Please help me welcome Paul M. Barrett as my Wednesday’s Guest today. He wrote the fascinating nonfiction book, Law Of the Jungle that I reviewed on Sunday. If you haven’t seen the review hop on over, but do come back and see what happened to Paul just before his book was released. Paul seems like a cherry pie kind of person to me, so let’s all have a slice, grab a cup of coffee or tea, and enjoy…
The author’s perennial dilemma: respond to critics? What’s more pathetic than the published carping of a writer offended by less-than-admiring reviews? Very little.
Photo Credit: Nadine Natour
Despite a general rule of letting detractors have their say, my ears perked up when I began to hear from journalists around the country that representatives of the Ecuadorian government were contacting them about my new book–and not in a supportive vein–weeks before the late-September pub date. The administration of President Rafael Correa, it turned out, wanted to raise questions about my credibility and accuracy. Fellow journalists got in touch wondering what was up. Here’s the story.
My book, LAW OF THE JUNGLE (Crown), describes a campaign to save the rain forest that went horribly awry. One narrative thread addresses the Ecuadorian government’s persistent failure to protect poor farmers and indigenous tribe members from the harsh side effects of the industrialization of the Amazon. President Correa and his Ambassador in Washington, Nathalie Cely, would prefer to blame all of the collateral damage from oil exploitation on a foreign oil company, Chevron. In fact, there’s plenty of blame to go around, and you can read the book to get the sad, infuriating details.
In its zeal to deflect culpability, the Correa government hired a major New York-based public relations firm called Ketchum to try to discredit my book. Ketchum sent a six-page, single-spaced memo to Ambassador Cely outlining the “difficult questions” the book raises “that negatively affect Ecuador.” (The memo was marked “reservado y confidencial,” but it didn’t remain very confidencial. A source who asked for anonymity sent me a copy.) In an ad hominem swipe, Ketchum wrote: “It remains unclear when and how many times Barrett visited Ecuador or if he interviewed anyone from the Government. This can be converted into a point that we can raise, but only in suitable settings and among appropriate journalists.”
Sure enough, Ketchum got the green light from the Ecuadorian Embassy to start raising questions with “appropriate journalists”–presumably those the PR people thought might be sympathetic to Ecuador’s efforts to evade responsibility for the rain forest contamination. This preemptive smear attempt failed. The journalists who were approached by Ketchum had the temerity to check with me–imagine, they did some reporting!–and learned that I’d been to Ecuador on two field-reporting trips and that I had interviewed government officials, including Ambassador Cely.
More out of amusement than pique, I decided to write a short web post for Bloomberg Businessweek (where I hold down a day job) giving readers a peek behind the scenes. I noted that Ketchum had impressive credentials when it comes to carrying water for dubious foreign governments:
A division of the advertising and marketing giant Omnicom, Ketchum counts among its clients President Vladimir Putin of Russia—no doubt a challenging engagement, what with Russia fomenting mayhem in Ukraine. Kathy Jeavons, a Ketchum partner in Washington, heads both the Russia and Ecuador accounts for the firm. I asked Ketchum—and Jeavons individually—for comment. Through an internal spokeswoman, the firm declined to say anything of substance, referring me to the Ecuadorian embassy. Ketchum didn’t dispute the memo’s authenticity.
What’s the moral of this little account? For those in the disinformation business, it’s a good idea to keep close track of your internal memos. For authors who rightly hesitate to whine about reviewers, stay on your toes about well-funded hit campaigns; sometimes it’s worth responding. And for the government of Ecuador, I’d humbly suggest that the money spent on confidencial smears might be put to better use cleaning up oil pollution and building medical clinics.