Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Chevron's Blogger Propagandists: Accuse First, Ask (No) Questions Later

We've written before about the motley crew of bloggers who fervently defend Chevron in its ongoing effort to run from a multibillion dollar liability for environmental disaster in Ecuador. Chevron is certainly not an easy company to stick up for, given its long and sordid history in Ecuador. Chevron's predecessor, Texaco, showed up in the pristine Amazon rainforest in 1964 and left a huge swath of it devastated and polluted by 1990. Chevron acquired Texaco, and its liability in Ecuador, in 2001 and is now the third largest U.S. corporation, with a 2008 profit of $24 billion. And yet this behemoth of an oil company loves to, ludicrously, play the victim card, and when it does, these are the bloggers who fall in line with PR-brushes in tow.

Chevron's blogger allies went into overdrive mode in September, trumpeting Chevron's claims when the oil major announced it had uncovered a $3 million bribery scandal that would implicate the Ecuadorian judge in corruption and, they claimed, prove government interference in the lawsuit. When the news hit, the pro-Chevron bloggers ran wild, crying foul, and trumpeting the Chevron line that a fair trial in Ecuador was impossible.

The only problem was, the smoking gun backfired. Instead of revealing a scandal, the videos themselves–and Chevron's role in presenting them to the media–became the scandal. As my colleague Han Shan documents in his thorough deconstruction of the company's allegations on Huffington Post, the whole "scandal" was nothing but a bizarre set up. By the end of October, it was clear that there was no actual bribe and no actual government officials were involved. Instead the videos merely document what appears to have been a plan to entrap judge Juan Nuñez and get him removed from the case. The man who presents himself as a businessman isn't, though he is a convicted drug-trafficker. The man he purports to bribe in the video is a phony government official (actually a car salesman). And the contracts they discuss were never signed and were proposed for a business that doesn't exist. Nice try, Chevron, but...

Since the bribery scandal imploded, there's been a curious silence from Chevron's merry band of bloggers. This isn't surprising. They're following a well-known propaganda strategy: make dramatic accusations with little supporting evidence, spread those accusations far and wide, then offer no retraction or apology when your claims are later proven to have been wildly off base.

We would like to introduce you to a few of the "pro-Chevron" bloggers out there, and the groundless claims they made in the aftermath of September's phony "bribery scandal":

Carter Wood writes for, a blog sponsored by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), a lobbying group that supports tax cuts, so-called "free trade" and seems to oppose nearly every form of government regulation of industry. Wood's relationship to Chevron is unclear, except that Chevron is a member of the NAM, and Wood went on a trip to Ecuador in June 2009 that was paid for by the company. An online profile of Wood describes his blog as a voice for a "pro-growth, pro-manufacturing agenda." This seems to translate to a blindly pro-corporate agenda, such as is evident in his bizarre assertion in one post that "Class action litigation is, alas, an American legal malady." (This invites the question of what Mr. Wood proposes that large groups of people who have been harmed by corporate misconduct do, or indeed, whether he believes that ever actually happens.)

Thus we might expect a man who feels class-action lawsuits should not exist to jump for joy at the prospect that an environmental cleanup suit against a large U.S. corporation could be derailed by a government corruption scandal. And that he did. Some choice quotes:

On August 31, immediately in the wake of Chevron's bombshell allegations, Wood wrote:

"What's really surprising here is not the corruption – the rule of law has been horribly debased in Ecuador under the regime of Rafael Correa – but the blatant assumptions on display: Of course you can buy a multibillion-dollar verdict against Chevron."

Hold your horses. Not even Chevron ever suggested the clandestine videos it released show evidence of anyone trying to "buy a verdict." The hypothetical bribe discussed in the videos is about securing a contract to do environmental clean-up – nothing to do with influencing the verdict in the trial. This idea is a pure fabrication on Wood's part.

On September 8, Wood again claimed that the videos: "show[ed] that the judge in Ecuador had prejudged the lawsuit...." He made no reference to the actual content of the videos to support this claim. There was a reason for this omission. By this point, news articles in major media, as well as online blog pieces analyzing the video clips, had demonstrated how incredibly flimsy that accusation was, made on the basis of a mumbled, off-camera, "Yes, Sir" in response to an unclear question in garbled Spanish. In fact, the judge refuses thirteen times in the videos to state his intended verdict when asked.

Then we have this gem, from September 18:

"It seems the Ecuadorian government sees the entire litigation as a money-making venture, with Washington Pesantez, the South American country's prosecutor general, now admitting as much."

