How Langewiesche got that Vanity Fair story

by Walter Olson on September 4, 2014

I’ve expressed skepticism before about William Langewiesche’s 12,600-word 2007 article in Vanity Fair on the Chevron-Ecuador dispute, which took a line relentlessly sympathetic to the case of plaintiff’s lawyer Steven Donziger. (As readers of this site know, Donziger has spent the past few years fighting off allegations as to the means by which he obtained an $18 billion judgment against Chevron; one federal judge has found “clear and convincing evidence” that the judgment was “obtained by corrupt means.”) I’m also pretty familiar with the ways trial lawyers use journalists to go after the companies they’re suing, having written on that topic many times before.

Still, like many others, I was floored by Glenn Garvin’s new column in the Miami Herald based on emails introduced into evidence in the endless litigation. Even knowing how writers habitually butter up key sources, I wouldn’t have expected Langewiesche to assure Donziger that “You and I are now firmly on the same side” and that writing the article had been “particularly satisfying to the extent that it supports your efforts, and you personally.” Nor would I have expected Langewiesche to have sent Donziger a copy of his article weeks before it was published, or for Vanity Fair’s editors to have allowed him to do this on a highly contentious topic of public controversy, assuming they knew.

The emails go on and on, as Garvin summarizes them, depicting

Langewiesche as Donziger’s camp follower at the best of times, his sock-puppet at the worst.

The reporter asks Donziger to prepare lists of dozens of questions to be asked of Chevron. And he begs Donziger to help him prepare arguments about why there’s no need for him to do face-to-face interviews with Chevron officials, as they’ve requested, even though he spent days meeting with Donziger and his legal staff.

“I want to avoid a meeting, simply because I do NOT have the time. But I don’t want to go on record refusing a meeting,” writes Langewiesche. “Perhaps I could say that my travel schedule is intense . . . ” He not only submits his emails to Chevron for Donziger’s approval (“What say, Steve. I gotta send this tonight”) and even lets him rewrite them.

In short, Vanity Fair, which positions itself as the glossiest of high-toned journalistic outlets, got played like a cheap ukulele. And I didn’t know this either, which I’ll quote Garvin on, parentheses and all: “(Department of Extraordinary Coincidences: Donziger’s wife at the time worked in corporate communications at Condé Nast, the magazine’s publisher.)”

By coincidence, I’m part way through an advance copy of the interesting new book by Paul Barrett of Business Week on the Chevron-Donziger-Ecuador mess, titled Law of the Jungle. Not to give away anything, but it fills in many areas of background that were new to me about this incredible (still-in-progress, attempted) legal heist (links to Barrett’s earlier coverage here). There’s also a new mini-book by Michael Goldhaber entitled Crude Awakening: Chevron in Ecuador, unseen by me.

P.S. Bonus Vanity Fair connection: journalist Kurt Eichenwald, whose trial-lawyer-assisted role in the Texaco Tapes affair left such a bad impression, has for some time been ensconced as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.

{ 2 trackbacks }

Michael Krauss on Chevron/Ecuador - Overlawyered
09.11.14 at 8:45 am
Langewiesche responds to Garvin - Overlawyered
09.18.14 at 9:00 pm

{ 3 comments }

1 Carter 09.05.14 at 3:29 pm

Will Vanity Fair acknowledge Langewiesche’s journalistic dishonesty? “60 Minutes,” when its hit piece was overtaken by the judicial record, wrote several updates, but never offered a correction or apology. You can find the full episode online at CBS, but the segment itself seems to have been pulled.

FWIW, I just conducted several separate searches Vanity Fair’s website for “Langewiesche,” “Fajardo,” “Chevron,” “Texaco,” and “Ecuador” and the article, “Jungle Law,” did not appear in any of the indexing. Perhaps just a search engine problem; the article is still online.

2 Karen Hinton 09.17.14 at 5:40 pm

This is William Langewiesche’s response to the original Glenn Garvin column. It should be posted here since Garvin did not give Langewiesche tie to respond.

EDITORS’ NOTE: On September 2, the Miami Herald published an inaccurate and misleading op-ed column by Glenn Garvin about a Vanity Fair article, “Jungle Law,” written by V.F.’s international correspondent, William Langewiesche. That article was published in 2007. Langewiesche has responded to the Garvin column in a letter to the editor. A fuller version of his response appears here.

I received a list of questions from Miami Herald columnist Glenn Garvin in the midst of a busy schedule of work and travel, and after two business days was in process of answering him, when the newspaper published his piece. His subject was an article I wrote about the environmental lawsuit against Chevron in the Ecuadorean Amazon. The article was published seven years ago. Waiting a few days for my response certainly would have been possible—particularly because Mr. Garvin accused me of unethical behavior, colluding with one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, Steven Donziger, and not giving Chevron a fair break. Such assertions are deeply uninformed.

As my publishing record makes clear, I am by no means an environmentalist or an anti–oil-company polemicist. Far from it. If the magazine had wanted to pick a writer with a pro-environmental bias, they would have found almost anyone but me. I am, however, a thorough reporter, and I am backed up by a team of rigorous researchers and editors at Vanity Fair. I spent about six weeks doing the fieldwork for the article, most of it in Ecuador, including three extended trips to the Amazon, between work with documentation in Quito. My subject was Pablo Fajardo, and the class-action case as it was being litigated at the time. Fajardo was the chief lawyer for the plaintiffs. He was a local resident, and very much his own man. Donziger was influential when he was involved, and he knew the history and factual details at least as well as Fajardo, but he was not calling the shots. Nor was I writing about him.

