Mihailovich did make good points in an email to Chevron’s Campbell about why it was less inclined to spend time interviewing Chevron representatives in Ecuador. “We’ve met with you extensively three times already. We went to Ecuador so we could speak with the characters who are in the country, many of whom we were meeting for the first time. We can’t shoot the Secoya Indians in New York. The same goes for the judge, President Correa, the folks at Petro Ecuador or some of the settlers who claim they have been affected by contamination…..We’ve been told repeatedly that you all have no assets in Ecuador” and that Coral Gables, Florida, where 60 Minutes interviewed Garrigo, was Chevron’s headquarters for the case. However, 60 Minutes did shoot New York attorney Donziger in a straw hut in Ecuador. “Stephen Donziger, a New York lawyer, far from home.” Chevron’s complaint here is about process, not the actual issues, and therefore not the main point. Another trip to Ecuador would have been nice, but not essential for 60 Minutes’ reporting. Put it this way: 60 Minutes could have made another trip to the country and still turned in an unfair report, and it didn’t need another trip to have done a more fair report.
Chevron has other bones to pick with 60 Minutes’s coverage, many of which frankly fall into the category of mind-numbing details.
But others seem relevant. Although Chevron talked to 60 Minutes about Petroecuador’s poor environmental stewardship (an average of three spills a week since 2000, according to Garrigo), 60 Minutes never got into that issue except briefly, noting that “Chevron says anything left behind now is Petrecuador’s problem.” It adds, after a quick quote from Garrigo about Petroecuador’s responsibility: “Petroecuador, which has been running oil operations since Texaco left in 1992, is cleaning some of Texaco’s old pits—slowly. But other pits remain like open sores in the rain forest.”
However, the insistent focus is on Chevron (twenty-five mentions, by my count) and Texaco (twenty-seven mentions) compared with six mentions of Petroecuador. 60 Minutes also spends time on the notion that, because Texaco built and operated the fields until 1990, that it alone, not the consortium in which it was a minority partner, was responsible for any problems.
There was also a “gotcha” moment in which 60 Minutes noted that it had asked for a master list of the storage pits at the drilling sites. “Last week Chevron told us, there is no master list.” What Chevron said was that the remediation work was organized around a list of well sites, not a list of storage pits.
Does Chevron have anything to answer for in the Amazon? As I said above, that possibility should never be discounted. I grew up in Houston in the 1950s and ’60s, near the polluted Houston ship channel (“Too thick to drink, to thin to plow,” as one Texas legislator once said.), surrounded by a petrochemical swamp full of refineries. It wasn’t an environmental wonderland (although I’m sure it’s cleaner now). I wouldn’t want to bet that oil exploration and production in the Amazon decades ago met today’s standards in the U.S.
But that’s not the issue I’m grappling with. The issue is journalism. Although the segment reflected some of Chevron’s arguments about the lawsuit, a viewer could be forgiven for concluding that the mess shown was caused by Texaco, now merged into Chevron, and, more importantly, is its responsibility to clean.
And that’s where I find fault.
It did end with one striking image of pollution that was more clearly identified than the others in terms of responsibility. “On our way out of the forest, we just happened on a major oil pipeline break,” said Pelley, over footage of oil flowing in a river. “It wasn’t Chevron or Petroecuador. This time it was a Chinese-led consortium.”
Texaco may have trashed sites and then failed to clean them up in violation of the 1994 agreement. The 1998 release granted Texaco by the previous government may have indeed been corrupt, as the current government says.
60 Minutes could have shed light on the issue by finding an unremediated site for which Texaco was responsible, identifying it as such, and laying out the facts.
But it didn’t do that. Instead, its segment was an exercise in innuendo.
Even in these days of cutbacks to news operations, 60 Minutes could have—and should have—done better.