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The Chiquita Story: How the Times Goes Soft on Corporate Crime

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Murdoch will no doubt push the Journal further to the Right , leaving the New York Times to hold the center. Yet let's not forget that while the Times might publish opinion pieces that come from across the spectrum, we don't need to cite Judy Miller and Gina Kolata to demonstrate how its reporting has already been far more conservative than might be claimed.

Nowhere is that more apparent than when it comes to the Times' coverage of worker rights issues. TheTimes used to have a labor beat reporter, in fact, a position that disappeared years ago. Ever since, the perspective of workers, unions, and worker advocates has regularly given short shrift.

I was reminded of this by an article published last Thursday about a federal investigation into an ongoing investigation into Chiquita's operations in Colombia, where the company made "protection payments" to the United Self-Defense Forces (aka the A.U.C.), a (paramilitary) "group considered a terrorist organization by the United States."

The company's story is that it continued to make the payments even after top executives revealed them to the Department of Justice in order to protect its own workers -- i.e. it claims that the A.U.C. threatened that it would kill many of the company's workers if it stopped making the payments.

The story was interesting to the Times because Chiquita board member Roderick Hills, the former SEC chair who sits on Chiquita's board, is now caught in the middle of this mess as a result of his own due diligence. Hills brought the issue to the Department of Justice in anticipation that it would provide the company with lenient treatment for doing so. Instead, DoJ cracked down on the company, especially as it continued to make the payments. As a result, this March the company pled guilty to engaging in transactions with a terrorist group and agreed to pay $25 million in fines.

Hills and other Chiquita officials may still be charged as individuals for their actions.

Hills' defenders say he's being unjustly threatened for being more proactive than most directors.

And that may be true.

Yet the Times reporter, Neil Lewis, left readers with the impression that Hills is being unjustifiably pilloried by ending with some quotes from former SEC enforcement chief Stanley Sporkin, who described Hills as "both sophisticated and honorable and said that any advice Mr. Hills gave Chiquita to continue the payments until something was worked out to protect workers' lives was "hardly off the wall -- there was a legitimate question here, a real issue of lives."

As a former judge and former CIA general counsel (currently a consultant with the Gavel Consulting Group, and ombudsman for BP), it's unlikely Sporkin would comment on the record unless he was intimately familiar with the facts in this case.

And he's entitled to his views.

But why Lewis should have allowed him to put that kind of a spin on the issue without quoting someone with a close understanding of the case and a much different view is beyond me.

The fact is that the A.U.C. have long been known for controlling the largest share of the country's cocaine export business, using gruesome methods to kill those who stand in their way. Chiquita presumably knew that when it started making the payments. Chiquita also continued to make payments to the group after September 10, 2001 when the US State Department included the Colombian paramilitaries and guerrillas in its list of terrorist organizations. You'd think that the next day they would have begun to think twice about that.

Moreover, the payments themselves were used by the AUC to buy guns. Guns that were used to kill Chiquita workers and their friends.

In other words, it's well known among labor rights groups that the A.U.C. was not hired by the company to protect workers, as Sporkin suggests. Just the opposite: the terrorists were apparently paid off at the same time that they targeted anyone who seemed to want to organize a union to represent workers at the company's Columbian operations.

Thus, the Times might have balanced Sporkin's spin with a statement from attorneys from International Rights Advocates (a project of the International Labor Rights Fund), which is helping relatives of the 173 people slain by the AUC sue Chiquita.

(Chiquita is not the only US corporation in trouble for coordinating with the paramilitaries. Both Coca-Cola and Drummond, an Alabama based coal corporation, have come under fire for hiring paramilitaries to kill union leaders.)

Ironically, the Journal at least did a little better than the Times in its August 2nd coverage of the story. The Journal not only reported that Chiquita continued to make payments because it was "concerned that its employees could be harmed if it cut the payments immediately," but quoted a DoJ official who said, "If the only way for a company to conduct business in a particular location is to do so illegally, then the company probably shouldn't be doing business there."

Perhaps we shouldn't expect either the Times or the Journal to give two shits about the views of poor Colombians or their advocates. But to suggest that Chiquita itself was giving money to the paramilitary terrorists because it cared for its workers is an unbelievable twist on this story that's worthy of a Garcia Marquez novella.

Correction:

The New York Times does have one labor reporter, Steve Greenhouse. The Times' story quoted the same DoJ official who said that if Chiquita could not operate legally in Columbia, then it "probably shouldn't do business there."