Legal Newsline

Monday, October 14, 2019

Review of 'Dark Side of Environmental Movement' spiked over claims it was 'dangerous'

By John Breslin | Jun 5, 2018

SAN FRANCISCO (Legal Newsline) - A positive review of a play reconstructing a trial against a high profile environmental campaigner was spiked over fears the production was "dangerous" and not "impartial."

The $18 Billion Prize: The Dark Side of the Environmental Movement, which ended a two week run in San Francisco Sunday, centered on a trial pitting Chevron against attorney Steven Donziger.

Donziger, who represented indigenous peoples of Ecuador in a lawsuit accusing the oil giant of polluting their lands in the Amazon forest, was found by a federal judge to have committed fraud and of attempting to extort billions from the company.  

The play made use of verbatim transcripts from the trial, where Donziger was found to have violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) for his involvement in bribing a judge in Ecuador who awarded the indigenous people $18 billion, later reduced by almost a half.

Donziger and his supporters, in turn, accuse Chevron of knowingly allowing a witness to commit perjury during the trial in the Southern District of New York. Following the trial, the plaintiffs cannot pursue Chevron for money damages in the U.S.

Daniel Kennard, a student at University of California, Berkeley, was dispatched to review the play for Theatrius, an online site "devoted to covering plays of all kinds in the San Francisco Bay Area." It was to appear in Millennial Notes, a section set aside for younger reviewers.

But, after a strained back and forth with the editor, retired English professor Barry Horwitz, it was decided the review, in which Kennard found the play to be "wildly entertaining and refreshing," would not be published.

"I did not ask for this really," Kennard told Legal Newsline. "I was not seeking a story, the story just kind of happened."

Kennard, who had done one other reviw for the site, said a group called Amazon Watch, a San Francisco-based environmental organization, circulated an email to reviewers warning them that the play and its co-writer, Phelim McAleer, were "biased."

McAleer, a writer and film maker, has previously produced documentaries that questioned Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" and one in support of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

"I did not read the email entirely," Kennard said. "I did not want to be spoiled about what the play was about, and did not want to be influenced...I told the editors I would review on its merits."

Kennard believes the editor, Horwitz, genuinely wrestled with his thoughts before deciding the piece would not be published.

"Honestly I feel for the guy," Kennard said. "He did not want this, did not sign up for this. This is a retirement project, and he did not really expect or anticipate this."

"He is an intelligent man, an English professor, he did research, saw a Greenpeace article, and one in the Nation," Kennard explained.

"He is doing his own background, finding the whole thing suspicious, questioning whether or not the play has Chevron backers, that dark money is looming.

"Building a narrative that it was bad news and review should not come out. Barry was concerned he was acting against progressive values."

The play was funded via Indiegogo, a crowdfunding site. As of Tuesday, the producers had raised less than half of its $69,000 flexible goal.

During his back and forth over the publication, Kennard said he even offered to allow a disclaimer to be placed at the top of the piece stating that the views expressed were not neccessarily those of the site.

No other play has been subjected to this type of scrutiny, Kennard said, where the background and motives of the producers are used to try and stop people attending.

"A play is play, whether well acted....and, yes, you look at it as a piece of art," he added.

"If I had been negative and did not like the play, had all the other things in the piece but saying the message was wrong, it would have run," Kennard said.

A negative review did appear in the Daily Californian, the UC Berkeley student-run newspaper. Writer Nikki Munoz also interviewed McAleer ahead of the staging of the play.

"Instead of presenting an interesting look into a man who went to extreme and immoral levels under the guise of a major movement, it is the environmentalist movement itself that gets put on the stand," Munoz wrote.

“'The $18-Billion Prize' does nothing more than present a biased perspective of a movement that did nothing to provoke nor deserve it." 

Kennard believes the review "was really misconstrued, it was wrong."

The publicists for Theatrius, in a letter to representatives of the producers, wrote that they "felt it was a propaganda piece, unfortunately, and the author did not make a good case for the play being impartial."

Publicist Susan Dunn added, "My editor of Theatrius had two reviewers see the play, but there was agreement that due to the slant of this piece, and the disparagement of the environmental community, it would be dangerous for Theatrius to post a review, which might be mis-quoted somewhere.

"I feel it is dangerous when agenda’s (sic) like these use the stage for propaganda, but these may be dangerous times we are living in."

Phelim McAleer, co-writer with playwright Jonathan Leaf, said the theater establishment in San Francisco did not want the play to be staged.

"Yes, I picked San Francisco because Chevron is based there, Amazon Watch is based there, and they led the campaign against the play," McAleer told Legal Newsline

Members of the group were in the audience on one of the nights and tried to disrupt the production, which McAleer said was about corruption. He described the spiking of the review as "outright censorship."

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Organizations in this Story

Greenpeace University of a California-Berkeley