Vanity Fair Used Polluted Journalism Against Chevron in Ecuador Story

Magazine reporter worked with eco-lawyer to help spin facts.

In 2011, Steven Donziger, an activist lawyer won a multi-billion dollar lawsuit against Chevron over environmental damage in Ecuador. But a U.S. district court ruled it a “fraud” in 2014, once it was apparent that Donziger’s own case was polluted and the award “obtained by corrupt means.”

Now, new evidence released as part of Chevron’s counter-suit reveals that not only did Donziger unethically win his court case in Ecuador, but the Vanity Fair reporter who ran a hit job on Chevron had worked closely with Donziger to make sure that the “facts” favored his position.

A recent Miami Herald op-ed by journalist Glenn Garvin declared that the actions of the Vanity Fair reporter responsible for writing a long story about the case four years into the anti-Chevron lawsuit showed the “seamy side of journalism.”

The Vanity Fair story wasn’t written by some intern or new hire either. This piece was written by William Langewiesche, an award-winning journalist. A stockpile of emails that Donziger and company were forced to turn over in Chevron’s counter-suit revealed a serious lapse of journalism ethics as Langewiesche and Donziger had emailed back and forth throughout the entire process, with Donziger even approving interview questions before Langewiesche met with other sources like Chevron.

Donziger was also given the freedom to proof the finished story before publication to make sure that it came across as a “paradigm-shifting, breakthrough article” that he acknowledged was “going to change the entire case from here until it ends in a way that is favorable to us.”

“And just in case you’re wondering, Chevron did not get to see the story before it went into print, nor submit lists of questions it wanted Langewiesche to ask Donziger. Nor did Chevron get the face-to-face interviews they asked for. Except for a single phone conversation just before the story appeared, Langewiesche insisted all their communication be via email,” Garvin wrote.

Garvin also noted that published article in Vanity Fair included a $6 billion cost estimate for clean up of environmental damage allegedly caused by Chevron. But the expert who came up with this estimate had apparently “repudiated it a full year before the Vanity Fair story appeared, warning Donziger in a letter that the estimate was based on faulty assumptions and was ‘a ticking time bomb which will come back to bite you, and very badly, if anyone attempts due diligence on it.’”

Unfortunately, for the company under attack and the public who deserve to watch and read accurate reporting, Vanity Fair wasn’t the only media outlet to promote Donziger’s case. Scott Pelley reported from Ecuador in a 2009 episode of CBS’ “60 Minutes” that was  heavily weighted against Chevron. That 2009 story made attorney Steven Donziger look like a hero helping Ecuadorean tribal people go up against the big, bad oil company.

ABC, CBS and NBC all ignored Chevron’s court victory on March 4, 2014. CBS’s omission on “Evening News with Scott Pelley” was the most egregious, since that network was responsible for a lengthy anti-Chevron hit job on the legal battle.

But more and more media outlets are recognizing the “obvious hanky-panky” Donziger used to win his Ecuadorean lawsuit. The Miami Herald wasn’t alone in pointing to huge flaws in the case, which included video footage of an Ecuadorean judge saying how he would rule in the case before all the evidence was in. Bloomberg Businessweek reported the huge legal victory for Chevron in March, and even The New York Times wrote about a “bizarre twist” in the oil company’s favor in 2013.

In the book “Crude Awakening,” released on Aug. 20, 2014, Michael D. Goldhaber examined some of Donziger’s underhanded tactics. Goldhaber’s book included testimony of locals from the allegedly affected region in Ecuador, experts in the field and relatives of people who appeared in the documentary.

He even quoted Judith Kimerling, an environmental activist who wrote an expose in 1991 about Texaco polluting the rain forest -- obviously no friend of Chevron -- who worried that blatant inaccuracies in Donziger’s case might hurt other environmental fights against Chevron. “You can win with the truth,” Kimerling said. “You risk discrediting the communities you claim to defend when you try to win based on a lie.

These arguments will also be discussed in “Law of the Jungle: The $19 Billion Legal Battle Over Oil in the Rain Forest and the Lawyer Who'd Stop at Nothing to Win” by Paul M. Barrett, which is set to be released on Sept. 23, 2014.

Donziger’s lawsuit against Chevron stemmed from the oil company’s purchase of Texaco, because Texaco had been a minority partner with PetroEcuador producing oil in the Lago Agrio fields in Ecuador. In 1998, the government of Ecuador released Texpet (Texaco) from future clean up obligations after it cleaned up more than 100 sites. In 2011, Chevron lost a $19 billion dollar lawsuit in Ecuador filed by Donziger. But in 2014, Chevron won a civil racketeering lawsuit against Donziger that accused him of conspiracy. 

Editor's note: The originally published version of this story spelled Judith Kimerling's name wrong. BMI regrets the error.

— Mike Ciandella is Research Analyst at the Media Research Center. Follow Mike Ciandella on Twitter.