June 11th, 2010
09:57 AM ET

Letters to the President #508: 'Freeze! This is the security guard'!

Tom Foreman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/US/06/10/oil.spill.volume/smlvid.spill.cnn.jpg caption="President Theodore Roosevelt warned more than a century ago about how bad life could get if big corporations were allowed to get out of hand. I suspect that sound you hear is old Teddy spinning in his grave." width=300 height=169]

Reporter's Note: President Obama has summoned the big oil gang to the White House. I think he should probably have me there too, but I’ll stick with sending my daily letters until the invitation arrives.

Dear Mr. President,

Well, I am delighted to see that you took the advice of my letter yesterday and have now called the BP crew to the Oval Office for a good talking to! At least I hope that’s what you have in mind. It is certainly what they need at the least.

Let me tell you about an encounter I had on the beach of Grand Isle today. As you no doubt have noticed, one of the major issues with this oil company is nagging doubts about whether they are truly being upfront and transparent about what is going on, because they haven’t… uh… been upfront and transparent. And on the shore today I had a first hand look at precisely what runaway corporate hubris can create.

We were checking up on BP’s claim that it is not trying to muzzle anyone in exchange for jobs on the cleanup crews or payouts on claims against the company. So we found a crew on one of the beaches and struck up a conversation with a nice guy who was playing the role of security guard. And I truly think he was a nice guy, but it turned out that when BP hired him, or when they contracted with whatever company hired him, this guy was given some dreadfully erroneous information about the extent of his powers. To wit: He told us that he was there to make sure no one took any pictures of workers on the beach, and to make sure we did not ask them any questions. Our conversation went something like this:

“We can’t take pictures of them?”


“I can’t talk to them?”

“No, I can’t allow that.”

“But this is a public place. We’re on a public street.”

“It’s illegal for you to take someone’s picture without his permission. And you can’t talk to these people.”

“But BP actually issued a letter saying that all workers on the cleanup were free to talk all that wanted, precisely because of complaints about situations like this one.”

“I can’t let you talk to them.”

So of course, I started talking to them anyway and this guard started coming unhinged. “You can’t do that! Sir! Stop! I can’t allow you to do that!” They did not answer, btw; apparently they got the memo too. But still this guy was upset.

Here is a little lesson for anyone working in private security anywhere in this country: Yes, I can. Remember all that talk about “freedoms” in government class in high school? This is one of them. Reporters (and actually pretty much anyone) have the right… the right… to walk up to people in public places and ask them questions, just as those people have a right to refuse to answer, to ignore us, to make rude hand gestures, or retreat to a private place where we do not have the right to pursue them.

Anyway, I think the reason this guy (who, I’ll mention again, seemed like an otherwise fine fellow) thought he had the right to push us around, is that BP… and frankly a lot of big companies… have set the tone. They act as if they are above the law, as if they are free from every responsibility to the public except those they choose to accept, and as if they can push anyone around, including you.

President Theodore Roosevelt warned more than a century ago about how bad life could get if big corporations were allowed to get out of hand. I suspect that sound you hear is old Teddy spinning in his grave.

Something to keep in mind when that big meeting comes up. Speaking of things coming up: Are you going to call me this weekend? Just wondering. We have company coming in and I would not want to give them or you short shrift.


Follow Tom on Twitter @tomforemancnn.

Find more of the Foreman Letters here.

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