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Bill Moyers & Michael Winship: Chevron's "Crude" Attempt to Suppress Free Speech

Even as headlines and broadcast news are dominated by BP's fire-ravaged, sunken offshore rig and the ruptured well gushing a reported 210,000 gallons of oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico, there's another important story involving Big Oil and pollution - one that shatters not only the environment but the essential First Amendment right of journalists to tell truth and shame the devil.

(Have you read, by the way, that after the surviving, dazed and frightened workers were evacuated from that burning platform, they were met by lawyers from the drilling giant Transocean with forms to sign stating they had not been injured and had no first-hand knowledge of what had happened?! So much for the corporate soul.)

But our story is about another petrochemical giant - Chevron - and a major threat to independent journalism. In New York last Thursday, Federal Judge Lewis A. Kaplan ordered documentary producer and director Joe Berlinger to turn over to Chevron more than 600 hours of raw footage used to create a film titled CRUDE: THE REAL PRICE OF OIL.

Released last year, it's the story of how 30,000 Ecuadorians rose up to challenge the pollution of their bodies, livestock, rivers and wells from Texaco's drilling for oil there, a rainforest disaster that has been described as the Amazon's Chernobyl. When Chevron acquired Texaco in 2001 and attempted to dismiss claims that it was now responsible, the indigenous people and their lawyers fought back in court.

Some of the issues and nuances of Berlinger's case are admittedly complex, but they all boil down to this: Chevron is trying to avoid responsibility and hopes to find in the unused footage - material the filmmaker did not utilize in the final version of his documentary - evidence helpful to the company in fending off potential damages of $27.3 billion.

This is a serious matter for reporters, filmmakers and frankly, everyone else. Tough, investigative reporting without fear or favor - already under siege by severe cutbacks and the shutdown of newspapers and other media outlets - is vital to the public awareness and understanding essential to a democracy. As Michael Moore put it, "The chilling effect of this is, [to] someone like me, if something like this is upheld, the next whistleblower at the next corporation is going to think twice about showing me some documents if that information has to be turned over to the corporation that they're working for."

In an open letter on Joe Berlinger's behalf, signed by many in the non-fiction film business (including the two of us), the Independent Documentary Association described Chevron's case as a "fishing expedition" and wrote that, "At the heart of journalism lies the trust between the interviewer and his or her subject. Individuals who agree to be interviewed by the news media are often putting themselves at great risk, especially in the case of television news and documentary film where the subject's identity and voice are presented in the final report.

"If witnesses sense that their entire interviews will be scrutinized by attorneys and examined in courtrooms they will undoubtedly speak less freely. This ruling surely will have a crippling effect on the work of investigative journalists everywhere, should it stand."

Just so. With certain exceptions, the courts have considered outtakes of a film to be the equivalent of a reporter's notebook, to be shielded from the scrutiny of others. If we - reporters, journalists, filmmakers - are required to turn research, transcripts and outtakes over to a government or a corporation - or to one party in a lawsuit - the whole integrity of the process of journalism is in jeopardy; no one will talk to us.

In his decision, Judge Kaplan wrote that, "Review of Berlinger's outtakes will contribute to the goal of seeing not only that justice is done, but that it appears to be done." He also quoted former Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis' famous maxim that "sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants."

There is an irony to this, noted by Frank Smyth of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Brandeis "made his famous sunlight statement about the need to expose bankers and investors who controlled 'money trusts' to stifle competition, and he later railed against not only powerful corporations but the lawyers and other members of the bar who worked to perpetuate their power."

In a 1905 speech before the Harvard Ethical Society, Brandeis said, "Instead of holding a position of independence, between the wealthy and the people, prepared to curb the excesses of either, able lawyers have, to a large extent, allowed themselves to become adjuncts of great corporations and have neglected the obligation to use their powers for the protection of the people."

