Thursday, July 31, 2014

Conflict of Interest: Businessweek's Paul Barrett Now An Advocate for Chevron In Ecuador Dispute

With his track record of bias in favor of Chevron already part of the historical record, Businessweek’s Paul Barrett appears to have become a full-blown public advocate for the oil giant in its legal dispute with Ecuadorian villagers over the massive contamination of their ancestral lands.

Just this week, Barrett testified about his take on the litigation before the House of Representatives in a hearing that was arranged in part by Chevron lobbyists. He appeared at the side of a lawyer from the oil giant’s controversial outside law firm, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher. And he repeated the usual Chevron talking points about the Ecuador case that have been rejected by three layers of courts in Ecuador, including that nation’s highest court in a unanimous opinion last November.

Barrett’s testimony in favor of Chevron – completely improper for any independent journalist – follows multiple reports that Chevron is quietly helping to promote his forthcoming book about the case, Law of the Jungle. We can’t say we are surprised after reviewing an advance copy from a source who indicated Barrett is trying to flog it in Hollywood.

The effort by Barrett to cash in on the misery of Ecuadorian villagers by promoting Chevron’s campaign to evade accountability is hardly surprising. His book falls far short of fact-based responsible journalism. Barrett adopts wholesale most of Chevron’s fraudulent plot points and ignores the overwhelming scientific evidence – most provided by the oil company itself during an eight-year trial in the court of its choosing in Ecuador – that was relied on to determine liability for the dumping of billions of gallons of toxic waste into the rainforest.

(For background on the overwhelming evidence against Chevron relied on by the Ecuador courts, see this document; for an explanation of Chevron’s human rights abuses in Ecuador, see this video; for how Chevron deliberately discharged toxic waste, see this 60 Minutes segment; for a letter signed by 43 civil advocacy groups criticizing Chevron over Ecuador, see here.)

Barrett’s obsession with (and personal animus toward) Steven Donziger, the main U.S. legal advisor to the villagers and the principal target of Chevron’s demonization campaign, drips off the cover jacket and permeates almost every chapter.

Law of the Jungle suffers from some of the same egregious flaws often found in Barrett’s reporting on the Ecuador litigation: sloppy or non-existent research resulting in numerous factual errors; cribbing material from other journalists and court filings; creating fictional scenes that never happened; and demonstrating a shocking disregard of the extensive scientific evidence that contradicts Chevron’s self-serving narrative.

The book reads like a novelist’s re-purposing of Judge Lewis A. Kaplan’s deeply flawed 487-page RICO decision, which is currently hanging on life support during the appellate process. Barrett’s book is as much an affront to serious journalism as Kaplan’s decision is to serious legal reasoning.

A more comprehensive critique of Barrett’s book is forthcoming. Here is a preview of some of its flagrant flaws:

