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media bias

Via p.r. agent Karen Hinton, William Langewiesche has now responded in our comments section (as well as elsewhere) to Glenn Garvin’s critical Miami Herald column (linked here) regarding Langewiesche’s 2007 Vanity Fair piece on the Chevron-Ecuador litigation. Garvin has in turn contributed a rejoinder.

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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.

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Cathy Young arraigns the press for “an ideology-based, media-driven false narrative that has distorted a tragedy into a racist outrage.” Bob Somerby at Daily Howler has been documenting chapter and verse for some time, including this reminder of how the New York Times early on, taking dictation from Martin family lawyers, popularized a super-inflammatory “two-shot, cold blood” narrative that influenced public perceptions. Much of this is already familiar to readers of Overlawyered coverage including posts discussing media handling of the case here, here, here, here, and here.

My own theory — admittedly shaped by my professional interests — is that if you dig beneath the failure of a credulous press here you find a failure in legal ethics. While the press did publish one untruth after another about what happened that night and about the principals, a large share of those untruths can ultimately be traced to the offices of Benjamin Crump & Co., with some later help from Angela Corey’s office.

What about ideological outlets like ThinkProgress, which disgracefully promoted one error after another in egging on the press frenzy? To quote what I wrote at the time Zimmerman was charged:

The thing is, “Stand Your Ground” hadn’t really been a pet issue one way or the other for many of those who now harp on it. I think the better answer is: because many people yearn for ways to blame their ideological opponents when something awful happens. It’s much more satisfying to do that than to wind up wasting one’s blame on some individual or local police department for actions or decisions that might not even turn out to be motivated by ideology.

Consider, for example, the efforts to set up the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council as somehow the ultimate villain in the Martin shooting. Left-wing groups, assisted by labor union and trial lawyer interests, had been pursuing a campaign against ALEC for months before the Martin case, in hopes of making the group radioactive among generally liberal donors like the Gates Family Foundation and the Coca-Cola Co. Nothing had worked — until the synthetic Stand Your Ground furor finally afforded an opening.

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There’s an awful lot of — well, confusion is one way to put it — in the early commentary on yesterday’s Supreme Court case Vance v. Ball State, on the scope of supervisorial liability in harassment cases. Here’s Jeffrey Toobin writing in The New Yorker:

As in Ledbetter, it was a vote of five-to-four, with the Republican appointees in the majority and the Democratic appointees in dissent. In Vance v. Ball State University, the Court narrowed the definition of “supervisor.” This is important because plaintiffs can win in Title VII cases only if they suffer discrimination from a supervisor, not from a peer in the workforce.

If “discrimination” is read to include “harassment,” as the law does in fact read it, this is simply untrue. Here is the second sentence of the syllabus of Vance (which is word-for-word identical with the third sentence of Justice Alito’s majority opinion):

If the harassing employee is the victim’s co-worker, the employer is liable only if it was negligent in controlling working conditions.

And here is Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on page 4 of her dissent stating the same standard, unchanged by the opinion:

if the harassing employee is a co-worker, a negligence standard applies. To satisfy that standard, the complainant must show that the employer knew or should have known of the offensive conduct but failed to take appropriate corrective action.

There are many miles of difference between “you can’t win,” which is how Toobin chooses to summarize the current right to seek damages for co-worker misconduct, and “you can win but you need to show employer negligence,” the more accurate way to summarize it.

Nor is Toobin the only one to make this mistake. An error-strewn U.K. Guardian opinion story reacting to the case asserts (to quote its subheadline) that “the US supreme court has ruled that job harassment only counts if it’s from a ‘supervisor’.” That’s flatly untrue, for the reasons above. Author Jason Farago also swallows whole the sharply disputed contentions of misconduct leveled by the plaintiff in the Ball State case, although no level of the court system appears to have done so; a trial court found Vance’s treatment “neither sufficiently severe nor pervasive to be considered objectively hostile for the purposes of Title VII” and neither the Seventh Circuit nor the Supreme Court elected to reach that issue. Indeed, Justice Ruth Ginsburg in her dissent chooses to illustrate the feared impact of the new rule by reciting details of other cases that could be affected, as opposed to Vance’s.

