Chevron has scored public-relations points in its legal quagmire in Ecuador—against the television network CBS, no less.
When it bought Texaco in 2001, Chevron inherited an environmental lawsuit in which plaintiffs now seek damages totaling an incredible $23 billion.
Texaco had spent $40 million to address environmental complaints and thought it had been released from liability by the government—a point of dispute in the lawsuit. Since succeeding with an effort to move the case to Ecuador, Chevron has suffered setbacks and now calls Ecuadorian courts corrupt. Last year it filed for international arbitration.
Throughout the legal struggle, Chevron has defended itself vigorously and publicly.
It stayed true to form after the CBS show “60 Minutes” broadcast a story about the case last May 3 that the oil company deemed a smear.
Chevron turned to the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), which has a reporter dedicated to investigating complaints from businesses about unfair treatment by news outlets.
On Apr. 14, CJR published a detailed analysis by Martha M. Hamilton of the “60 Minutes” story, called Amazon Crude, and Chevron’s complaints. Chevron circulated copies.
“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,” Hamilton wrote.
She cited a segment in which a man scrapes up black goo with a stick and complains of not being able to drink water from his well. The implication is that oil from Texaco operations caused the contamination.
But the goo isn’t oil, and the well wasn’t Texaco’s responsibility. The Ecuadorian isn’t even a plaintiff. He just offered footage conveniently illustrating a story with the big oil company cast as villain.
The show gave scant attention to the important claim by Texaco and Chevron that current pollution came from state-owned Petroecuador.
“‘60 Minutes’ gave 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,” Hamilton wrote.
She called Amazon Crude “an exercise in innuendo.”
CBS told her it stands by the story.
(Online Apr. 16, 2010; author’s e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)