“Play CBS Video.” The arrow is superimposed on an image of old, rusting oil barrels emblazoned with Texaco’s name.
“Chevron is America’s third-largest company, behind ExxonMobil and WalMart,” intones correspondent Scott Pelley. “One way it got that big was by buying Texaco in 2001. Now that purchase of Texaco has pulled Chevron into a titanic struggle in the Amazon.”
Rusted barrels. Scene after scene of what appear to be contaminated well sites. Oozing oily black water and blazing flares from natural gas. And a campesino named Manuel Salinas scooping up black goo with a small stick, saying that he can’t drink the water from his well. The imagery is clear in the 60 Minutes segment that aired May 3, 2009.
The problem is the facts aren’t. There is no way to tell watching and listening to 60 Minutes production “Amazon Crude” where or whose responsibility most of the apparently polluted sites are. Although the segment mentions that Texaco left the area in 1992, scant attention is focused on state-owned Petroecuador, which has been the sole operator of former Texaco sites for the past twenty years
The backdrop to the segment is a lawsuit filed by plaintiffs lawyers in New York on behalf of Ecuadorian inhabitants of the area. The lawsuit started out in New York but ended up in the courts in Ecuador, which was where Chevron had argued it should be decided. Now it appears likely that Chevron could lose this case, in which a court-appointed expert has claimed that Chevron is liable for a staggering $27.3 billion in damages. Chevron has aggressively fought and continues to fight the claims of the lawsuit in virtually every forum it can find or create. And it argues that, despite repeated efforts, it wasn’t given a fair shot to make its case to 60 Minutes.
A few months ago, Chevron turned to The Audit, the business-news desk of the Columbia Journalism Review. As part of its mission of covering business news and its upholding standards, The Audit from time to time has taken up complaints of business news subjects who feel they’ve been treated unfairly by news outlets. Now we’ve formalized the process with the creation of a dedicated Audit Arbiter. That would be me. In each case, I’ll look at the facts and render a judgment.
But first let’s be clear what it is I’m judging. I’m not rendering a judgment on whether Texaco/Chevron is responsible for the pollution. I’ll leave that to the ongoing litigation and arbitration, which may outlast us all. The idea that a U.S. oil giant may indeed have committed environmental predations in an impoverished South American country, then used its economic clout to try to escape with the smallest possible cleanup bill, is hardly beyond the realm of the possible. It’s an entirely legitimate area of inquiry. But looking at the journalism itself, in his particular story, does Chevron have a beef? In my opinion, it does.
Based on a review of documents provided by Chevron and publicly available information from other sources in this matter, I find that the main Chevron complaint is warranted, namely, that 60 Minutes leads the segment by showing a polluted well that wasn’t Chevron’s responsibility to clean and which Chevron says is not polluted by petroleum at all, but rather by fecal matter. In back-and-forth emails between the news organization and oil company, provided by Chevron to me, 60 Minutes journalists don’t address Chevron’s assertion about the source of the pollution, except to say that Salinas believes his well is polluted by oil.
Overall, while a few of Chevron’s complaints are minor or can’t be substantiated, and while 60 Minutes never directly says Chevron is responsible for the pollution, 60 Minutes gives the clear impression that Chevron trashed the place and left, while downplaying the fact that Petroecuador has been operating alone at the former Texaco sites since 1990.
60 Minutes declined to discuss Chevron’s criticism. “We don’t see a need to discuss this any further than the story we put on the air, which we stand firmly behind,” wrote Kevin Tedesco, executive director of communications for CBS News/60 Minutes, after I sent him, at his request, a list of questions.
In any event, “Amazon Crude” is an interesting study in appearance and reality in a TV news documentary and how the one doesn’t always add up to the other.