This is an absurd misrepresentation of the actual Pesantez quote Wood is referencing (which is linked to from Wood's own blog post, so you can read it). What Pesantez actually said was that 90% of any fine paid by Chevron if it loses would go to a fund for environmental clean-up, to be administered by the Ecuadorian government – not pocketed by the government for its own use. Wood and his blogger allies were quickly called out on this utter distortion, but none ever retracted or clarified their statements on the issue.

Bob McCarty is the prolific scribe behind Bob McCarty Writes, a website where, as of this writing, the homepage contains advertisements for "Global Warming is a Myth" T-shirts and videos of "tea party" gatherings. McCarty has been posting regularly on the Ecuador lawsuit for months now. He was invited by Chevron on the all-expenses paid trip to Ecuador that Carter Wood took in June, though due to a scheduling conflict he couldn't go. McCarty, too, jumped eagerly on the "bribery scandal" bandwagon, repeating the most unsubstantiated of Chevron's allegations.

On August 31, McCarty wrote:

"In the videos, the judge confirms that he will rule against Chevron and that appeals by the energy company will be denied – even though the trial is ongoing and evidence is still being received. A purported party official also states that lawyers from the executive branch have been sent to assist the judge in writing the decision."

In fact, the judge confirms none of those things, as even a cursory look at the videos makes clear. "Appeals by the energy company will be denied?" What he actually says on video, obviously to anyone not willfully mistranslating his Spanish, is that the formalities of the appeals process must be respected. It took only a couple days for the news media to out Chevron's interpretation as dubious, but McCarty never softened his stance. As for the "purported party official," McCarty gets props for saying "purported" – but, of course, it turns out that Patricio García, the "official" in question, is a car salesman with no political party connections.

But Bob McCarty isn't done yet! From a follow-up post on September 7:

"The information provided today supports last week's written notification to the government that video recordings existed that show discussions of a prejudged verdict against the company by the judge and details of how the bribe would work."

In fact, there are no "discussions" of a prejudged verdict. Only that one little ambiguous "Yes, sir" at the very end of the conversation. How about details of how the bribe would work? Those details are in fact discussed – without the judge present - but again, it has since become clear that there was no water clean-up business, no actual government connection, and therefore, alas, no bribe.

Alex Thorne seems to blog about the case for one reason: he harbors a personal vendetta against Karen Hinton, the US spokeswoman for the Amazon Defense Coalition. Hinton, to hear Thorne tell it, had the gall to print criticism of his wife in a press release last May. Thorne called it slander. You can read the press release, and decide if anything in it qualifies as slander. Thorne's wife represented Chevron at a "Green Technology" conference. Hinton's press release argued that Chevron's participation in such events is a form of cynical "green washing" that distracts policymakers from its atrocious environmental record. Kristen Thorne's name was incidentally mentioned in the release. Nothing else was said about her. So, in short... yeah, we're also confused as to why this guy is so upset.

In any case, Thorne was quick to post on August 31st:

"Even as evidence is still being collected and the official ruling isn't expected until later this year, the Ecuadorian judge goes as far as to say that he will rule against Chevron and deny its appeals."

We shouldn't have to explain again that the judge said none of that. But Thorne has never shown any deep understanding of the facts behind the case anyway. His source for this outlandish claim? Chevron's press release, of course.

Zennie Abraham is a San Francisco blogger whose topics of interest run the gamut from politics to pop culture. To be honest, we're not quite sure why he ever became interested in the Chevron case in Ecuador. What we do know is that Zennie plays it fast and loose with facts, and, when he's not repeating Chevron talking points, frequently digresses into his own bizarre, non-sequitur ramblings about Ecuador's oil woes.

On August 31, Zennie joined the fray with this statement:

"In a blockbuster development, Ecuador Judge Juan Nunez, the key legal figure in the Chevron Ecuador environmental damage case, is captured in a video shown here explaining that he plans to rule against the oil giant and for an award of $27 billion "more or less". The judge explains that the verdict will happen and that Chevron will be blocked from filing an appeal of his ruling."

Well, Zennie got Nuñez's name right, but not much else. Bizarrely, he even quotes the actual transcript in his post, which makes the distortions going on here incredibly obvious. For example, when asked if the judgment will be $27 billion, what Nuñez says is: "It might be less, and it might be more." In the context of the video it is clear that this is Judge Nuñez's way of saying, "I can't tell you anything, so stop asking." In Zennie's mind, this becomes "more or less" – meaning "approximately" – which is simply not what Nuñez really said.

What set Zennie's posts apart from those of Carter and Bob are the incredible leaps of logic he often indulges in. So, he goes on to say this about Patricio García, the car salesman who appears in the videos masquerading as an official of the ruling party:

"Garcia says that the President's sister Pierina will be helpful (presumably in making sure that the businessmen get their piece of the planned $27 billion pie) and will meet with "The Gringo" (that's Hansen). I checked and "Prierina" is indeed described here as "Pierina Correa, the president's sister and an Alianza País leader in Guayas province". That confirms my assertion that Garcia is tied to the President and his family as he states in the video."

