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Vanity Unfair

Sep 15, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 01 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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Back in March, The Scrapbook noted that federal judge Lewis Kaplan had thrown out a $9.2 billion judgment against the oil company Chevron. In his decision, Kaplan documented a staggering amount of corruption by the plaintiff’s attorney, Steven Donziger. (Donziger, by the way, frequently played basketball with Barack Obama when the two were Harvard Law classmates.) The case involved the alleged pollution of an oil field in Ecuador by Texaco (later acquired by Chevron), and Donziger’s corruption was exposed in part because Chevron subpoenaed the outtakes from Academy Award-winning filmmaker Joe Berlinger’s documentary about the case. Robert Redford and other Hollywood types initially protested the order for Berlinger to turn over his film, and it turned out Berlinger had Donziger on film talking openly about intimidating an Ecuadorean judge, among other unsavory things. Chevron is now pursuing a RICO suit against Donziger and others involved in the Ecuador case.

William Lange­wiesche

William Lange­wiesche

Now we learn that Donziger’s collaborators didn’t just include a Hollywood luminary but some of the biggest names in journalism as well. Vanity Fair, better known for the starlets on its cover than the news in its glossy pages, is often derided as a tabloid for people whose lips don’t move when they read. In 2006, however, the magazine hired a celebrated reporter, William Langewiesche, who was known for meticulous and lengthy articles on technical topics. He’s won two National Magazine Awards and been nominated for nine more.

Langewiesche happened to write a lengthy article on Donziger’s case against Chevron for Vanity Fair some years back. For a lawyer leading up such a high-profile case, this kind of publicity can be invaluable, particularly when, as in the case of Langewiesche’s article, what the reporter produces is a broadside against a heartless oil company. 

Well, the Miami Herald’s Glenn Garvin plowed through the voluminous emails that have been introduced in Chevron’s countersuit. Garvin zeroed in on the correspondence between Donziger and Langewiesche, which is revealing to say the least. According to Garvin, Langewiesche asked Donziger to prepare dozens of questions that he planned to ask Chevron. He asked Donziger to help him concoct an excuse about his “intense” travel schedule, to get him out of doing in-person interviews with Chevron officials, as they had requested. He ran his emails to Chevron past Donziger for approval before he sent them, which Donziger, by his own admission, aggressively edited. Langewiesche even sent Donziger a copy of the story weeks before it was published, with a note that the piece was “particularly satisfying to the extent that it supports your efforts, and you personally.” Aside from being egregiously biased, the article was published with at least one very serious error (“the assertion that it would cost $6 billion to clean up all the pollution around oil-drilling sites in the Amazon”).

Garvin “emailed Langewiesche, asking if this is the way he approaches all his stories and if there was some explanation of how his conduct constituted fair journalism that I was failing to understand. He didn’t reply.” Somehow we don’t think that Langewiesche’s travel schedule is the reason.

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