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2007-03-23

Why the Cincinnati Enquirer Was Forced to Apologize for 1998 Exposé of Chiquita’s Latin America Dealings

Guests

Nicholas Stein, investigative journalist who has covered Chiquita for Fortune magazine and the Columbia Journalism Review.

Ignacio Gomez, renowned Colombian journalist, director of investigations for the Colombian public affairs television show Noticias Uno, speaking to us from Bogota.

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In 1998, the Cincinnati Enquirer published an 18-page exposé of Chiquita’s dealings in Latin America. The paper found that Chiquita exposed entire communities to dangerous U.S.-banned pesticides, forced the eviction of an entire Honduran village at gunpoint, suppressed unions and paid a fortune to U.S. politicians to influence trade policy. The Enquirer was later forced to issue a front-page apology and pay Chiquita a reported $14 million after it was revealed the lead reporter, Mike Gallagher, illegally accessed more than 2,000 Chiquita voicemails. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are, in Bogotá, Ignacio Gómez, renowned Colombian journalist, broken two major stories on Chiquita—he is a public affairs television show director of investigations for Noticias Uno; also joined in studio by Nicholas Stein, who is a journalist here in New York, has covered Chiquita for Fortune magazine and also for the Columbia Journalism Review, where you covered the remarkable exposé done by the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1998. First, explain what this exposé was and then what happened. Cincinnati, the place where Chiquita is based.

NICHOLAS STEIN: Exactly. I mean, you have to realize that Chiquita, other than perhaps Procter & Gamble, was the biggest company in Cincinnati. And at the time that this story unfolded back in 1998, Carl Lindner, who was then the chief executive and majority owner of Chiquita, was one of the—certainly the most powerful person in Cincinnati and one of the most politically influential people in the whole country.

So, Enquirer readers opened their newspapers one day to find an 18-page special section in the newspaper with the headline "Chiquita’s Secrets Revealed." And it was essentially a months-long investigation done by two journalists at the Enquirer that went into all sorts of sordid details about behavior that Chiquita had allegedly been involved in, in various parts of their business in Latin America. And it was—you know, it really, in Cincinnati, it became a huge story, and it was picked up on a lot by the national media, as well.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But then, subsequently, the Enquirer in essence disavowed its own story, pulled it from its website. The reporters ended up leaving the paper, didn’t they? And can you talk—what happened afterwards?

NICHOLAS STEIN: Yes, well, this is where the story gets even more remarkable, because about eight weeks after this 18-page section runs, people in Cincinnati pick up their papers again, and they see on the front page, across all six columns of the page, a apology to Chiquita. And essentially, as you say, the story was completely disavowed. It turned out that—

AMY GOODMAN: And we’re talking, by the way, a story that alleged the use of illegal pesticides, banned in the United States, used on communities in Colombia—

NICHOLAS STEIN: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —the suppression of workers in Latin America working in Chiquita plantations and factories, talking about bribing of officials—a whole series of allegations.

NICHOLAS STEIN: A whole series. Human rights abuses were alleged. There were allegations that Chiquita had created these special shell companies in order to try and get around various laws and avoid paying taxes and submitting to, you know, to various laws in several Latin American countries. And, you know, just to take a step back for a moment, it’s very important to realize that this is—just as what’s unfolding in Colombia right now, this isn’t an isolated incident with Chiquita or with the United Fruit Company. I mean, it’s sort of hard to overstate how much influence this company has had over the last hundred years in Latin America. I mean, essentially, most of the roads were built by United Fruit. The railways were built. The towns and villages and hospitals and schools and on and on and on. I mean, when you talk—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And it controlled for a long time a lot of the shipping fleets that transported goods back and forth.

NICHOLAS STEIN: Exactly. Chiquita had what was called the Great White Fleet, which was the largest private shipping fleet in the world. And, you know, before air travel, if people wanted to get back and forth between Latin America and the United States or Europe, Chiquita was the way to go.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what happened to this? Why was it not only retracted, but why did Cincinnati Enquirer pay the Chiquita company something like, what—well, what did you find out?

NICHOLAS STEIN: It was $14 million. I mean, what essentially happened was, eight weeks after the initial story, there’s this front-page apology in the paper and the announcement that Chiquita has settled with the paper, which was owned by Gannett, also the publisher of USA Today and one of the largest media companies in the country, and on top of that, they’ve agreed to pay a $14 million fine. The lead reporter on the story, a guy by the name of Mike Gallagher, was fired.

And that’s really where you get to the heart of what happened in this story, because apparently Gallagher had hacked into Chiquita’s personal voicemail system. At the time, this was before email was widely used, and the way that the executives at the company would communicate with one another was to leave voicemail messages for each other. And Gallagher, as it later came out in grand jury testimony where he pled guilty to hacking into the system, he had told his editors, apparently, that somebody else had given the information to him. And a big deal was made about this in the initial report. There were sort of illustrations, photos of cassette tapes, and apparently he had more than 2,000 of these messages, and a lot of his reporting was based on the content of these messages.

AMY GOODMAN: So the stories were never proved wrong, though the corporate media made a big deal of saying, you know, the Cincinnati Enquirer got it wrong. It was the way Mike Gallagher had done it. And we don’t know where Mike Gallagher is today. But it had a tremendous effect on the future reporting on Chiquita, I’m sure, reporters around the country afraid to touch it.

NICHOLAS STEIN: Well, I did a big story for Fortune magazine a few years later on Chiquita, and I got the opportunity to go down and visit some of their farms in Latin America and to spend some time with a lot of their senior executives. And I asked them specifically about the allegations that were made in the Cincinnati Enquirer report, and they—you know, they denied that any of these things were actually going on. And, you know, I think that—

AMY GOODMAN: I want to end, though—

NICHOLAS STEIN: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —with Ignacio Gómez, because he is still with us in Colombia, in Bogotá. While Chiquita denied, can you, in this last minute, talk about the significance of what has taken place, Chiquita having to pay the government $25 million? Do you think things will change in Colombia, Ignacio?

IGNACIO GÓMEZ: No. I think you’re losing the big picture. What the conversation my colleague is talking about was a conversation between Reinaldo Escobar, the president of Chiquita here, and [Robert] Olson, the manager of Chiquita there in Cincinnati. And they were talking about a bribe to get a port facility. This port facility was used in November 20, 2001, to import against shipments for the AUC. This big shipment was investigated by the Organization of American States, and their report talks about the involvement of Chiquita there. And then, a—

AMY GOODMAN: Ignacio, we’re going to have to leave it there, as the show ends, but we’re going to continue to follow this story. There is a lot that we have not gotten a chance to go into in the exposés around Chiquita. Ignacio Gomez, speaking to us from Bogotá. Nicholas Stein here in New York, investigative journalist. Our website is democracynow.org. We’ll link to the old Cincinnati Enquirer story.

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