Environmental Group Asserts Oil Giant Paying Writers to Pose As Journalists as Part of Public Relations Campaign
24 October 2008 - FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Bill Hamilton at (202) 641-0350 or firstname.lastname@example.org
San Francisco - The environmental group Amazon Watch today called on Chevron and the San Francisco-based writer Pat Murphy to divulge their financial relationship in light of disclosures that Murphy's website accepts fees for editorial control of news articles written under Murphy's byline.
"Chevron's public relations office and Pat Murphy appear to be engaged in an online deception," said Mitch Anderson, an Amazon Watch official. "Murphy writes pro-Chevron articles under the masthead of a commercial blog cleverly designed to look like a newspaper."
The disclosure comes at an awkward time for Chevron, which on Monday begins a trial in San Francisco federal court on charges it helped the Nigerian military shoot and kill unarmed villagers who had taken over an oil platform in an act of civil disobedience. Murphy was slated to cover the trial as a self-styled "independent" journalist with a press pass from the San Francisco Police Department.
Murphy's website, the San Francisco Sentinel, has the look and feel of an online newspaper and does not make it clear that it accepts fees for control of editorial content. For several months Murphy has been posting a steady stream of commentary and misleading facts to discredit indigenous groups suing Chevron for environmental contamination in Ecuador without disclosing he is being paid.
Murphy has also written pro-Chevron blogs regarding the Nigerian lawsuit that are riddled with inaccuracies and obfuscations, and largely repeat the talking points prepared by the company's public relations department.
Although the San Francisco Sentinel is relatively insignificant in the Bay Area - it ranked 171,939 in popularity among websites this week compared to 851 for the San Francisco Chronicle - Murphy's blogs on the Ecuador case are "google-bombed" to the top of search engines above negative articles about Chevron by more established publications. There are a number of companies that can be hired to manipulate Google search results in this fashion.
In a statement released Wednesday reacting to the revelation, Murphy did not deny he has accepted fees from Chevron or any of its outside public relations firms. He did deny that he currently works for Don Solem and Associates, a Bay Area public relations firm which lists Chevron as a client. Murphy's website boasted that he had worked for Solem in the past.
An independent court expert in Ecuador earlier this year assessed damages in the Ecuador case at $16.3 billion for the clean-up of what some experts call the "Amazon Chernobyl". Chevron has since launched an intensive public relations and lobbying war to avoid paying any judgment, including pressuring the U.S. Congress to deny trade preferences for Ecuador and attacking the highly respected Goldman Foundation for awarding environmental prizes to Amazon villagers who brought the lawsuit.
None of Chevron's efforts to avoid paying the judgment seem to be bearing fruit, as Congress recently extended Ecuador's trade preferences despite Chevron's lobbying and the Goldman Foundation basically ignored the company. In Murphy's case, Chevron's strategy apparently has backfired.
In light of the revelations, Anderson called on Chevron's General Manager for Public Affairs, Donald Samson, to "come clean" and disclose whether Chevron or any of its outside public relations firms have made payments to the San Francisco Sentinel or any other journalist. The practice of blogging or writing articles on behalf of clients without disclosing payments is considered highly unethical.
"Neither Chevron nor any other responsible company should have a policy of paying journalists or bloggers and then failing to disclose it," said Anderson.
Samson recently has become a public voice for Chevron on the Ecuador case as the profile of the environmental disaster has risen in the news media. He has signed several letters to the editor, including one apologizing for a comment made by a Chevron lobbyist to Newsweek that "little countries" like Ecuador should not be allowed to "screw around" with big companies like Chevron.
In the meantime, small links on the Sentinel website soliciting "fee-based" coverage were removed just hours after a press release was sent Wednesday to journalists calling attention to the practice. This was an apparent attempt by Murphy to maintain the façade of journalistic integrity, said Kevin Koenig, an Amazon Watch organizer.
Koenig said his organization was contacting Google to alert them to Chevron's manipulations of their search results. He also called on the San Francisco Police Department to revoke Murphy's press pass given that he is paid for his articles.
Questions about Murphy's objectivity have been raised before. In 2005, the former co-owner of the San Francisco Sentinel, Luke Thomas, charged that Murphy moved "away from objective news reporting into sponsor-supported journalism" and that he secretly sought financial sponsorship from the Committee on Jobs, a lobbying group for large businesses in San Francisco.
A final decision on the Ecuador case is expected in 2009.