No one disputes that there is massive soil and ground-water pollution in the oil fields of the Ecuadorean Amazon. The pollution resulted not just from oil spills, but more importantly from the residuals remaining from drilling and extraction. It was caused initially by Texaco (at a time when environmental sensitivities were fewer than now), then by a consortium of Texaco and the state-owned Petroecuador in which Texaco remained the operator on the ground, and Petroecuador essentially just took a cut, and finally by Petroecuador operating alone, after the withdrawal of Texaco. In many cases it is impossible to distinguish the “ownership” of the pollution, as I made clear in the article. However, in many other cases the record shows that the “ownership” was Texaco’s alone, and that is what the lawsuit was largely about. After Texaco left Ecuador (long before the company was acquired by Chevron), it agreed to clean up, or “remediate” certain sites. It engaged various companies, both Ecuadorean and U.S., to do the work. After spending weeks on the scene, it became obvious to me that in many cases the remediation had been to varying degrees inadequate: either entirely a paperwork affair, or a masking effort consisting of covering the sites with a thin layer of dirt, without removing the toxins, which continued to leak out. I have no reason to think that Chevron understood this when it acquired Texaco. In other words, it may well be that Chevron took the historic remediation at face value, and then was surprised when this lawsuit came along with the huge monetary stakes. I still do not know, though I wrote the piece with the assumption that Chevron was surprised. This was one of many points I tried to get at with Chevron—what sort of audits of the historic remediation had been done?

For me, once I had covered Fajardo and his life, the subject boiled down to these remediated sites. I had extensive contacts with Chevron, in person in Lago Agrio and Quito, and by phone and e-mail in the U.S. But having heard Chevron’s general position, repeatedly and in person, I could never move the company beyond generalities. The same was not true with the plaintiffs. Fajardo talked specifics—and he ultimately opened the files to me in his Quito office. Most of the relevant documents pertained to Texaco’s history in the Amazon. They oriented me for return trips to sites in the jungle. Ultimately, having gone through the Chevron P.R. apparatus for weeks, I e-mailed the company a list of questions—again, specifics largely relating to remediated sites—and said I would be glad to meet with them in person again (in the U.S.), if they simply would provide some real answers first. Otherwise it was obvious we would keep going around in circles. Despite my repeated requests, Chevron never provided me with any documents or information beyond standard material of the kind that can be found on its Web site.

No one at Condé Nast outside of Vanity Fair had anything to do with the article—start to stop. Donziger was a source, primarily for the interpretation of the Texaco documents. Because of his experience with the Chevron culture, I asked him several times for his advice on how to break through to the company, and get it to respond to unambiguous questions based on my research and on-the-ground work in the Amazon. This is a perfectly legitimate journalistic practice in the context of a very technical subject. There was nothing tricky about the questions. The purpose was to clarify the historic facts on the ground. I did not ask Chevron for equivalent help in getting through to the plaintiffs, because there was no need to: Fajardo had opened his files to me, and never dodged a single question, of which there were hundreds. Once I had written the piece, I also ran narrow sections of it by Fajardo and Donziger for verification and fact-checking, before turning it in. I do this regularly—checking with sources—with many of my pieces. It is an essential part of accurate journalism. Beyond that, Fajardo and Donziger read the piece for the first time only upon publication. As for Chevron, once they refused to answer my questions, asking for further help was a path that was clearly going nowhere. I had spent an enormous amount of time listening to them, and trying to get them to explain Texaco’s procedures and the condition of the remediated sites. Nonetheless, the company was contacted extensively during the exhaustive Vanity Fair fact-checking process, and given every opportunity to identify errors in the content.

As to my being on Donziger’s side: yes, and openly so, but only to this degree—after weeks of fieldwork, and an even longer time being stonewalled by Chevron, I concluded, quite explicitly in the piece, that the plaintiffs were essentially right that the sites had been inadequately remediated and that this was a large-scale problem. This is not some hidden agenda; it was the conclusion I came to and expressed, and was based not on ideology or armchair analysis, but on extensive firsthand experience in the jungle. Ultimately the Ecuadorean court came to the same conclusion. I did not weigh in on the extent of the financial damages, and had no opinion on the matter. The number I used for the cost of a physical cleanup was the only one in sight; it was generated by a team of scientists and oil-remediation experts engaged by the plaintiffs, and was consistent with the cost of other significant cleanups around the world. To the best of my knowledge, Chevron never disputed it, perhaps in the belief that the remediation had already been done. My reporting was independent, drawing from as many sources as possible, and the opinions were my own. I would point out that I refused in print to buy into the health-effects side of the plaintiffs’ argument. As I wrote, the linkage to the oilfield pollution (let alone to the Texaco sites) was simply unknown, because no serious public-health study had been done.

However unhappy Chevron may be about the article, in the seven years since publication, the company has never disputed a single point or fact that it contained. Rather than going after the content, they went after me—and in terms very similar to those now used by Mr. Garvin in the Miami Herald. In that they and Mr. Garvin were wrong.
William Langewiesche
International Correspondent
Vanity Fair

3 Glenn Garvin 09.17.14 at 6:07 pm

Ms. Hinton’s claim that I didn’t give Mr. Langewische a chance to respond is absurdly false, as his own letter demonstrates. I emailed him on Aug. 31, asking for his response to what I found in the court exhibits. He did not reply for five days, until after the column was published. Had he sent even a short note suggesting he needed more time to frame a reply, I would have been happy to delay the column. He did not, and so I did not.

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