Journalist offered job as spy

Freelance journalist Mary Cuddehe was offered a job as a corporate spy to investigate a major company. She writes in a first-person feature for The Atlantic:

“…just then my cell phone rang. It was a private-investigator friend from Mexico City calling about a “research” job in the jungle. I would have to go to Ecuador to work with a group that does espionage for Fortune 500 companies. Was I interested? “I’m sure you could use the money,” he said, bluntly.” The pay: “$20,000 for about six weeks of work. Plus expenses.”

The case the company wants investigated: a massive oil spill that was currently being assigned blame in a jungle court. Why did they want her? She explains:

“With one Google search, anyone could see that I was, in fact, a journalist. If I went to Lago Agrio as myself and pretended to write a story, no one would suspect that the starry-eyed young American poking around was actually shilling for Chevron. ”

“My assigment, should I choose to accept it, involved a health study that took place around 2007, when a Spanish human-rights activist named Carlos Beristain went to Lago Agrio. After interviewing 1,000 residents, Beristain concluded that the community suffered abnormally high cancer rates, and his study became a key part of the court-appointed expert’s report. But Chevron thought something was fishy: Beristain had failed to disclose the names of all his assistants or of the people interviewed. To Chevron, the names were key to proving that the interviews were real, not merely the concoction of a hotshot activist trying to make complex issues simple–and, perhaps, enhance his own fame. But the court refused to compel the release of the names, strengthening Chevron’s suspicions that the survey had been rigged. Was it possible that the plaintiffs had colluded with Beristain to handpick the interviewees? Kroll wanted me to find out.”

In the end, Cuddehe turned down the gig. “Part of me wanted to say yes. I was thrilled by the idea of a six-week paid adventure in the jungle, and I was curious about the case. Had the health study been fixed? Were the plaintiffs colluding with Beristain? Was Chevron desperate and paranoid, merely trying to smear its opponents? Despite my curiosity, I knew I had to say no. If I’m ever going to answer those questions, it will have to be in my role as a journalist, not as a corporate spy.”