Admittedly, it’s not easy to stay on top of the details of a law as complex as Title VII, and we all make honest mistakes. But when given the choice between risking dullness by accurately describing the actual state of the law, and embellishing a tale of conservative insensitivity so as to inflame their left-leaning readers, Toobin and Farago appear to have a head start on that old bit of advice, “print the legend.”

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In the Harrisburg Patriot-News, Ivey DeJesus trumpets the views of a “leading legal expert,” specifically “one of the country’s leading church and state scholars” who says, contrary to a state lawmaker’s assertions, that there’s no constitutional problem with reopening lapsed statutes of limitations so as to enable child-abuse lawsuits by now-grown-up complainants. Prof. Marci Hamilton is indeed a well-known church-state scholar, and there is indeed precedent for the (perhaps strange) idea that courts will not necessarily strike down retroactive legislation as unconstitutional so long as its impacts are civil rather than criminal. But it’s not until paragraph 18 that DeJesus, after introducing the expert at length by way of her academic affiliations, bothers to add a perhaps equally relevant element of her biography: she has “represented scores of victims in the Philadelphia Archdiocese clergy sex abuse case.” Why bring that up?

Quoth Warren Burger to Harry Blackmun, following Blackmun’s nomination to the Supreme Court [April 27, 1970 letter via Kyle Graham]

In one of the standout instances of media misconduct during the run-up to the recent furor, NBC repeatedly aired, on “Today” and other shows, audio footage misleadingly edited so as to advance the proposition that George Zimmerman was suspicious of Trayvon Martin because of his race [Erik Wemple, Washington Post] While announcing that it had fired the unnamed producer it considered responsible, NBC was less than forthcoming about other details of the scandal, which — as Mickey Kaus points out — may have had a lot to do with its lawyers’ concerns about minimizing a possible defamation payout: “Like other tort laws, libel laws are in practice the enemy of transparency.”

Some have recalled the scandal in which “Dateline NBC” aired footage of supposedly exploding GM cars that in fact had been rigged with incendiary devices. But I’m actually more put in mind of a less celebrated media disgrace from the same era, the Texaco Tapes pseudo-scandal, in which (as I recount here) the New York Times and other outlets avidly promoted systematic misreadings of audiotapes in a hotly disputed racial-bias case, and failed to engage in adequate (or, really, any) soul-searching when the misreadings came to be exposed. In the Martin/Zimmerman case the questionable audio readings included the “two-shot” account influentially advanced by the New York Times when the case first broke nationally, and the supposed racial slur which dominated coverage for a couple of days before being (if the prosecutor’s affidavit is any indication) discreetly laid to rest.

More: Speaking of the New York Times, you have to wonder whether that paper has some sort of stylebook rule requiring it to keep misreporting what Stand Your Ground laws do [Jacob Sullum, more, earlier] And Tom Maguire notes that the paper’s latest editorial appear to be backing off its earlier assertions that the Zimmerman case will hinge on the state’s curtailing of the old “duty to retreat”: “The duty to retreat evidently extends to Times editors.” He also wonders whether, on the much-discussed question of whether Zimmerman flouted the advice of a 911 operator, the NYT editorialists read their own paper. Yet more: Maguire collects the media myths.

I have a new post at Cato rounding up many of my recent writings and broadcast appearances on the subject, under the title, “Why Is Press Coverage of the Martin/Zimmerman Case So Bad?”

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“This American Life” has retracted a much-discussed news segment about the horrors of Apple’s Shenzhen, China workplace after discovering it was faked; Mike Daisey’s report contained “numerous fabrications,” it says. For more on how readiness to believe the worst about big business can leave media open to being fooled by manipulative packagers of news, see the GM trucks episode, Food Lion, and a great many others. [Ira Glass, Jack Shafer, Edward Champion]

More from David Henderson. And Coyote: “The problem with the media is not outright bias, but an intellectual mono-culture that fails to exercise the most basic skepticism when stories fit their narrative.”

