Burn notice

Lee Gilmore was a member of “Media Mecca,” Burning Man’s media relations team. In the Sept. 2, 1999 issue of Black Rock Gazette, a now-defunct Burning Man publication, she wrote about Media Mecca’s goal of “initiating” journalists at the event by encouraging them to engage rather than spectate. The objective, she wrote, was “to introduce media to the magic of Burning Man” and “to educate media and participants about the media’s role.”

That year, Burning Man attracted around 10,000 people—about one seventh the number who attended last year. But the organization’s relationship with the press was already complicated and contentious—understandably so. Burning Man lends itself to shallow coverage of party antics and salacious photos of scantily costumed bodies, something upon which many people have tried to cash in. In 2002, Burning Man sued Voyeur Video, a company that had been filming naked women at the event and selling the videos on a website. Voyeur Video’s owner, Jim O’Brien, responded in a CNN interview, “We just shoot what goes on. … Consider us a news company.”

To stop just anyone with a camera or video recorder from claiming to be a journalist, the Burning Man organization has, for the last 20 years, issued press passes. On the festival’s website, a page dedicated to archiving coverage acknowledges the media’s “large role in sharing Burning Man culture with the world,” adding the caveat of “for better or worse, depending on the accuracy of the coverage.”

As the festival grew, so did Media Mecca. Photographers, documentarians and journalists must now submit media proposals well in advance of the event and may be prohibited from pursuing those projects if they don’t receive approval from Media Mecca. And the Burning Man organization’s concerns with media coverage go well beyond accuracy. The application for press credentials states things like, “The ‘first-timer at Burning Man’ narrative rarely makes it through the proposal process.”

In her ‘99 article, Gilmore noted that in order to give journalists “time to develop their perspectives,” those seeking to “interview key organizers” needed to show up three days prior to the event’s kickoff. Nearly two decades later, the organization turned down a media request made by this paper to interview some of the mental health professionals who volunteer their time to staff the event’s “med tents” about preparations being made for 2018 in the wake of a suicide at the event last year. The request, made a month and a half in advance of the event, was denied due to a lack of time—and despite several sources having confirmed their willingness to talk.

Burning Man claims to be more than a party in the desert. Organizers and participants like to call Burning Man a “temporary city.” And the bureaucracy involved in organizing it fits that description, with the organization working year-round with agencies ranging from county and tribal governments to the Nevada Highway Patrol. But unlike an actual city, the organization feels entitled to interfere with the work of journalists.

If Burning Man wants journalists to cover its “temporary community” with articles that look beyond costumed partying, it should stop trying to quash the free press. Ω