Five years ago, documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger began to follow the efforts of indigenous Ecuadorans to sue oil companies over environmental damage to their lands. Berlinger’s efforts eventually became the acclaimed documentary “Crude.” But the story didn’t end with the completion of the film. Looking for an edge in their case in Ecuador, Chevron sued Berlinger to get footage left on the cutting room floor. U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan sided with Chevron, and ordered Berlinger to turn over his footage. The case is on appeal.
An interesting L.A. Times editorial, well worth the read, stands up for Berlinger and the documentarian’s journalistic privilege.
Kaplan may be right that Berlinger has exclusive material, but forcing him to relinquish it turns the point of journalistic access on its head: If journalists must reveal what they learn but do not publish from those sources they cultivate most carefully, then sources will keep them at arms’ length. This nation is better off because [Upton] Sinclair was able to insinuate himself into Chicago’s meatpacking plants; it will be better again if Berlinger prevails on appeal. And it will be better still when Congress passes a federal shield law that protects journalists and their sources