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Norman Lear Headshot

Was Oil Named 'Crude' Because of the Way Oil Companies Do Business?

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Let me leave it to you; which is it? "Couldn't be" or "certainly possible"? The recent BP crisis could be called the greatest of "natural" disasters. Natural for a company that had already received 760 citations for "egregious, willful violations," accounting for "97% of all flagrant violations found in the refining industry..." according to the Center for Public Integrity, as quoted by Frank Rich in this past Sunday's New York Times.

Currently setting another high standard for crude behavior in the oil business is Chevron. As for the battle between Chevron and the indigenous groups of people in Ecuador who are suing the oil company for despoiling a swath of the Amazon rainforest the size of Rhode Island that is their habitat, and upon which they depend for their sustenance, I am not taking sides. It is Chevron's reaction to a documentary on that very subject, Crude, which received the most glowing reviews in 2009, with which I take issue.

With no precedent for such a broad action, Chevron has subpoenaed the filmmaker, Joe Berlinger, to turn over his entire vault of footage -- over 600 hours shot (Berlinger is an exceedingly thorough filmmaker) plus the notes and sources the film was based on -- by citing the relevance of three scenes totaling about six minutes in a film that has a running time of 105 minutes and represents an infinitesimal fraction of the total hours shot.

Let me say that again: Chevron wants it all, every scene, 600 hours, because they believe they've found six minutes of footage that they think can help discredit the class-action suit filed against them by 30,000 Ecuadorians. Who would have guessed that Chevron would find a crudely sympathetic ear in U.S. District Court Judge Lewis Kaplan? Flouting the First Amendment, the author's right to keep his sources and work product private, and simple common sense (600 hours for the six minutes that they hold in question, my God!!) Judge Kaplan, ruling in favor of the company, ordered the largest turnover of a reporter's work product in American history.

Giving deep-pocketed corporations the right to rummage around in the files of a well-respected, independent documentarian like Berlinger will not only send a very discouraging message to anyone involved in the news-gathering business, but also to anyone who might want to talk to reporters about exposing the kind of corporate negligence or potential villainy that made the BP disaster possible. Chevron is the largest corporation in California and the fifth largest on the planet. I am quite confident that the Founding Fathers did not want corporations to use their vast profits to discourage this kind of reporting from taking place and at the same time place considerable financial burdens on filmmakers like Berlinger to defend their constitutional rights.

Although the American media has been on hand to catch BP with its tactics and ethical shorts down, the Chevron situation took place far from the lens of most American journalists and is the kind of story often overlooked by the mainstream American press. Whatever the reason for that may be, the chilling effect that this ruling will have on investigative filmmakers like Berlinger will mean that stories like this might not be told in the future. This is such a matter of grave importance that the bulk of American media companies signed on to leading constitutional lawyer Floyd Abrams friend-of-the-court brief recently filed on behalf of Berlinger's case. The group filing included all three major broadcast networks, the New York Times and the Washington Post.

The crudest thing of all in this story is the tilt in this country in favor of corporations. From the Supreme Court's recent decision allowing corporations to flood Washington with campaign finance -- which in turn keeps our country tethered to an antiquated fuel source that is destroying our environment -- to Chevron's current attempt to destroy the protections that allow a free press to function, it is time we put the future of this country back in the hands of its citizens, not its corporations.

Having observed hundreds of thousands of Americans in almost 50 states wait in line as long as 90 minutes to spend a moment with a touring original copy of the Declaration of Independence, born the night of July 4, 1776, our country's birth certificate, I am here to report that the American people, the solid American people, are ready for a rebirth of citizenship. They are ready to be freed, to become born-again Americans -- citizens who once more declare their independence, this time from the growing corporatocracy in which we find ourselves today.

I suggest that we begin by applauding today's appellate court decision granting Berlinger a stay in order to have a full hearing on his appeal. I, along with my fellow citizens, hope that these judges will continue to put the sanctity of the First Amendment ahead of the rights of corporations when Berlinger's appeal is heard in July.

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To learn more about how to help with Mr. Berlinger's legal efforts, please click here

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