  • Barrett did almost no independent reporting. He let Chevron’s lawyers do almost all of his work for him, effectively letting the oil giant subsidize his so-called “independent” research. Most of the book re-writes Chevron’s court filings and adopts almost wholesale the oil giant’s narrative that it was “victimized” by the very indigenous groups that held it accountable.
  • Barrett spent almost no time reporting on conditions in Ecuador. He never interviewed a single member of the legal team for the villagers. He does not quote any current Ecuadorian government officials. He never attended even a day of the eight-year trial that resulted in a judgment against Chevron. According to his source notes, Barrett never read the 220,000-page Ecuador trial record. Barrett also spent no more than a few days reporting from Ecuador, the epicenter of the two-decade legal dispute and the place Chevron's predecessor company Texaco operated for decades. The book epitomizes secondhand armchair journalism.
  • Barrett’s book reads as though the Ecuadorian people do not exist. Consistent with Chevron’s imperialist and arrogant behavior in Ecuador, there is virtually no mention by Barrett of a single Ecuadorian other than Cofan indigenous leader Ermegildo Criollo, with whom he spent a few hours. In Barrett’s eyes, the people who matter most are Americans like Donziger, Judge Kaplan, and the activists at Amazon Watch. He scarcely mentions lead Ecuadorian attorney Pablo Fajardo (who won the CNN Hero Award for his work on the case) and he ignores Luis Yanza (winner of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize). Yanza has been the lead community advocate on the case for over two decades. Almost none of the thousands of affected villagers were even interviewed.
  • Barrett misleads the reader about his sources. In a shocking display of poor journalistic ethics, Barrett repeatedly misleads the reader by cribbing material without citation from journalists who did firsthand reporting. One example: Barrett frequently describes scenes from the award-winning documentary film Crude without mentioning in the text that his source is the film. By so doing, Barrett leaves the reader with the false impression he was reporting firsthand from events that happened years ago and where he was not present. (Some of these suspect narrative techniques seem oddly similar to what got James Frey in trouble in his supposedly non-fiction memoir, A Million Little Pieces.)
  • Barrett fictionalizes events and leaves the false impression he interviewed Donziger. Barrett asked Donziger repeatedly for interviews for the book but Donziger refused to cooperate, acting on advice of counsel and for other reasons related to Barrett’s lack of scruples. So Barrett now pretends that Donziger cooperated with him anyway. Barrett quotes Donziger from private notes turned over in discovery and relays what he thinks is on Donziger’s mind, leaving the reader with the false impression that he interviewed Donziger for the book or had some special access to his private thoughts. Barrett also creates fictional scenes involving Donziger – including one where the lawyer supposedly was trailed by Chevron undercover operatives while riding his bike in Manhattan, which did not happen.
  • To create his fictionalized story, Barrett ignores key evidence. Consistent with Chevron’s self-serving version of events, Barrett completely ignores or distorts key scientific evidence to try to claim that the Ecuadorians could not prove their case. This narrative is contradicted by Chevron’s own evidence submitted to the Ecuador court; by three layers of court decisions in Ecuador; and by the recent analysis but a prominent group of U.S. scientific consultants, the Louis Berger Group. He also ignores persuasive evidence that Chevron tried to cheat during the trial to hide evidence of its own contamination. He ignores the fact that more than 35 scientists – including those hired by both litigants and third parties – have confirmed the oil giant’s pollution.
  • The book is skewed by Barrett’s obvious personal animus toward Donziger. Consistent with Chevron’s strategy to “demonize” Donziger, Barrett subjects the main U.S. legal advisor for the villagers to a host of juvenile epithets. Barrett calls Donziger a “loudmouthed gatecrasher,” “master showman,” and describes him as a lawyer “who’d stop at nothing” to win. He then ignores Donziger’s own narrative about what took place in Ecuador by failing to even mention (much less cite) the attorney’s comprehensive 130-page appellate brief that exposes a good number of Chevron’s lies, misdeeds, and unethical litigation practices. Barrett also ignores Donziger’s own lawsuit against Chevron, which comprehensively documents the company’s deceit in U.S. courts and its plethora of criminal and unethical acts in Ecuador.

Perhaps more disturbingly, we have numerous emails from the last two years or so that show Barrett becoming unhinged over Donziger’s refusal to cooperate with his book. Many people also witnessed a bizarre incident in open court recently where Barrett lost his cool and blew up at Donziger’s lawyers. At times, Barrett made explicit threats to those working for the Ecuadorians that he planned to use his book to “take down” Donziger. He warned other lawyers they should stop working with the New York attorney or they would risk damaging their careers.

We have long suggested that Businessweek editor Josh Tyrangiel has let Barrett get away with this unprofessional behavior for far too long. While Barrett was writing a book that is little more than a continuation of Chevron’s hit job on Donziger, he also was reporting “independently” for Businessweek on Donziger’s role in the litigation. That’s a blatant conflict of interest. Businessweek continues to let Barrett use its web platform to promote the themes of his flawed book and to make snarky attacks against Donziger.

All of this might explain why Chevron’s public relations flaks are pushing Barrett’s book and arranging for his congressional testimony. Granted, it’s only a small part of the company’s gargantuan public relations campaign to distract attention from its ecological calamity in the Amazon. But we have seen how Chevron has convinced other formerly reputable advocates, such as human rights academic Douglas Cassel, to take up arms for a corporate polluter in exchange for money. Cassel has so damaged his reputation that his faculty colleagues at Notre Dame ordered his diatribes about the Ecuador case removed from the law school’s official website.

Barrett is the latest bit player to try to boost his profile and make a buck off of Chevron’s billion-dollar retaliation campaign against the Ecuadorian villagers. The company’s strategy to “demonize" Donziger – outlined explicitly in internal Chevron emails dating back five years – is now a cottage industry that includes no fewer than 60 outside law firms, 2,000 legal personnel, ten investigations firms, at least six public relations firms, and now Barrett. It has to be the most robustly financed corporate retaliation campaign in history.

While Barrett hustles his book, the indigenous people of Ecuador continue to suffer. This is partly because a compromised American “journalist” has now made it a little bit easier for Chevron’s management team to evade its court-mandated responsibilities to the people it harmed.

Businessweek’s readers and the public deserve better. So do the affected communities in Ecuador.