Now, more than a century later, Chevron, the third largest corporation in America, according to FORBES magazine, has hauled out their lawyers in a case that would undermine the right of journalists to protect the people by telling them the truth. Joe Berlinger and his legal team have asked Judge Kaplan to suspend his order pending an appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

As the Independent Documentary Association asserts, "This case offers a clear and compelling argument for more vigorous federal shield laws to protect journalists and their work, better federal laws to protect confidential sources, and stronger standards to prevent entities from piercing the journalists' privilege. We urge the higher courts to overturn this ruling to help ensure the safety and protection of journalists and their subjects, and to promote a free and vital press in our nation and around the world."


Bill Moyers is president of the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy.
Michael Winship is president of the Writers Guild of America, East.
Rebecca Wharton conducted original research for this article.

More information:

  • "Oscar Winners Back Filmmaker in Dispute With Chevron," Dave Itzkoff, THE NEW YORK TIMES, May 12, 2010.

  • Joe Berlinger and Third Eye Motion Picture Company in In re Application of Chevron Corporation (lawyers for Mr. Berlinger)

  • Chevron: Ecuador lawsuit

  • Judge Kaplan's ruling (PDF)


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    Comments

    That's the really important thing about "free speech"...you can figure out the HUGE DAMAGE

    that magic woo-woo, delusional "end-times"

    ehjewkayshun

    has wrought...

    On PBS News Hour last night was a NORMAL interview with a BP executive - I suggest people take a gander at it...

    My "science" question had always been this attempt at "prophecy"...

    Does anyone know what is going to happen to the earth's delicate mantle crust

    when everything underneath it

    oil, gas, coal, etc

    is sucked out...?

    We shouldn't be surprised that, once again, Big Corporate "needs" to control everyone and everything that could shed light on its nefarious dealings. Those for whom darkness is the greatest ally are those who have the most to lose if full disclosure is required. Protecting big corporations only allows them to proliferate vile deeds in the dark. They will not police themselves. And it appears that the world will not protect itself from them.

    If someone gave you this “list”, what would you do with it?

    Follow it, or do the EXACT opposite of it?

    From the most censored book on the planet:

    “There are ten steps, or stages, to the evolution of a practical and efficient form of representative government, and these are:

    1. Freedom of the person. Slavery, serfdom, and all forms of human bondage must disappear.
    2. Freedom of the mind. Unless a free people are educated – taught to think intelligently and plan wisely – freedom usually does more harm than good.
    3. The reign of law. Liberty can be enjoyed only when the will and whims of human rulers are replaced by legislative enactments in accordance with accepted fundamental law.
    4. Freedom of speech. Representative government is unthinkable without freedom of all forms of expression for human aspirations and opinions.
    5. Security of property. No government can long endure if it fails to provide for the right to enjoy personal property in some form. Man craves the right to use, control, bestow, sell, lease, and bequeath his personal property.
    6. The right of petition. Representative government assumes the right of citizens to be heard. The privilege of petition is inherent in free citizenship.
    7. The right to rule. It is not enough to be heard; the power of petition must progress to the actual management of the government.
    8. Universal suffrage. Representative government presupposes an intelligent, efficient, and universal electorate. The character of such government will ever be determined by the character and caliber of those who compose it. As civilization progresses, suffrage, while remaining universal for both sexes, will be effectively modified, regrouped and otherwise differentiated.
    9. Control of public servants. No civil government will be serviceable and effective unless the citizenry possess and use wise techniques of uiding and controlling officeholders and public servants.
    10. Intelligent and trained representation. The survival of democracy is dependent on successful representative government; and that is conditioned upon the practice of electing to public offices only those individuals who are technically rained, intellectually competent, socially loyal, and morally fit. Only by such provisions can government of the people, by the people, and for the people be preserved.”

    If you want to fight back, sell the car and quit buying gasoline. And then Oneday perhaps people will say: Cheveron who?

    =
    MJA

    I'm glad that you're still writing, Mr. Moyers. I miss your show!

