MANHATTAN (CN) – It took roughly a month after the publication of a confidential document in Chevron’s multibillion-dollar arbitration with the Ecuadorean government for corporate-led “swift-boating” operations to set sail on Twitter.
Courthouse News blew the lid on a secret forensic analysis of the computer hard drives of Ecuadorean Judge Nicolas Zambrano, whose name appears on a $9.8 billion judgment against Chevron, and to date nobody has suggested this article is inaccurate.
Although Chevron has long alleged that lawyers for Ecuadorean villagers secretly wrote the verdict against it, the article revealed what have now become undisputed facts.
The data on Zambrano’s computers includes a Microsoft Word document that appears to be a running draft of the judgment. This document was saved “hundreds” of times on both of the computers over four months, and the author names of the supposed ghostwriters do not appear in any files or emails on the hard drives.
Extensively quoting Chevron’s spokesman Morgan Crinklaw, this article has never received a correction request since it ran on Feb. 27.
Once an international arbitration tribunal caught wind of the unauthorized disclosure, Chevron’s lawyer Doak Bishop privately told the panel in a March 5 letter that the leaked document’s metadata exposed the source.
Back in the public discourse, University of Notre Dame human rights law professor Doug Cassel, claimed in a March 26 post for Letters Blogatory that Courthouse News got “suckered.”
Though he graciously withdrew that remark in an email last week, Cassel took issue in that post with granting anonymity to a source whom he called an “interested party” in the case. He argued that new information that had since been released about Zambrano’s hard drives favored Chevron. It later came to light that neither side disputes the “forensic information” found in the computers, but only the interpretation of the digital picture.
Providing the “pro-Chevron” view for the blog, Cassel has never denied his professional association with the company.
Breaking ranks with others in the human-rights community, the professor wrote an open letter to his colleagues three years ago, stating that they should not lend their credibility to what he believed to be extortionate litigation in Ecuador. Cassel acknowledged in his letter that Chevron paid him to write an amicus brief at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which the company’s arbitration attorney Bishop co-signed.
Now regretful of the media criticism in his essay, Cassel said in an interview that it was an “unwarranted” swipe at an “innocent party.”
Not a Twitter user himself, Cassel expressed remorse about how two Chevron-retained public relations firms used his words for seemingly coordinated cyberbullying on social media.
Singer Associates in San Francisco, Calif., and CRC Public Relations in Arlington, Va., are the agencies that put Cassel’s essay on blast from coast to coast.
The account of Sam Singer, whom the publication San Francisco Gate called Chevron’s “master of crisis communications,” linked to it with a mock-up of the Courthouse News logo. CRC’s president Greg Mueller’s account retweeted it, and at least five employees of both men’s firms amplified the messages.
No stranger to whisper campaigns, CRC helped “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” malign the patriotism of then-presidential hopeful John Kerry, in attacks that entered the political lexicon for a dishonest smear.
After her nomination to become the first Latina woman on the high court, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor faced the firm down as well, the Washington Post reported.
CRC also represents the Virginia-based Media Research Center, a nonprofit that has engaged in climate-change skepticism and regularly tars journalists from Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, The New York Times and others outlets in the Chevron litigation.
MRC reported more than $13.3 million in contributions and grants on its financial filings in 2013, but its charity status allows it to shield those donors from public view.
Nevertheless, ExxonMobil’s past public releases showed that the conservative think tank has received oil funding, and its writer Julia Seymour’s account was the first to spread Cassel’s now-repudiated message.
CRC’s senior vice president Adam Bromberg gave her post its first and only RT, as of this publication.
The next day, the Tweet from Chevron PR guy Singer got reposted on @SFSportsMedia, @NewMoviesBlog, @NFLDraftFan1, @CelebBlogNews1, @SFPubcrawler1, @Oaklandeating and dozens of other accounts. Either an Astrotweet army had been deployed, or droves of low-circulation lifestyle ‘zines took a near-simultaneous interest in oil litigation or journalism ethics.
“Michael Clayton Law,” a Twitter account whose handle evokes the Hollywood legal thriller starring George Clooney, joined their ranks. The movie’s slogan, “The Truth Can Be Adjusted,” is splashed over this Twitter homage.
Tweets and Tweeters like these sputtered out within 48 hours.
For Cassel, who has no Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn presence, the world of social media is a foreign land. He said in an email that our inquiries were the “first I’ve heard of the Twitter echoes of my post.”
“My reaction is that I owe you an even larger apology than I realized, and that I will need to bear in mind that my future comments may have more significant consequences than I have realized heretofore,” the professor added.
Chevron’s spokesman Crinklaw, for his part, ridiculed questions about the company’s role in what some might call press harassment by proxies of the nation’s second largest oil company.
“This is plain silliness,” he wrote in an email.
Chevron may be trying now to distance itself from the Twitter flames, but Courthouse News editor Barbara Leonard said this “case of 21st century journalist intimidation” merits closer scrutiny.
“We believe readers will see through the spin, and we hope that this will be the last instance of press harassment Courthouse News faces as it shines a light on shadowy legal proceedings,” Leonard said.
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