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my response to Washington Post review of The Tyranny of Oil

By Antonia Juhasz  Posted by dick overfield (about the submitter)     Permalink
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10:23 AM, November 20, 2008

Upon the 1904 publication of Ida Tarbell’s The History of Standard Oil, a reviewer wrote,

“…This book seems to have been written for the purpose of intensifying the popular hatred. The writer had either a vague conception of the nature of proof, or she is willing to black the character of Mr. John D. Rockefeller by insinuation and detraction… We need reforms badly enough, but we shall not get them until we have an electorate able to control its passions, to reserve its condemnation, to deliberate before it acts. When that time comes, a railing accusation will not be accepted as history.”

It is as if journalist Steve LeVine channeled this century-old review in his November 11 Washington Post review of my book, The Tyranny of Oil.

Below, I correct only the many factual errors in his review. The Washington Post book editor is currently considering a shorter version of this letter for publication in the November 30 issue the Washington Post Book World.

“Unfair” to the Oil Industry.

LeVine’s first lament is that I am “unfair” for quoting “no one from the industry in its defense.”

Although rebuffed in my efforts to interview oil company executives directly, I did interview and then quote at length John Felmy, senior economist for the American Petroleum Institute—the oil industry’s leading lobbying organization, with a board composed of the CEOs of every major oil company. I also quote at length from oil executives' and representatives’ written speeches, congressional testimony, and statements to the press; corporate shareholder reports, tax filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and other financial reporting; company press releases and press conferences, advertisements, and websites; and similar reports and reporting by the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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I conducted a series of extremely unique interviews of four recent chairmen of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), who served under Presidents Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush, three of whom oversaw and ultimately approved the largest mergers in U.S. oil industry history, and one of whom, Timothy Muris, is now co-chair of the antitrust practice division at O'Melveny & Myers, where his clients have included ExxonMobil (which the law firm represented in, among numerous other cases, its U.S. Supreme Court Exxon Valdez victory).

My primary industry data sources come from the companies themselves or from research arms of the U.S. government under the Bush administration—arguably, the most pro-oil-industry administration in U.S. history—including the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration and the FTC.

“Unworthy” Sources?

Then there are the interviews I conducted that LeVine dismisses because the subjects are "harboring grievances” and whom, he protests, are “provided a hearing throughout the book.” I can not know for sure, but I suppose that he was referring to the following original interview subjects: the assistant attorney general of California, the former California secretary for the environment (now under consideration by President-elect Obama for the office of "Climate Czar"); the mayor of Richmond, California; current and former senior staff of key congressional committees and members of congress, the president of the League of Conservation Voters, a lead oil industry researcher for the U.S. General Accounting Office, executive director of West County Toxics Coalition, energy director of Public Citizen, research director of Consumer Watchdog, a former director of the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), and the Vice President of the American Antitrust Institute among n! numerous other lawyers, legal scholars, policy experts, advocates for consumer, human rights, public health, environmental, labor rights, and anti-war concerns, community activists, and concerned citizens.

LeVine argues that, “by contrast” to me, Tarbell was “a “superlatively meticulous researcher who quoted Standard insiders at length.” Tarbell did conduct a series of interviews with Standard Oil’s Henry Rogers. However, Tarbell treats Rogers’ insights with a high and appropriate level of skepticism. For, as she writes in her autobiography, she quickly realized that Rogers had ulterior motives—hoping to sway her coverage of what ultimately became a charge of conspiracy against him involving Standard’s takeover of the Vacuum Oil Works. As I do in The Tyranny of Oil, Tarbell’s sources were primarily congressional hearings, government investigations, legal proceedings, investigative journalism performed by herself and her colleagues, the minutia of oil company financial reports, and one-on-one interviews with those negatively impacted by the industry.

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“Lifted” Material.

LeVine contends, “ Juhasz bases almost the entirety of this 400-page text on the work of others. For example, she lifts colorful descriptions . . . from newspaper articles, a method that appears lazy in a book on contemporary events.”

This not-so-subtle charge of plagiarism is not only unfounded, it is silly. LeVine knows every instance in which I quote a newspaper or other article because I reference every one, either in the text or among the book’s more than 750 footnotes. Moreover, while this book is based on massive amounts of original research, I was also careful not to reinvent the wheel. Like The Bush Agenda, The Tyranny of Oil is as much a resource and reference guide as a source of new and original information and analysis. One of my goals is to make readers aware of all of the excellent work, both by individuals and organizations, available to them beyond my own writing.

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