By Halah Touryalai October 27, 2014
Some companies are notoriously uncooperative with journalists. Oil and gas giant ExxonMobil is one of them. Steve Coll, author and Dean of Columbia Journalism School, recently offered a road map for investigating corporations like ExxonMobil during a lecture at the school in mid October. The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner discussed in particular some of the strategies he used to report his book “Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power,” which was published in 2012. It was an exhaustive, but methodical, process, which he laid out to an audience of about 100 people who gathered to hear his talk.
Coll didn’t set out to write about Exxon in his latest book. His initial plan was to write about oil on a global scale. Six months into his research, he came to a realization that all journalists fear. “I realized I had no story. I had to start over, and pick a single story to tell,” he said.
He picked Exxon. Why? It is headquartered in the U.S. It operates in diverse locations across the world, which created opportunities to tell global stories on the ground. The story of Exxon also offered the kinds of complexities, characters and multiple narrative lines he tends to seek in his reporting. And it was powerful but its power was mostly invisible to the public.
“It was a black box. No one had written about it since Ida Tarbell,” he said, referring to a muckracking female reporter who exposed the ways in which big oil was manipulating government back in the early 20th century. There was a good reason why investigative reporters had generally not tackled the subject, he learned. “I had no idea when I started that for them journalists are bugs on a windshield and they’re driving down the highway. They’re beyond ‘no comment.’ They’ve barely acknowledged that journalism is relevant to their predicaments in the world. And I had no idea how disciplined they were.”
Exxon refused to even acknowledge Coll for the first four months of his reporting, and after that just barely. Meanwhile, his attempts to pursue what he calls a “transformational inside source” were met with stony silence. The “independent” board of directors wasn’t so independent: they all checked with public affairs. Former employees, other people he thought might have talked, didn’t. So, he had to take a kind of blitzkrieg approach to finding sources.
“When taking on a closed target like North Korea or Exxon, it’s tempting to search for Deep Throat, but there’s no replacement for all sources, all the time,” he said.
For instance, he tried federal election records, because many voters voluntarily mark down the name of their employers and he reasoned that those who are politically active might be more willing to speak to a journalist. He pulled records of individual campaign contributions for all election races going back a decade from the Federal Election Commission, and then sorted his results by people who voluntarily said they worked at ExxonMobil. “It produced a great random sampling of lots of individuals, because it’s a big corporation with lots of different people in lots of different jobs, people in accounting, people in maintenance, people at refineries who had for whatever reason decided to become politically active.” He cold called these people, and many of them were willing talk, and they provided a kind of survey of what daily life inside the corporation was like.
Litigation: God’s Gift to Journalists
Coll also relied heavily on Freedom of Information Act requests and publicly available court documents. In fact, nearly fifty percent of his Exxon book was derived from court filings. “Civil litigation is God’s gift to journalists,” he said. He prefers county cases over federal cases, because the former tend to be much more valuable sources of the kinds of juicy details journalists like.
Look for points of conflict, he advised. They can be a gold mine. “Everybody in the world gets into conflicts and corporations get into lots of conflicts,” he said. Exxon in particular is very litigious. “They also don’t like to settle, so they end up putting a lot of things on the record in the American system, that a subtler corporation might not. But it also includes their battles with the government, over regulation, over fines, over workplace safety rules and their battles with shareholders, who don’t always like what they’re doing. And every one of those points of conflict opens up a reporting opportunity,” he said.
Still, searching through civil litigation filings can be tricky business. “One thing I’ve learned is that it’s very important…that you come to the records, and the indexes, with very purposefully specific lists of names,” he said. “One of the traps of litigation indexing is you never really know what the caption of the case is until you get to it. And you can never be one hundred percent certain that the names of the parties you’re searching are reliably spelled or reliably named, because companies have subsidiaries.”
Fortunately, some of the documents Coll uncovered revealed an entire group of employees who were eager to talk. Specifically, Coll came across an U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint that had been filed against the company by its pilots. The pilots claimed age discrimination by their employer who they said forced them to retire at age 60. The complaint named about twelve corporate pilots who Coll then reached out to. “I learned pilots can be gossipy,” he said. Conversations with those pilots would end up helping Coll shape the narrative portraits of Exxon executives.
Coll’s book on Exxon went on to win the Financial Times/Goldman Sachs Award as best business book of 2012. But it’s unlikely his investigation will stop there. His final thought on the topic: “A good investigation is never over. It is temporarily abandoned.”
This entry was posted on Monday, October 27th, 2014 at 7:00 am. It is filed under Behind the Story, Skills and Tradecraft and tagged with ExxonMobil, Federal Election Commission, FOIA, Steve Coll. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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