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Freedom of the Press? Not at Burning Man
by LessElf

Rules and regulations have straightened up Burning Man from the anarchist event it once was. (No semi automatics on the playa, please.) But it's still probably the only city in America where you can cruise the streets while strapped to a homemade crucifix on wheels, without being stopped by the authorities. Yep, Burning Man encourages individuality and freedom. Unless you're a member of the press.

In contrast to individual participants, who can raise nearly all the cain they want, the press is tightly controlled at Burning Man. Media have to submit a proposal, along with the angle they want to explore, for approval by Media Mecca, the public relations arm of BM. And sometimes, the answer is no.

"We turned down Playboy this year," says Evil Pippi, the former Captain of Media Relations of Burning Man, and a current Media Mecca volunteer. "They wanted to write purient type stories about sex at Burning Man, and we're not interested in that," she says.

Sometimes media control is a beautiful thing. Who wants to see a bunch of bullshit articles published about Ecstasy orgies at Burning Man, or a special "MTV does Burning Man," complete with models trucked in with body paint?

But when it comes to Burning Man's own media, the organization holds the reins twice as tightly. And that's where it can sometimes get touchy.

Like a growing number of cities across the country, Black Rock City has a single daily newspaper, the Black Rock Gazette. Located in two air-conditioned trailers at Center Camp, the Gazette is staffed by a team of volunteer writers, editors, copy editors, designers, and production staff, and published every evening on site, with a little help from a Kinko's in Reno.

The Gazette publishes fun stories about Burning Man food contests, theme camp reviews, and the like mixed with breaking news about things going on around the city. Like the city's radio stations, the paper serves an important role in getting the word out when shit goes down in Black Rock City. Case in point: when a bomb went off at Burning Man last year, the paper covered it. Sort of.

In a mid-morning during Burning Man last year, there was a loud explosion on the outskirts of camp. It sent ripples of black smoke up into the sky, and caused the windows on some of the houses in Gerlach to shake. It left a ten-foot wide crater, and a flurry of activity among local officials and the Burning Man organization, as they tried to assess the situation. What kind of bomb was it? Was it set off by a harmless Burning Man pyro, or someone with murderess intent, who may have planted other bombs?

The next morning, the Black Rock Gazette printed a story about the bomb, stating simply its location, and the fact that local law enforcement was investigating, and Burning Man was cooperating.

Later that afternoon, a participant named Dang (and magazine reporter by profession) stumbled onto a hot tip while attending a "Leave No Trace" seminar at Center Camp. His source, a federal employee, told him that there was more to the story than what was initially reported, and proceeded to outline the details. Dang ran over to the news desk at the Black Rock Gazette to share his tip. The editors asked him if he could write a follow-up story, and after confirming the tip with local law officials, he wrote it. That afternoon, Dang's story was killed the only story to ever be killed by the BM organization. Why? Seems the bomb was too hot to touch even for the local paper.

"The authorities were ready to shut the event down that day, and we didn't want to make it look like a huge emergency," says Shibumi, publisher of the Gazette. "I was being called upon to do damage control on the bomb threat."

Huh? A newspaper helping someone do damage control? That doesn't exactly sound ethical. But further conversation with Shibumi reveals that the Gazette is only "like" a newspaper.

Censoring the paper is, in Shibumi's words, crucial for the survival of Burning Man. The event has a tenuous relationship with its partners local law enforcement, the BLM, local historic associations, and mining groups that give it permission to operate each year. A negative article in the Gazette could potentially give any of these organizations the ammo it needs to shoot down Burning Man, says Shibumi. Wouldn't the BLM just love to get their hands on an article about Burning Man revelers trashing the local hot springs, for instance. But they never would, because the Gazette wouldn't print a word of it. Even if it was true. After all, the Gazette is fully funded by the Burning Man organization. That means its $20,000 a year budget is paid for, literally, by The Man. It has no choice but to stick to the party line.

But what about us, the hapless citizens of Black Rock City? Don't we have a right to know what is going on in our community? Informed citizenry provides the very basic tenants for a democracy, and you can't make sound decisions if you don't have all the facts. Burning Man isn't an anarchy anymore, it's sad, but true. But it isn't exactly a democracy either. So what is it? What do we want it to be?

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