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March 5 roundup

by Walter Olson on March 5, 2012

  • Trial lawyer TV: mistranslation, plaintiff’s experts were instrumental in “Anderson Cooper 360″ CNN story trying to keep sudden-acceleration theory alive [Corp Counsel, Toyota, PDF, background]
  • “Can I get a form to file a police complaint?” No. No, you can’t [Balko]
  • Madison County lawyer runs for judgeship [MCRecord; earlier on her columnist-suing past]
  • RIP Dan Popeo, founder and head of Washington Legal Foundation [Mark Tapscott, Examiner]
  • Louisiana: “Church Ordered to Stop Giving Away Free Water” [Todd Starnes, Fox via Amy Alkon]
  • Developer of “Joustin’ Beaver” game files for declaratory judgment against singer Justin Bieber’s trademark, publicity claims [THR, Esq.]
  • “Why are Indian reservations so poor?” [John Koppisch, Forbes] “Payday loans head to the Indian reservations” [Katherine Mangu-Ward, Reason] Tribal recognition: high-stakes D.C. game where lobbyists get the house rake-off [Chris Edwards, Cato]

Dan Charles at NPR reports on how parts of the media joined in last month to hype a report by journalist Andrew Schneider in Food Safety News raising alarms about the safety and authenticity of honey. (Similarly: Maggie Koerth-Baker, BoingBoing). “It sounded so right, plenty of people decided that it just had to be true. … But then we decided to look into it a little more closely. We talked to honey companies, academic experts, and one of the world’s top honey laboratories in Germany. The closer we looked, the more misleading the story in Food Safety News seemed.”

My Cato colleague Sallie James was among the few to take a skeptical tone about the Schneider allegations when they first hit the press. And as NPR points out, Food Safety News is part of the sprawling new media empire of Bill Marler, the very media-savvy food poisoning lawyer whose Marler Clark law firm has done much to sway press discussion of many food safety issues. On a different topic, did Marler really say the other day that raw milk farmers should count themselves lucky they’re not put to death?

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Trying cases in the press

by Walter Olson on December 2, 2011

Yes, media coverage does affect the outcome of court cases, and here are some of the ways [Andrew Trask]

Kim Strassel has a must-read piece at the Wall Street Journal exposing the politics of the Lacey Act’s extension to importation of plant products, by no means fueled just by inflexible environmentalist sentiment: crucially, wood-products industry and union forces recognized that the law could serve as a way to eliminate competition from imports.

Trees are ubiquitous, are transformed into thousands of byproducts, and pass through dozens of countries. Whereas even a small U.S. importer would know not to import a tiger skin, tracking a sliver of wood (now transformed into a toy, or an umbrella) through this maze of countries and manufacturing laws back to the tree it came from, would be impossible.

Furniture maker Ikea noted that even if it could comply with the change, the “administrative costs and record-keeping requirements” would cause furniture prices to “skyrocket.” The wood chips that go into its particleboard alone could require tracking back and reporting on more than 100 different tree species.

Which is exactly what the Lacey expanders wanted.

The WSJ also recently interviewed Gibson Guitar CEO Henry Juszkiewicz [related, Reuters; earlier] while Pat Nolan points out how the feds’ raid on the facility points up many evils of unbridled prosecution power [NRO] Musicians and others held a “We stand with Gibson” rally and concert [Mark Perry, rally pics] As for press coverage, Andrew Revkin at the NYT notes that outrage over the raid is energizing those horrid “anti-regulatory campaigners” ["DotEarth"] while an op-ed contributor at the paper explains that (not to sound like those same awful campaigners!) the operation of the Lacey Act does indeed menace innocent artisans who make musical instruments [Kathryn Marie Dudley] Tim Cavanaugh finds the L.A.Times strumming a derivative ideological tune, while Radley Balko notes, in a police-restraint-for-me-but-not-for-thee vein, that a reporter arrested at Occupy Nashville had mocked concern over the gun-toting Gibson raid. More: ABA Journal.

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Remember the “Halliburton rape” case, where the national media uncritically passed along claims that a young woman had been viciously assaulted by co-workers while stationed in the Middle East, then confined to a container by beastly managers when she tried to complain, and finally suffered the ultimate indignity when her employment contract required her to submit the claims to arbitration? It’s a tale that was advanced by politicians like Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), by some of the usual suspects in opinion journalism, and especially by the litigation lobby as part of its campaign against contractually provided-for arbitration (as with the much-reviewed, HBO-aired “Hot Coffee“). Not a few of these advocates — like the left-leaning ThinkProgress — threw “allegedly” to the winds and flatly accused the co-workers of rape.

