Being an English-language journalist in South America means getting recruitment offers from all sorts of interesting characters. Reporters, because of our reputation (in some parts) for (at least seeking) fairness, are able to walk more freely through places like the oilfields of Venezuela, the slums of Rio de Janeiro and the indigenous communities of the Amazon than someone who walks right up and says “Hi, I am from” Exxon Mobil/U.S. State Department/the I Hate Fidel Castro group on Facebook. “Would you mind answering a few questions?”
One such recruitment effort has hit a little snag. Kroll, the world’s biggest private investigations company, tried to recruit a journalist named Mary Cuddehe to do some reporting in the Ecuadorian Amazon in the hopes of influencing a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit against Chevron Corp. They had a particular bit of investigation that needed doing, and they thought the best person to do it would be a freelance reporter not associated with the company. They offered her $20,000 for six weeks of work that may have discredited a study that is part of the proof that Texaco (now part of Chevron) screwed over people in the Ecuadorian Amazon. As you’ll see, she told them to stuff it.
Part of me wanted to say yes. I was thrilled by the idea of a six-week paid adventure in the jungle, and I was curious about the case. Had the health study been fixed? Were the plaintiffs colluding with Beristain? Was Chevron desperate and paranoid, merely trying to smear its opponents? Despite my curiosity, I knew I had to say no. If I’m ever going to answer those questions, it will have to be in my role as a journalist, not as a corporate spy.
It’s delightful to see someone so clearly and explicitly stand up for the cause of independent journalism and against manipulation. The thing is, this must happen all the time. Just in case corporate ownership of the news media and the elitist selection process of top journalists isn’t enough, PR agencies, lobby firms and intelligence agencies seem quite happy to fund reporters. This doesn’t mean the news ends up full of lies. There are times when the news shows that left-wingers, revolutionaries, unionists or other anti-corporate, anti-imperialist types are unethical or wrong on the facts. What this sort of money does is it shifts the odds. It’s always hard to cover a story in the western Amazon, the Venezuelan llanos or the Bolivian Andes, so few of these stories get written, especially in English. Corporate money can make it possible for the chosen stories to get reported and written in comfort, while other, equally or more important articles, go untold.
I hope that funding of this sort becomes more widely recognized as the corrupting force it is. I hope that editors learn to ask their reporters whether they are getting any outside funds for a reporting trip, and should at the least disclose any such funding to readers. Any respectable publication should forbid reporters from accepting this sort of money.
Personally, I am willing to do contract investigations. But not while calling myself a journalist. I didn’t enter the trade to lie to either audiences or sources. As is, I prefer the chips-drop-where-they-may method of journalism. What I love about this website is that the news I turn up goes equally to everyone — there are readers here from oil companies*, government agencies, academic institutions, political outfits, and lots of random individuals — you all get the same story. If you want to donate to support journalism, great — drop me a note and I’ll give you my Paypal details. But don’t expect special treatment.
Hat tip: Democracy Now!