Pensacola News Journal, the oil giant gave the Santa Rosa County (Fla.) Tourist Development Council $551,000 to get the word out that Florida's beaches are open for business, with none of those pesky tar balls to be seen.

Most media outlets reported that Pensacola was never seriously affected by the oil spill. Tar balls did hit the city's beaches, but were quickly plucked from the sand by cleanup crews, which included, in at least one instance, the state's governor.

The half-million dollars to Make It Right in Santa Rosa County is in addition to the nearly $100 million the company has spent on advertising to get out its message that BP will remain in the gulf "as long as it takes" to clean up its mess.

The tourism council spent some of the BP money to bring in six travel writers, chauffeuring them to tourist sites in a white stretch limo, according to the News Journal. Their weekend included a tour of Pensacola's famous white sand beaches.   

The writers saw for themselves that, five months after the well blowout that killed 11 men, the Florida panhandle was not coated in oil -- just as had been reported all along.

One of the participants, Ron Stern, editor of  JustSayGo.com, gushed over his "three-bedroom suite with sweeping views of the Gulf" in Navarre Beach, Fla., and the "beautiful white sand beach (actually comprised of quartz)." 

Ron "waded out into the emerald-green water and looked for signs of smelly slimy oil. Nope, nothing except for some swimmers, seagulls and families enjoying the sunshine, gorgeous water and clean shores. So much for everything I had been hearing and seeing, at least in Navarre."

While Ron was on the trail of the phantom oil, he fortified himself with a shrimp po' boy, grilled bruschetta and a charbroiled salmon filet with Swiss cheese and bacon, according to his blog. The intrepid Ron reports that he ended his investigation by watching "the orange glow of the sun slowly setting on the water."

Ron told Louis Cooper of the the Pensacola News Journal, "What the national media has been saying is totally untrue, for the most part, and blown totally out of proportion. What they are going to get from me is the truth."

Don't take just his word for it. Freelance writer Apryl Thomas, who writes for several websites and publications, including Southern Hospitality, also hit the beach: "I knew the spill was kind of blown up," she told the News Journal. "They way it was first covered in the national media, you honestly thought, 'It's gone,' but once I did a little research and calling, I felt like it was important to let people know that everything is good to go."

-- Julie Cart

Photo: A child plays on Pensacola Beach in June, as BP workers clean up tar balls. Credit: Carolyn Cole /Los Angeles Times

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