After I'd been up for
about half an hour last Sunday morning, I began to fear that I had passed on to some other world. It was an Austin parallel universe where the front page of the Sunday Austin American-Statesman featured: A ground-breaking interview with the Bishop of Jayapura on human rights violations around Freeport-McMoRan's operations in Indonesia; a serious look at the effects of urban sprawl; and an informative, behind-the-scenes report on budget negotiations from the paper's Washington bureau. Inside, editor Richard Oppel took the chancellor of the University of Texas to task for refusing to be interviewed by Statesman editors, urged faculty at the university to stand up for their beliefs, reported on human rights abuses around Freeport's operations in Indonesia, and urged readers to tune in to Freeport's 30-minute infomercial on their mine - not to hear the gospel, but "for a good chuckle." It all had me reeling.
The Sunday front page featured a Freeport story by Ralph K.M. Haurwitz, who interviewed Catholic Bishop Hermann Munninghoff of Jayapura, which is near Freeport's Indonesian gold and copper mine. Munninghoff has been in the news because of his report on human rights violations, and because Freeport officials quoted him last week to refute charges by some human rights groups that their personnel were directly involved in atrocities. Haurwitz, who reached the bishop by telephone, reported that Munninghoff "contradicted accounts by Freeport officials that the company operates in harmony with the indigenous people of the province, which occupies the western half of New Guinea island in the Pacific."
Munninghoff commented that Freeport has been "only indirectly" involved in human-rights abuses. Explained the bishop, "The army has to safeguard the Freeport facilities. By safeguarding that, they violate human rights... There are a lot of people here who are not content with Freeport. People say, `It's our gold and silver and we don't get payment for it.'" This is not standard Statesman fare.
Meanwhile, in the Insight section, Oppel gave more detail than I have seen so far on how it came to pass that UT is naming the molecular biology building after Freeport Chairman Jim Bob Moffett. He reported that Chancellor Cunningham "solicited the $3 million contribution from Freeport and Moffett" and "made the deal." He noted that Cunningham is "a $40,000-a-year Freeport director," and wrote that Cunningham "has declined to sit down for a lengthy interview with American-Statesman editors." Continued Oppel, "He should sit for the interview. He's the boss. He made the deal. His silence is deafening." That kind of blunt talk is unprecedented for a Statesman editor to level at such an influential citizen.
After saying his piece on Cunningham, Oppel went on to describe a short interview he had with Moffett, who delivered a new twist on an old threat he made against the City of Austin. If UT refuses to do things his way, Moffett warned, they will lose the donations of other Fortune 500 companies. "If they don't get this straight right now, they're going to have an absolute nightmare," he added.
Next Oppel bluntly discussed human rights violations by the Indonesian military while in the mine area to protect Freeport operations. In commenting on this, Moffett asked, "How do you fight a guerilla war?" This was another of those peeks inside Moffett's mind. (A guerilla war is quite different from previous descriptions of Indonesia that Moffett has offered up to now.) Oppel closed with a one-word review of at least part of the Freeport infomercial: "Gag."
Yes, all this and more actually did appear in the Austin American-Statesman. It sure would be nice to see more of this sort of thing in the daily. The news stories were fair, informative, balanced reporting. They laid a lot of facts on the table, and people can form their own opinions. Oppel's column did the same with some opinion and analysis thrown in, too. If the Statesman would perform this well consistently on local issues, they would truly be a better paper, and Austin would be a better city.
Now, I can't help but notice that this amazing issue of the daily was the first Sunday edition since publisher Roger Kintzel was called upstairs to Atlanta, where he will be publisher of Cox Enterprises' flagship newspaper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Kintzel's replacement is Michael Laosa, who grew up in Austin, and whose newspaper experience is exclusively on the business side of operations. If he will stick to that, as Kintzel did not, then maybe, just maybe, there's hope for the Statesman.
I hope I'm not sounding foolishly naïve, but let's hold out some hope and keep an eye on them.
In the meantime, here are a few suggestions. Oppel framed the issues on the UT campus quite vividly. Why not do the same for what Freeport seeks from the citizens of Austin: a city sewer and a development agreement? What about a blunt analysis of whether the city should enter into a contractual agreement with Freeport, now that a U.S. government agency, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), cancelled Freeport's insurance for contractural "breaches" and for having "severely degraded" rainforests around the mine? And how about finally doing a serious financial analysis of what a deal with Freeport would mean for the city? Also, why not print the entire OPIC cancellation letter? It paints a vivid and important picture that the people of Austin should see if they are going to consider entering into a contract with this company.
Leading the way for Freeport were spokesperson Garland Robinette and Vice President Thomas Egan. Guarding the door was former Statesman environmental reporter Bill Collier. Among other things, Robinette said the company was comfortable being in business with Indonesian President Suharto despite the fact that he is credited with the deaths of more than half a million people. He added that the company had seen no human rights violations by Suharto, even though they acknowledge that his military has committed abuses - including killings and torture - while stationed in Irian Jaya to protect Freeport's mining operations.
Joining the Freeport clan on Tuesday were UT geology professors Mark Cloos and Robert E. Boyer (not to be confused with Computer Science professor Robert Boyer, a leader in calls to rescind naming the building after Moffett), both of whom have visited the mine area as part of Freeport's partnership with the geology department. Cloos offered, "First of all, in this era when government support of academic research has shrunk, Freeport-McMoRan has provided nearly $2 million since 1989 to UT as pure research grants in direct support of basic geologic studies of the New Guinea region." Kloos said he has made 10 trips to the area, and concluded that Freeport's operation there "is one of the engineering and sociological marvels of the world."
Boyer termed the partnership between Freeport and the university "a model" and reported these observations from a trip to the mine area this September: "I encountered warm, friendly people who are apreciative of the employment opportunities of the mining operation."
Probably the highlight of the press conference came when Robinette and Egan maintained that OPIC cancelled their insurance out of concern for future environmental damage, and didn't allege any current degradation. This reporter pointed out that the letter from OPIC general counsel Robert O'Sullivan alleged that Freeport operations "have severely degraded the rainforests" around the mines. Egan cautioned that this was from a "lawyer's letter," and that a single comma could completely change the meaning of a sentence. After several minutes of jousting back and forth, both Egan and Robinette backed off and said Freeport simply disagrees with OPIC and doesn't think there has been environmental degradation.
Just to clear up any confusion, here's the entire sentence in question: "As noted, OPIC has determined through its monitoring activities that Freeport's implementation of the Project, and especially its tailings management and disposal practices, have severely degraded the rainforests surrounding the Ajkwa and Minajeri Rivers." It continues, "Additionally, the Project has created and continues to pose unreasonable or major environmental, health or safety hazards with respect to the rivers that are being impacted by the tailings, the surrounding terrestrial ecosystem, and the local inhabitants." In another part of the letter, O'Sullivan wrote that the "project has caused substantial adverse environmental impacts which compel OPIC to deny all further coverage of the project." I think I got all the commas in the right places.
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