Well, um... actually, all it confirms is that García knows the name of the President's sister. García was still flatly lying about having any connection to her.

Pat Murphy is the creator of the San Francisco Sentinel – which, despite its respectable sounding name, is not a newspaper or even a free weekly, but an obscure online publication. Amid local-interest stories about the arts and San Francisco politics, we find post upon post about Chevron in Ecuador. But... why? Is Murphy paid by Chevron? Or, more likely perhaps, recruited by one of Chevron's PR gurus – perhaps SF-based "crisis control" specialist Sam Singer? Consider how exaggerated and unsupported Murphy's claims about the so-called scandal were:

On September 2nd, Murphy writes:

"As is becoming increasingly clear, the Correa government – in league with American trial attorneys and supporters masquerading as environmental groups – is pulling all the strings in the case brought against Chevron. Judge Nunez is one of a string of puppets controlled by the ruling regime."

Not a shred of evidence at all is provided to support this bold assertion.

A couple days later on September 4th, Murphy writes:

"In the tapes, the judge in the case secretly states that he will find Chevron guilty in the $27 billion case of alleged pollution in the Amazon and that he will deny all appeals by Chevron and its attorneys, despite the fact that the case is still in progress."

As we know, the judge never states any such thing in the videos or elsewhere.

Murphy goes on to conclude, "The videotapes wipe out [the plaintiffs'] case against Chevron, proving the judicial and political system of Ecuador is for sale and is corrupt."

Well, this makes no sense at all. The case against Chevron is based on overwhelming evidence of soil and water contamination. How would these videos, which have nothing to do with the actual situation on the ground in the Amazon, "wipe out" the case?

Steve Foley at also weighed in on the "bribery scandal", with perhaps the most bizarre and over-the-top post of all. What's noteworthy is not how it repeats Chevron's discredited claims about the judge revealing his intended verdict (he doesn't reveal it), or that the company will lose its appeal (the judge says nothing of the sort). Rather, the rest of the post goes on to reveal a bizarre non-sequitur paranoia about "socialism," even going so far as to bring up Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, who has nothing even remotely to do with this case.

The paragraph in question reads (grammar from original):

"Fabian Losa one of Ecuador's top newscasters, according to the clip above, describes the people behind bringing this suit as being like "'watermelons' Green on the outside and Red on the inside" translation – using environmentalism to further a socialist agenda! With fiends like Hugo Chavez and Venezuela, It's no wonder the lawyers who brought the suit, Richard Cabrera, and President Correa are so confident."

By apparently failing to edit his thoughts at all before publishing them, Foley gives us some insight into what would lead someone with no direct stake in the outcome of this case to side with Chevron, one of the world's largest oil companies, over thousands of sick and dying Ecuadorians. The answer, it seems (in at least Foley, Wood and McCarty's cases), is an ideology in which corporations can do no wrong, left-leaning third world governments can do no right, and facts can be twisted as much as necessary to fit those assumptions. It's just a shame the folks in the Chevron cheering section don't take off the ideological blinders long enough to recognize when they were clearly wrong about something, and ‘fess up. At the very least, they owe their readers retractions of completely unsupported and, as it turned out, untrue allegations of Judge Nuñez's complicity in bribery and fraud.

To take a broader outlook, these bloggers might want to rethink their narrow focus on aspects of the case in Ecuador that, we would argue, are a diversion from the real, fundamental issue at hand. This lawsuit was filed in 1993, shortly after Texaco left Ecuador. At its core is a simple claim: in 1964, when Texaco arrived in the Ecuadorian Amazon, the region was pristine. In 1990, when Texaco left and turned over its operations to Petroecuador, the region was an environmental disaster. Never has one of the pro-Chevron bloggers we discussed here opted to seriously address that point; instead, they engage in spurious smear campaigns based on contrived "scandals." The real scandal is the ongoing public health crisis in Ecuador, where hundreds of toxic waste pits dug by Texaco continue to poison the rainforest and, slowly but surely, thousands of its human inhabitants.

– Daniel

Daniel Herriges is a Program Associate at Amazon Watch, as well as a tutor, writer, researcher, and myth-debunker.

1 comment:

  1. Chevron should learn to respect people all over the world. I personally have a case with them for mistreatment I received when I was an employee and they do not want to listen to my side BUT instead want me to go to court. The case is obvious and I can see another serious damage. They are pushing us to unnecessary confrontation because they are listening to the same managers who are not accountable. Edward