Unless you’d read one of the very few skeptical evaluations of the case — many of them written by Ted Frank — you may have been shocked this July when a Houston jury summarily rejected Jamie Leigh Jones’s lawsuit. Now — better late than never — the Houston Chronicle shreds the popular narrative of the affair and its media coverage in particular (ABC News: a tale of “sexual brutality, corporate indifference and government inaction.”) Is it too much to hope that anyone will be embarrassed enough to apologize?

More: As commenter E-Bell notes, journalist Stephanie Mencimer, with whom we’ve had our differences in the past, deserves due credit for this July coverage in the unlikely venue of Mother Jones. And quoth @Popehat: “‘Putting the victim on trial’ is code for ‘defending yourself and testing the evidence.’”

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A New York Times story criticizing natural gas fracking raises controversy. [Ira Stoll, more, Diana Furchtgott-Roth]

Great review by Miami Herald TV critic Glenn Garvin casting a skeptical eye on the trial-lawyer film project (“done in by its essential dishonesty… like any good lawyer — and unlike any good documentarian — [director Susan Saladoff is] intent on concealing the weakness in her case).” Read it here. Meanwhile, from the “How does this sort of thing get past the editors of the Washington Post?” files, there’s this from Hank Stuever:

For to really embrace tort reform, you have to be willing to treat all potential plaintiffs as no-good grifters. … To support tort reform, you have to believe all lawsuits against businesses are a threat to the free market.

Stuever does not, for some reason, name any proponent of reform who has actually asserted either of the propositions. Do you think that might be because he’s trafficking in absurd caricatures? (earlier on “Hot Coffee” here, here, here, etc.)

P.S. More: Cory Andrews, WLF. And if lawyers are really eager to have the facts of the Liebeck v. McDonald’s case come out, it’s curious they don’t take steps to release the trial transcript, in the absence of which critics of the case are obliged to speculate on key points. And as I just wrote in a comment at Abnormal Use:

I believe organized tort reform groups were caught flat-footed by the McDonald’s case and didn’t get around to doing much with it until it had already become the talk of the nation through talk shows, late night TV and so forth. As often happens, plaintiff’s-side advocacy groups were more aggressive in seeking coverage for their side in the media. Thus Public Citizen and allies gave a press conference on Capitol Hill and were rewarded with a big Newsweek story summarizing their talking points (as well as, earlier, coverage in the news-side WSJ). I’m pretty sure no groups critical of the Liebeck award ever did a comparable press push; and the McDonald’s company itself, so far as I know, never chose to cooperate with commentators who might be sympathetic to its legal case.

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John Cook at Gawker wants to know how a coveted Edward R. Murrow prize could just have been bestowed on the Toyota-panic reporting of ABC’s Brian Ross (“America’s Wrongest Reporter”), given that it showcased staged, fakey footage, relied heavily on the assertions of a safety consultant whose plaintiff’s-side involvement in the controversy went unmentioned, and omitted details that would have raised readers’ doubts on key themes, among many other sins. Later investigations, of course, decisively refuted the lawyer-stoked fears that Toyotas have some mysterious tendency to accelerate out of control. More: Ted Frank and Hans Bader, and my take on the sad history of media irresponsibility on car-safety scares.

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Ed Wallace at Bloomberg Business Week tells why the Toyota sudden-acceleration debacle merely replays a long and sad history:

I don’t mean to single out CBS for criticism. Plenty of other media outlets share the blame. For 30 years they have treated us to Jeep, Suzuki, and Isuzu Trooper rollovers, Audi unintended acceleration, side-saddle gas tanks exploding, police cars catching on fire, Firestone tires blowing out, and then the Toyota case. And each time the media took the word of those with a vested financial interest in the outcome—and every time they got burned for doing so.

I wrote about this in my article “It Didn’t Start With Dateline NBC” and in the chapter “Trial Lawyer TV” of my book The Rule of Lawyers.

Plus: For comic relief, here’s a New York Times editorial claiming the findings “did nothing to dispel concerns” about safety. And welcome listeners of Ray Dunaway’s morning show on WTIC (Hartford).

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November 5 roundup

by Walter Olson on November 5, 2010

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