'When Journalism is Too Good to Be True,' It Usually Isn't: William Langewiesche Edition


William Langewiesche is one of the most admired and honored journalists at work today. He writes for Vanity Fair and, as his Wikipedia page notes, "he was the national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly magazine where he was nominated for eight consecutive National Magazine Awards" (he won two).

Yet as Miami Herald scribe (and Reason contributor) Glenn Garvin notes, Langewiesche is not above pulling fast ones on the people he writes about. Garvin makes a strong case that this sort of thing seriously undermines the media's credibility.

In 2007, Langewiesche produced a feature story about the oil company Chevron and its dealings in Ecuador. Eventually, a lawyer named Steven Donziger won a court case against Chevron in Ecuador. The company sued in New York to keep U.S. courts from enforcing the award and as part of the trial, huge amounts of emails were submitted into the record. Garvin picks up the story:

Four years into the lawsuit, Donziger scored a public-relations coup when he convinced the magazine Vanity Fair to do a long story about the case. (Department of Extraordinary Coincidences: Donziger's wife at the time worked in corporate communications at Condé Nast, the magazine's publisher.)

Vanity Fair assigned the story to one of its best writers, the award-winning William Langewiesche. The piece he produced was extraordinarily sympathetic to the lawsuit, so much so that Donziger himself proclaimed it "the kind of paradigm-shifting, breakthrough article that I think is going to change the entire case from here until it ends in a way that is favorable to us."

And no wonder! The emails between Donziger and Langewiesche in early 2007, as the story was being prepared, show Langewiesche as Donziger's camp follower at the best of times, his sock-puppet at the worst.

The reporter asks Donziger to prepare lists of dozens of questions to be asked of Chevron. And he begs Donziger to help him prepare arguments about why there's no need for him to do face-to-face interviews with Chevron officials, as they've requested, even though he spent days meeting with Donziger and his legal staff.

"I want to avoid a meeting, simply because I do NOT have the time. But I don't want to go on record refusing a meeting," writes Langewiesche. "Perhaps I could say that my travel schedule is intense…" He not only submits his emails to Chevron for Donziger's approval ("What say, Steve. I gotta send this tonight") and even lets him rewrite them. "Let me know if this works," Donziger says in a note returning one of them. "I was a little aggressive in the editing."

Garvin continues:

Not surprisingly, Langewiesche's story included some errors, most whoppingly the assertion that it would cost $6 billion to clean up all the pollution around oil-drilling sites in the Amazon.

That estimate originally came from one of Donziger's hired experts. But the man had repudiated it a full year before the Vanity Fair story appeared, warning Donziger in a letter that the estimate was based on faulty assumptions and was "a ticking time bomb which will come back to bite you, and very badly, if anyone attempts due diligence on it."

Garvin writes that he emailed Langewiesche asking for a response but didn't get a reply.

Note that Garvin isn't making the case for some sort of namby-pamby, both-sides-should-get-equal-treatment sort of journalism. He's pointing out that advocacy journalism that masquerades as something approaching objective accounting should be outed as such. Anyone reading through Garvin's published work will note that he's got a point of view (in spades) but that doesn't preclude him from presenting all sides fairly. Not as morally equivalent, but fairly. If a journalist becomes a partisan, I don't see anything wrong with that per se, though it often kills the sort of critical edge that makes for good writing. But if you go partisan and don't cop to it, that crosses a line that readers should know about.

Read Garvin's Reason archive here.