Press Should Unpeel Chiquita, Even if Exposé Monkeyed Around

Like police who blow a case by trotting out tainted evidence at trial, The Cincinnati Enquirer blew a fine exposé of Chiquita bananas. In the same month when CNN and Time together did as much to discredit investigative journalism as Newsweek ‘s Michael Isikoff, The Enquirer made national news when it ran a page 1 retraction of said exposé and volunteered a $10 million payment to Chiquita Brands International Inc. Enquirer reporters, it turned out, had availed themselves of 2,000 voice-mail messages provided them, in The Enquirer ‘s words, “by a high-level source who was one of several Chiquita executives with authority over the company’s voice mail system.” Using these messages, an Enquirer team compiled a package of articles that ran May 3, alleging many horrific practices by Chiquita. When the paper retracted, it also forced reporter Mike Gallagher to resign. Clucking was heard throughout the land about arrogant media who stomp ethics into the dust. Back into the confessional for a national press corps publicly bemoaning its fall from grace!

Whether, in fact, the voice-mail messages were stolen is far from the only interesting question in l’affaire Chiquita . (In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg pirated the classified Pentagon Papers, but The New York Times and The Washington Post still cover themselves in glory-rightly so-for publishing them.) Leave aside the ethics of corporate theft, and for a moment confront the small matter of what The Enquirer said about Chiquita, and whether what it said was true and important. The striking thing is that during all the weeks since the Enquirer articles appeared, the press has had precious little to say about Chiquita itself. Before the retraction, the same national papers who outdid themselves in passing around each other’s allegations about White House body fluid ostensibly deposited on a dress did not pay the slightest attention to Enquirer charges about pesticides being deposited on the skins of Latin American banana workers. Once The Enquirer retracted, it was the retraction that became instantly newsworthy-but not, to date, the series’ charges themselves.

What are these charges, anyway? Through the Internet, I retrieved the texts of the original Enquirer articles by Mike Gallagher and Cameron McWhirter, which include the following points among many others:

· “Chiquita and its subsidiaries are engaged in pesticide practices that threaten the health of workers and nearby residents, despite an agreement with an environmental group to adhere to certain safety standards. Despite that environmental agreement, Chiquita subsidiaries use pesticides in Central America that are not allowed for use in either the United States or Canada, or in one or more of the 15 countries in the European Union.” The Enquirer “found numerous examples on Chiquita’s own list of approved pesticides or products that have been designated by U.S. government agencies as possibly cancerous to humans …” The label on one of these chemicals “observed in Chiquita storage facilities in southeastern Costa Rica read clearly ‘MARINE POLLUTANT’ and [bore] a symbol of a fish with an ‘X’ through it.”

· “A worker on a Chiquita subsidiary farm died late last year after exposure to toxic chemicals in a banana field, according to a local coroner’s report.” Eighteen-year-old Greddy Mauricio Valerin Bustos, a Costa Rican, died three days after working without gloves or mask in an area sprayed with a pesticide called Counter, and the autopsy report said that “Mr. Valerin died from intoxication from organophosphates, which caused internal bleeding and brain damage.”

· “Hundreds of people in a Costa Rican barrio have been exposed to a toxic chemical emitting from the factory of a Chiquita subsidiary.” This chemical, chlorpyrifos, impregnates plastic bags “used to cover bananas ripening on plants to protect them from insects.” Residents of the neighborhood, Barrio Paris, in San José, complain that they “suffer chronic respiratory problems, blistered skin and other serious ailments.” According to a 1997 Costa Rican national laboratory report, the company, Polymer Plastipak, a Chiquita subsidiary, repeatedly refused to conduct Government-ordered air tests. Chiquita denied those charges, but refused to supply The Enquirer with copies of the test results on which it rested its case. An official of the Costa Rican laboratory told The Enquirer that the company had been making misleading excuses since 1993 and 1994. One worker told The Enquirer , “It is so bad that many times I cannot breathe without help” from drugs or a respirator.

· “Security guards have used brute force to enforce their authority on plantations operated or controlled by Chiquita. In an internationally controversial case, Chiquita called in the Honduran military to enforce a court order to evict residents of a farm village; the village was bulldozed and villagers run out at gunpoint.”

· “Chiquita Chairman and CEO Carl H. Lindner Jr., his family and associates made legal and controversial contributions to political figures at a time the company desperately sought U.S. backing in a trade dispute over banana tariffs in Europe.” Mr. Lindner, a power in Ohio politics, and his relatives and officers of his companies donated more than $3 million in soft money to Republican and Democratic committees from 1988 through the first six months of 1997-the fourth largest soft money total to both parties, chiefly Republicans, during 1997, according to Common Cause. (Bob Dole frequently availed himself of Mr. Lindner’s private jet, and one of his candidate beneficiaries during the current election cycle is Senator Alfonse D’Amato.) The Enquirer articles do not wholly persuade me that Mr. Lindner’s gifts explain why the United States took a trade position that worked greatly to Chiquita’s advantage against Caribbean competitors-but are readers not entitled to weigh the evidence, which, if it does not point up to a smoking gun, does smell a great deal like gunpowder?

From press coverage of the Enquirer retraction, a reader would get the impression that all, or the lion’s share, of the paper’s charges against Chiquita came from pirated voice mails. Leaving aside the question of whether such piracy was indeed illegal or illegitimate, the reader of the retraction story would have no idea that Enquirer reporters, by their own account, “spent a month in Central America and the Caribbean late last summer, visiting plantations, government offices, villages and university research centers. They personally observed practices and spoke with residents, laborers, Chiquita managers and government officials.” They saw packing plants, read police reports. They witnessed aerial spraying that left the air “heavy with a stifling chemical stench,” and were told by one banana farm worker of “white stuff [that] gets all over my arms and on my clothes. I get a lot of rashes.”

Most of the paper’s revelations, in short, do not depend on the voice mail.

The reporters quoted Chiquita’s rebuttals at length, by the way.

The Enquirer no doubt had its parochial reasons to disown a report that cast aspersions on a major local company. What’s the excuse for the rest of the press? A news organization dumping disrepute on its own head catches the eyes of our toothless watchdogs far more than a corporation dumping pesticides on the heads of unknown agricultural workers-to whom nobody’s running to offer a $10 million apology.