    Here's an almost non-reported story not about Big Oil, but about Big Mine and what's happening in Michigan's Upper Peninsula: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/cynthia-pryor/a-sacred-fire-is-burning_b_567652.html. To learn more from those directly involved, see: http://standfortheland.com/

    On the subject of the massive oil spill; it is a good excuse for the Oil Companies to raise the price of gas.
    We will pay for the oil spill plus higher CEO pay.
    There are plenty of ways to stop the oil flow but as usual our "experts" are clueless.
    What is needed is to use an expandable diaphragm backed up with a tapered shaft.
    If the government does not reign in the oil companies; we will be up to our ears in oil and no money for gas.
    Without the necessary change in regulations, the only progress will be in the direction of poverty and chaos.
    It is meaningless to have REGULATIONS if the regulations are toothless, ignored and not funded. In a capitalist system; it takes money to do anything.
    The reason we are being "shafted" by the oil companies is that our Government is in dire need a Change; its paints are so full its diaper is dragging the ground.
    We need a government that has the courage to do what is needed to be done NOT a government that kowtows to Corporations (suedo-human beings).

    I have just finished watching the documentary "Crude" and it makes my blood boil. I wonder how these executives can sleep at night knowing that people are dying of cancer because of their toxic waste sites? In fact, this brings up a lot of questions about cancer. We don't have to go to Ecuador to see people dying of cancer. Thousands (if not millions) of people die in the United States of cancer every year. Is it all genetics as they would have us believe? Is it purely smoking? How much of it can be traced back to toxic waste dumped by these conglomerates that supposedly meet "safety standards"?

    After all these past years of being a loyal Chevron customer, this situation has made me realize that it's time the people force the nation to get off oil.

    Guys, It’s over!! Welcome to the New World Order! It took Little George to get it done.

    Rulings such as this have the same effect that the replacement of the Journal has had - they close doors to the public freedom of information which characterizes any genuine democracy.

    Pouring over outtakes from a film in search of justification for exploitation and degredation of national resources by a corporate entity smacks of the same tyrannical focus as the scrutiny of films of a protesting populace in order to prosecute troublemakers and discourage dissent. And now, building on the 2000 usurpation of the Supreme Court, a judge attempts to legitimize tyranny yet again.

    Big Brother wears Prada.

    Thank you Mr. Moyers and Mr. Winship. These days none of the mainstream media seem willing to stand up to these bullies.
    I also wanted to add that in California, there is a different type of battle on the horizon. It is related to your story, not because it is about a journalist's right and responsibility to protect a source, but because oil companies are financing a proposition to suspend the state's landmark legislation, AB 32. www.stopdirtyenergyprop.com

    "In New York last Thursday, Federal Judge Lewis A. Kaplan ordered documentary producer and director Joe Berlinger to turn over to Chevron more than 600 hours of raw footage used to create a film titled CRUDE: THE REAL PRICE OF OIL."

    This is wrong on so many levels...

    Why didn't Chevron ask Berlinger if they could BUY copies of the footage?!

    "Journalism" is so much more than "news".

    Without journalistic integrity, ANY and ALL civilizations quickly fall into a delusional state.

    What the heck was in it for the Judge to rule the way he did?

    How's that quip go...?

    "We already know what you are, now we're just haggling about the price..."

    And how far are they going to take it...? When you get tourist maps from Ecuador, will the disaster site be promoted or deleted?

    Heart breaking - a good friend was in Ecuador with the Peace Corps a few decades back - it was a "paradise" judging from his "documentary" of those times...

    Though I too expecte to be underwhelmed by "Need to Know," I was appalled at the fawning and emptiness of the interview with Bill Clinton. The two reporters looked like high school freshman interviewing the school principal. What was PBS thinking? Couldn't they find some challenging talent? Were they bought off?

    I, also, miss the Journal and Bill Moyers very much. I never expected the program that succeeded it to be able to take its place, so I can't say I'm disappointed with it. I'm extremely happy to see that there's a continuation here on the site. I've subscribed to the podcast, and I plan to spend the time on Friday night that I used to spend watching Bill right here. Thank you so much for everything, Bill.

    I have just finished watching " Need to Know" for the second time. Oh how I miss your skillful interviewing Mr Moyers.I loved "the Journal".
    I found the format of this new show very dull and amateurish. The topics are covered in a superficial way. The interviewers are lack luster.They just do not have that special touch. Very disappointing.

    Should Chevron win then the average people have lost one more right to the American Oligarchy.

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