A funny thing happened on the way to our live coverage of the start of the 2010 Bayview Mackinac Race; or rather, in the middle of our live streaming video coverage (the first ever such coverage from this race): The US Coast Guard, acting on instructions from Race Chairman Tom Burleson, threw us off the course. I suppose it would have been funny had it not been such an egregious example of the kind of power that Yacht Clubs think they deserve.
Amazingly enough, the Guard didn’t toss us because we did anything wrong – we’d only been onsite for a few minutes, and we’d barely set up when they came over and told us that we needed a pink ‘media’ flag.
And they didn’t toss us because we didn’t identify ourselves; in fact, we’d informed the Race Chairman days before that we were going to come and shoot, and we showed the coasties our live feed, our cameras, and a business card. One Guard patrol boat even sought out an official media boat when they couldn’tf get the PRO or Race Chair on the phone, and the captain told the officer that we were legit, and how great it was that we were there.
But the Race Chair somehow didn’t approve, and claimed during a short phone call on the water that we were required to fill out a registration form in order to perform our duties as reporters, despite nothing in either our communications with Burleson or on the official site requiring such registration to cover the event. All official communications only indicated that registration ‘was suggested’ if we wanted to be accommodated on a BYC-organized boat.
But despite the fact that we were legitimate press on public waters engaged in our legally protected duties, Burleson instructed the Guard to escort us out of the media area. And incredibly, the Guard did his bidding.
So we left, and on the way home, I searched my brain for any justification at all for the BYC member’s actions. Clearly, SA delivers traffic; last year, our coverage of the BYC Mack sent more hits to the BYC and Pure Michigan site than any other publication. Had SA insulted the guy? Did someone have a vendetta against us? It’s possible, though we probably have a better relationship with Bayview than with any other club. Our first-ever fully live video coverage was of the 2009 Detroit Cup, and it was such a success that we were retained months ago to cover the 2010 event in just a few weeks. Mer and I were hired by the BYC folks as Media Officers for their 2007 Melges 24 US Nationals – the biggest M24 Nats in US history. Hell, two dozen BYC members crashed my wedding a couple of years ago…so why would a race chairman go out of his way to send SA packing?
Needless to say, I remain perplexed. Even notwithstanding our strong relationship with the club that we consider one of the most progressive in the country, any race chairman with as public a sponsor as the Pure Michigan tourism campaign would be overjoyed to see a truly national media outlet covering his event, especially when the Detroit and Port Huron media making up all of his exposure weren’t exactly reaching Pure Michigan’s target audience. But he clearly wasn’t, and until we receive an answer from Mr. Burleson, it’s not worth speculating why. You just never know what the politics are at any club, and some of the strangest things happen when club politics are involved with public events. It may be telling that the official event site has had just one meagre update in 30+ hours of racing, that the tracker was broken, and that there literally is zero independent reporting outside of a 100 mile radius of Detroit.
Maybe the race sponsors just don’t give a crap about exposure, and that’s their prerogative. UPDATE as of Monday night: As you can see from THIS LETTER sent to us by Bayview’s PR guy, some people down at the club actually do think that reporters need to be approved by Bayview to cover an event on the public waterways. Let that sink in for a minute: By its own admission, a private club thinks it can use public military assets to exclude reporters that it does not want covering its public events. Can you imagine what would happen if BP created its own ‘media registration requirement’ for reporters on the open waters of the Gulf? Hell, even the CG’s official, safety based regulation was reversed after just two weeks, and the Guard’s credentialing system is possibly the most lax we’ve ever seen. This is not to say that a club can’t request media to register, but require it? Sorry, Charlie. We can only urge that folks at other clubs and events speak to their attorneys to avoid taking similarly embarrassing positions.
United States Club Guard
So we’ll let that one go for the moment, and move on to something we consider far, far more troubling: Since when did the US Coast Guard earn the power to deny fundamental constitutional rights on the orders of a yacht club?
You might remember our story last week of the USCG’s directive banning media coverage closer than 20 meters from the oil booms protecting the Gulf marshes from the Deepwater Horizon spill. This order prevented close-up photos of the massively damaged ecosystem, and the media went apeshit when they learned how BP had co-opted the CG to violate their constitutional right to report, especially when news teams were harassed by BP-chartered boats filled with BP employees and chaperoned by a USCG Officer. Well, it didn’t take long for the Guard to completely lift the ban over the weekend when it became clear that it would result in immediate lawsuits and further PR nightmares.
But outside of the immense public eye focused on the oil disaster, the Coast Guard is still engaging in actions that abridge the fundamental right of the press to report on the news, apparently allowing a Yacht Club to determine who is and isn’t legitimate media and acting on that determination. And if it is happening to us on Lake Huron, it might just be happening on other waters, and unfortunately, very few people seem to understand or even care about their First Amendment rights.
But we do, and we’re going to see that every racing club in the US understands that reporters are not to be prevented from covering public events, regardless of where they come from. Our little game of racing sailboats may warrant a small amount of regulation at the biggest events when safety absolutely requires, but we should never accept the infringement of anyone’s right to enjoy or work on the water in the name of yacht racing. Yachties have a bad enough reputation already.
UPDATE as of Monday night: