Three weeks before a "60 Minutes" report on oil giant Chevron aired, one with a similar look and feel popped up on YouTube - this one by former journalist Gene Randall who was hired by Chevron to tell its side of the story. Randall says that those who object to his report are forgetting he's a former journalist.
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BOB GARFIELD: At the beginning of this month 60 Minutes aired a report titled "Amazon Crude" about the oil giant Chevron.
SCOTT PELLEY: Soon, a judge in a tiny Ecuadoran courtroom will decide whether the oil company must pay as much as 27 billion dollars in damages.
BOB GARFIELD: Three weeks before this segment aired, a video popped up on YouTube weighing in on the same issue, with the same TV news look and feel.
GENE RANDALL: A bitter environmental lawsuit against Chevron appears to be entering its critical phase in Ecuador. The plaintiffs say when Chevron bought Texaco, Incorporated in 2001 it assumed that company's environment liability in Ecuador. Chevron says it is the victim of a massive misinformation campaign in which facts are twisted and scientific data are ignored.
BOB GARFIELD: The face looked familiar too. The guy doing the standup is Gene Randall, who spent 20 years as a correspondent for NBC and CNN. Now a corporate media consultant, Randall was hired by Chevron to counter whatever negative publicity might flow from the 60 Minutes piece. With 27 billion dollars at stake, it's not shocking that Chevron wanted to use all the tools available for the PR battle, but when does PR become a fake news masquerade? Randall joins me now. Gene, welcome to the show.
GENE RANDALL: Bob, thanks very much for the invitation.
BOB GARFIELD: So what responsibility do you have, as the producer of this piece, to make sure that it doesn't look so much like a news report that the audience takes it for a news report?
GENE RANDALL: I don't think it's my responsibility to produce something that doesn't look like a news report. It's my responsibility to put together a report which is as compelling as possible. I mean, why should a business have to count on a press release to get its story out, whatever that business is? It was prominently featured on the Chevron website. I really don't see how there could be any question that this was a Chevron-sponsored event.
BOB GARFIELD: And so, therein, my quibble. I certainly don't [LAUGHS] have any qualms about Chevron or any other corporation putting its best foot forward.
GENE RANDALL: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: Where it crosses the line to me is when the presenter is trading on his journalistic credentials to create a report that, by definition, is tilted to the paying client.
GENE RANDALL: This is a valid question. Are you cashing in on your credibility? But, you know, when you leave journalism, as I did, and it becomes apparent that you're no longer young enough or glitzy enough to stay in the field where you spent 30 years of your life, you're faced with a very heavy decision. How do you enter the job market? You do it with the skills you have, so that you can make a living and support your family. My skills included writing and communicating. Those are the skills I offer my clients. And this is not only true for the Chevrons of this world, but, you know, for groups like the Cooperative Development Foundation, which hired me to produce a video on how coops could help alleviate the problems with senior citizens.
BOB GARFIELD: Got to say, as you view the video either on the Chevron site or on YouTube, where it was also posted, you're standing there in a control room, much like a network TV news operation control room, you say, "This is Gene Randall reporting." It certainly leaves a whole lot of room for confusion.
GENE RANDALL: You know, maybe I shouldn't have used the word "reporting." Maybe I should have said "Gene Randall." But I don't think that's the core objection that people are raising. I think the real objection critics of the video have raised is that I'm presenting this as someone who long was a part of the journalism world. Well [LAUGHS] I'm no longer a part of that world. I mean, I think that's the real objection, not the fact that I said "reporting," but the fact that I was a correspondent - I was a television anchor for all those years. But the key word is "former." I'm a former journalist.
BOB GARFIELD: When you talk about what someone in your position is to with his skills and his talents, it sounded to me like you yourself are kind of biting your tongue, holding your nose, rationalizing it, because you got to make a living. Are you doing any of those things?
GENE RANDALL: No, I would — I wouldn't say so. I'm happy doing the work that I do now. You know, I'm proud of the work that I do now. Look, I'll tell you, all those years ago, when I left CNN, I wouldn't say that was a matter of choice. I was clearly part of the cutbacks, because they paid me too much. It wasn't worth it for them to keep me after all those years. And I tried to stay in journalism, you know, for a long time, until I realized that my credentials didn't really count for much in that job market anymore. So no, I — I'm not apologizing for what I do now at all. Given the choice way back then I would have stayed in broadcasting. I really didn't have much of a choice.
BOB GARFIELD: To me the irony of all of this is that your background and your credentials and your experience seem more valuable to your corporate clients than they were to CNN.
GENE RANDALL: There is a certain irony there, isn't there? [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Gene, you knew you were in for an inquisition. So I especially appreciate your coming on.
GENE RANDALL: Listen, I appreciate the invitation, and thanks very much to you.
BOB GARFIELD: Gene Randall is a corporate consultant and former reporter who left CNN in 2001.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] Coming up, the timeless art of the pitch. This is On the Media from NPR.