Dispatch From Louisiana: The Brown Pelican and Media Etiquette

BY Maureen Hoch  May 5, 2010 at 12:30 PM EDT

Brown pelican being cleaned in Louisiana; Photo by Lorna Baldwin

The Fort Jackson bird rescue facility near Venice, La., got its second patient on Monday — an oil-soaked Louisiana brown pelican. The gawky bird was picked up on Storm Island, but the folks who are standing by to clean birds weren’t really sure where that is.

When they exhibited the first bird to be rescued last week, more than a dozen TV crews and a big crowd of reporters showed up. There were about half as many media representatives on Monday. There seemed to be a higher percentage of foreign press covering the spill, which continues to pour out at a rate of about 210,000 gallons of oil per day despite word from BP that it has capped one of three underwater leaks.

This time, workers for Tri-State Bird Rescue actually cleaned the bird in front of the cameras, using the now-famous Dawn liquid dishwashing detergent. The pelican got a surprisingly long and rigorous bath, moving from one bubbly sink to another while three people dressed in plastic coveralls scrubbed vigorously. It took all three of them to control the large bird, which had a nearly five-foot wingspan. It seemed to tolerate all this fairly well, even when its long beak and pouch was brushed inside and out with a toothbrush.

[One of the ironclad rules of press "gaggles" is first come, first served. Seasoned crews show up well in advance of events to stake out their camera positions -- their "sticks" position. ("Sticks" means a [tripod](http://images.google.com/images?q=camera%20tripod&hl=en&source=og&sa=N&tab=fi).) Such positions are guarded jealously. Crews that come in late have to set up on the edges of the existing “skirmish line” of cameras.

Amateurs stand out in this kind of situation. They carry inexpensive cameras and are generally better dressed and look more rested than real journalists working in this kind of situation. That’s because the good hotels fill up fast, and a lot of journalists down here are living in rented camper trailers and doubling up in cabins. Sleep is difficult if six adults are sharing one bathroom each morning.

Amateurs also occasionally break the rules, inadvertently or, in this case, on purpose. One young woman and her older companion tried to sidle their way into the prime camera position in the center of bird-washing sinks. One asked two crews already in that spot to move so that “we could squeeze in.” They seemed quite surprised — miffed, even — at the one-word answer: “No.” I suspect that if they continue to try to cover these kinds of things, they will eventually get the message. If you want a good place to put your sticks, get there early.

Tom Bearden will have more on the latest Gulf Coast oil leak developments on Wednesday’s NewsHour.

View more photos of the pelican by NewsHour deputy senior producer Lorna Baldwin on our Flickr page.