Thar she blows.

There’s a lot to write about #oilspill.

Since the oil came ashore and provided the photographs and videos for the mainstream media that, prior to that oil coming ashore, were missing, there’s been a whole lot of shaking going on.

Prior to that oil coming ashore, mainstream media news organizations had other things to talk about:  Arizona’s immigration law, the decline of the euro, the NBA playoffs.   This talk took place despite the huge and growing presence of the oil spill/leak/disaster in the Gulf and despite the incontrovertible reality that that oil would, sooner or later, without recourse or remorse, come ashore.  Somewhere.  Some time.

But there were no pictures.  No pictures – and no emotion.  No heat.

As long as the oil was floating in the Gulf, out of sight and out of the visual mind, it seemed widely assumed that BP’s efforts and claims of control were sufficient.  These claims were, after all, meticulously documented with long lists of boats in service, booms in place, and dollars spent.

Some disagreed.

SkyTruth, for instance, disagreed.  Based on satellite imagery — the same imagery available to BP and the US government — @SkyTruth was persistently tweeting the reality that there was much, much more oil in the water than anyone seemed to realize and certainly more than the 5000 barrels a day claimed by BP and widely distributed, parrot-like, by mainstream media.  (Also check the archives of the excellent ROFFS site, which continues to compile and manipulate satellite imagery more quickly and informatively than you’ll find in video and sound bites elsewhere.)

Congressman Edward Markey also disagreed.  At Markey’s insistence (according to Markey), BP agreed to make their live underwater ROV video feed available to the public.   This happened on May 19, almost a month after the initial Deepwater Horizon blowout, and has probably become the single most significant event affecting subsequent media coverage.

Given early access to that live feed (viewed by BP from the very beginning of the incident), NPR was able to confirm the conclusions of SkyTruth:  there was much, much more oil leaking into the Gulf than BP claimed.  And, importantly, the NPR report was not made possible through NPR’s “professional” media contacts nor through interviews with “professional” media pundits.  The NPR report was based on the analysis of Steven Wereley, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University, whose demeanor and expertise are quite different from that of, say, George Stephanopoulos or James Carville.

To the extent that mainstream media can gain access – like NPR – to information and expertise beyond that of their politically motivated and easy-to-access usual suspects, their reports have increasingly diverged from claims and reports by BP and, disappointingly, by NOAA and Coast Guard and other local and federal government officials working in collaboration with BP — and increasingly converged with the arguments and analyses of alternative and social media.   (See, for instance, this disturbing account of the BP-government collaboration on Grand Isle by Mother Jones reporter Mac McClelland.)

Unfortunately, however, trusting in the informal and the unofficial doesn’t come without its own set of problems – including verification.

Public access to the live feed of BP’s ROVs – truly a spectacular technological accomplishment – provides its own sort of verification:  we implicitly trust a camera more than we explicitly trust its operator.  On the other hand, public access to social media content and analysis — such as that available on The Oil Drum website – can be extremely valuable but also potentially hazardous, leading to misinterpretation and, intentionally or not, rumor and panic.  (See, for instance, the still unexplained Monkeyfister report of “Major Changes Down Below…”)

And check out this series of tweets…

The @jgrindal Twitter account has been represented as coming from a consulting engineer on the BP #topkill attempt and, during that attempt, quickly became widely reported and attended.  After weeks of confusing and contradictory reports from BP and no news whatsoever coming from the Deepwater Horizon site itself, the @jgrindal tweets seemed, finally, to provide insight into what was actually happening:  first-hand, immediate, accurate.  The final tweet from the @jgrindal account was this one:

Wow, just got a scathing call from mgmt, requesting I tone down my twitter info… 9:02 AM May 26th via web

Was the @jingrindal account really what it was purported to be?  Or, was that account, like @BPGlobalPR, merely a technologically sophisticated form of roleplay?