When journalism is too good to be true

09/01/2014 7:00 PM

09/12/2014 12:52 PM

When a Gallup poll this summer showed that 80 percent of Americans have little faith in the news media, there was a good deal of consternation in U.S. newsrooms. Some of it came from me. We’re used to getting called liars by the hucksters and connivers and knaves we write about. But it’s pretty frustrating to hear that readers don’t trust us, either.

But as I read through some of the evidence introduced in federal court in a case called Chevron Corp. v. Donziger, I began to think those skeptical readers may have even more of a point than they realize. The case, quite inadvertently, has exposed some very unsettling secrets about the way the journalistic sausage is made at the elite house organs of the chattering classes.

On the face of it, Chevron Corp. v. Donziger has little to do with the news business. Steven Donziger is a law-school buddy of President Obama’s who nine years ago filed a $27 billion lawsuit against Chevron in Ecuador over pollution at oil-drilling sites.

In 2011, Donziger won a $19 billion verdict (later halved by an appellate court) in Ecuador against the oil company. But there was more than a bit of obvious hanky-panky in the trial. (Among other things, a hidden video camera recorded an Ecuadoran judge saying he had already decided the case even though evidence was still being submitted.)

So Chevron filed suit against Donziger in New York to keep U.S. courts from enforcing the award. As evidence of his legal hijinks mounted, the judge forced him to turn over literally thousands of his emails. And that’s where the seamy side of journalism is on display.

Four years into the lawsuit, Donziger scored a public-relations coup when he convinced the magazine Vanity Fair to do a long story about the case. (Department of Extraordinary Coincidences: Donziger’s wife at the time worked in corporate communications at Condé Nast, the magazine’s publisher.)

Vanity Fair assigned the story to one of its best writers, the award-winning William Langewiesche. The piece he produced was extraordinarily sympathetic to the lawsuit, so much so that Donziger himself proclaimed it “the kind of paradigm-shifting, breakthrough article that I think is going to change the entire case from here until it ends in a way that is favorable to us.”

And no wonder! The emails between Donziger and Langewiesche in early 2007, as the story was being prepared, show Langewiesche as Donziger’s camp follower at the best of times, his sock-puppet at the worst.

The reporter asks Donziger to prepare lists of dozens of questions to be asked of Chevron. And he begs Donziger to help him prepare arguments about why there’s no need for him to do face-to-face interviews with Chevron officials, as they’ve requested, even though he spent days meeting with Donziger and his legal staff.

“I want to avoid a meeting, simply because I do NOT have the time. But I don’t want to go on record refusing a meeting,” writes Langewiesche. “Perhaps I could say that my travel schedule is intense . . . ” He not only submits his emails to Chevron for Donziger’s approval (“What say, Steve. I gotta send this tonight”) and even lets him rewrite them. “Let me know if this works,” Donziger says in a note returning one of them. “I was a little aggressive in the editing.”

After reading through a stack of exchanges like that one, I wasn’t surprised to find that Langewiesche sent Donziger a copy of the Vanity Fair story several weeks before it was published.

Langewiesche says writing it was “particularly satisfying to the extent that it supports your efforts, and you personally.”

And just in case you’re wondering, Chevron did not get to see the story before it went into print, nor submit lists of questions it wanted Langewiesche to ask Donziger. Nor did Chevron get the face-to-face interviews they asked for. Except for a single phone conversation just before the story appeared, Langewiesche insisted all their communication be via email.

Not surprisingly, Langewiesche‘s story included some errors, most whoppingly the assertion that it would cost $6 billion to clean up all the pollution around oil-drilling sites in the Amazon.

That estimate originally came from one of Donziger’s hired experts. But the man had repudiated it a full year before the Vanity Fair story appeared, warning Donziger in a letter that the estimate was based on faulty assumptions and was “a ticking time bomb which will come back to bite you, and very badly, if anyone attempts due diligence on it.”

That’s the sort of thing you might have read in a fair-minded story on a lawsuit. But Langewiesche never had any intention of writing such a thing. That’s not my judgment, it’s his. “You and I are now firmly on the same side,” he told Donziger in one of his emails. “But actually we were about an hour after I met you.”

Footnote: I emailed Langewiesche, asking if this is the way he approaches all his stories and if there was some explanation of how his conduct constituted fair journalism that I was failing to understand. He didn’t reply.

About Glenn Garvin

Glenn Garvin

@glenngarvin

Glenn Garvin spent nearly 20 years as a foreign correspondent and 12 more as the Herald's TV critic. He is a 1975 graduate of Stanford University.

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