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The screenshot above is from the 60 Minutes' segment "Amazon Crude." Martha Hamilton, Columbia Journalism Review, wrote that 60 Minutes's report on the Chevron-Ecuador lawsuit contained a lot of innuendo that created distortions.(Credit: CBS's 60 Minutes)

On April 14, the Columbia Journalism Review issued an almost 3,000-word report on 60 Minutes’ segment, “Amazon Crude,” which was broadcast on May 4, 2009.

The CJR story, “How 60 Minutes Missed on Chevron,” analyzes “Amazon Crude,” after a request from Chevron.  “Amazon Crude” reported on the lawsuit between Chevron and Ecuador about Chevron’s environmental responsibility for oil drilling in Ecuador.

Martha Hamilton, who wrote the report, found the 60 Minutes piece heavily relied on innuendo. Hamilton, CJR’s Audit Arbiter, “explores complaints about fairness, accuracy, and other issues arising from business-news stories” according to the CJR Web site bio.

Chevron stands to lose $27.3 billion in damages if it loses the lawsuit.  The lawsuit “claims to represent 30,000 people in the area around Texaco’s former and Petroecuador’s current operations,” Hamilton wrote.  It would be the largest environmental lawsuit in history, according to “Amazon Crude.”

Hamilton stated that Chevron has a legitimate complaint against 60 Minutes because she found “the imagery is clear” but “the facts aren’t” in the segment.

Chevron had multiple grievances with “Amazon Crude’s” coverage, “many of which frankly fall into the category of mind-numbing details,” Hamilton wrote.  But, there were a few significant areas that Hamilton found 60 Minutes clearly in the wrong.

WHO’S RESPONSIBLE?

Hamilton said in her report that you can’t judge “where or whose responsibility most of the apparently polluted sites are” by watching “Amazon Crude.”  She points out that Texaco’s sites, that state-owned Petroecuador have operated since Texaco left Ecuador in 1992, is paid “scant attention” in “Amazon Crude.”

Hamilton counted 25 mentions of Chevron, 27 mentions of Texaco, but only 6 mentions of Petroecuador.

“Although the segment reflected some of Chevron’s arguments about the lawsuit, a viewer could be forgiven for concluding that the mess shown was caused by Texaco, now merged into Chevron, and, more importantly, is its responsibility to clean,” Hamilton wrote.

Texaco built and operated oil production facilities until 1990, when Petroecuador took over their operations, Hamilton wrote.

In 1992, Petroecuador took full control of all assets.  By 1994, Ecuador, Petroecuador and Texaco agreed that Texaco would clean up 133 of the consortium’s 321 well sites.  The clean-up cost was $40 million and by 1998, Texaco was released from its cleanup requirements. The Ecuadorian government later changed its mind and in 2008, said that release wasn’t legitimate, Hamilton said.

60 Minutes gives the clear impression that Chevron trashed the place and left, while downplaying the fact that Petroecuador has been operating alone at the former Texaco sites since 1990,” and bares responsibility, Hamilton wrote.

SALINAS’S  WELL

Chevron’s main complaint of distortion is legitimate, Hamilton wrote.  While “Amazon Crude” features shots of a polluted well, 60 Minutes‘ voice-over said that its owner Manuel Salinas, believes the pollution is oil-related.  But, Chevron argues the well is polluted by fecal matter and wasn’t Chevron’s responsibility to clean up.

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Hamilton further states that Chevron didn’t know Salinas and his well would be a part of the segment.  If Chevron had known the Salinas well would be used beforehand, it could have argued its case before the segment aired.

Hamilton said that Chevron gave both 60 Minutes and CJR a map showing that Salinas’s well wasn’t in Chevron’s area to clean up.  His well was supposed to be cleaned by Petroproduccion, a unit of Petroecuador.

So why was Salinas’s well used in the segment?  And, why did 60 Minutes include Salinas on camera in “Amazon Crude” considering Salinas isn’t a plaintiff in the lawsuit?

“Amazon Crude” producer Draggan Mihailovich told Chevron that Salinas’s statement that “pollution leaked into his water well” is what Salinas believes happened to his well, so it’s OK to air, Hamilton wrote.

But, as Hamilton wrote “that’s not a high enough standard to justify using Salinas’s remarks as evidence that Texaco failed to clean up a site it had polluted, much less using them to lead into the segment.” She continues:

“This isn’t a matter of belief. It’s a checkable fact. Either the well was or wasn’t part of Texaco’s responsibility under the 1994 deal and was or wasn’t polluted by oil. In this case, available evidence says the answer to the first question is no and the answer to the second is maybe not.”

Hamilton states that even though the executive director of communications for CBS News/ 60 Minutes Kevin Tedesco asked for a list of questions from her,  he wouldn’t address them.  “We don’t see a need to discuss this any further than the story we put on the air, which we stand firmly behind,” Tedesco wrote. This lack of transparency from a news organization is unacceptable in iMediaEthics’ view.

A smaller issue Hamilton had with “Amazon Crude” was with its description of Judge Juan Nunez, who was to rule on the lawsuit.

Hamilton noted that “Amazon Crude” describes Judge Nunez, as “serious and thoughtful.”  That description is “an oddly out-of-place subjective evaluation in a news program,” Hamilton wrote.  Last October, as Hamilton noted, Nunez recused himself from the case after footage of him saying he would rule against Chevron was revealed.  Nunez claimed the videos were manipulated.

Hamilton states that 60 Minutes could have covered the case in a different way – perhaps by “finding an unremediated site for which Texaco was responsible, identifying it as such, and laying out the facts.”

Since it didn’t do that, Hamilton concluded that the “segment was an exercise in innuendo.”

We are contacting Hamilton, 60 minutes and Chevron for comment.

UPDATE: 04/26/2010 5:00 PM EST:  In an e-mail to iMediaEthics, Kent Robertson, Chevron manager for issues management and litigation communications, wrote that Chevron thinks the CJR piece is “an accurate analysis” of the 60 Minutes segment.  Chevron had previously requested a correction from 60 Minutes, but that request  was “rebuffed.  We believe that 60 Minutes’ coverage of the Ecuador dispute is flawed and reflects a biased approach,” Robertson wrote.  Chevron would still like 60 Minutes to “address the segment’s inaccuracies, on air, in order to correct the factual record.”

UPDATE: 04/28/2010 10:47 AM EST:  In an e-mail to iMediaEthics , Martha Hamilton, who wrote the piece for CJR evaluating 60 Minutes‘ report, wrote that the only action the CJR takes in its evaluations is publishing its findings.

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60 Minutes Erred by Innuendo, Columbia Journalism Review Says

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