Sunday, January 25, 2004

Unocal Cleared -- or are they?
(...and why we need a liberal arts education)

I would not want to leave readers with the impression that I was unfairly bashing Unocal.  It turns out that, at about the time I was writing the original article, the Associated Press (here quoted from the Washington Post) was reporting on the case.  The second block quote is from the LA Times -- published today (Saturday).  The first block quote here, from the beginning of the AP/WaPo article, provides what initially appears to be the bottom line.  Later in the article, the key arguments from the prosecution and the defense are cited.  This gives the impression that it is a fair and balanced report.  Interestingly, the LA Times article includes some additional information...

Judge: Unocal Not Liable for Claims

The Associated Press
Friday, January 23, 2004; 8:51 PM

LOS ANGELES - Unocal Corp. cannot be held liable for claims against its subsidiaries in the construction of a natural gas pipeline that involved allegations of human rights abuses by the Myanmar military, a judge ruled Friday. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Victoria Gerrard Chaney said Unocal had acted in good faith by setting up legitimate subsidiaries to undertake the project in the 1990s. The subsidiaries were not named in the lawsuit.

"Here there is no evidence of bad faith or wrongdoing by Unocal," she said during her ruling.

January 24, 2004

One Legal Attack on Unocal Denied

By Lisa Girion, Times Staff Writer

Judge says subsidiaries, not the parent firm, are responsible for project tied to Myanmar abuse.  Unocal Corp. won a round in a long-running human rights case Friday when a Los Angeles judge ruled that 15 Myanmar refugees sued the wrong corporate entity — at least under one theory — for abuses they allegedly suffered at the hands of government soldiers guarding a company pipeline.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Victoria Gerrard Chaney held that five subsidiaries — not the parent company targeted in the case — were responsible for Unocal's share of the $1.2-billion natural-gas pipeline in the country formerly known as Burma....

By deciding that Unocal is not the "alter ego" of its subsidiaries, Chaney blocked one avenue by which the plaintiffs had hoped to take the parent company to trial. Still, the judge said she was not ruling out the possibility that El Segundo-based Unocal could face trial on other theories of liability.

"Unocal knew or should have known there were human rights abuses" in Myanmar, Chaney told a courtroom packed with Unocal lawyers and Myanmar activists opposed to the company's investment in the Southeast Asian country....

Plaintiffs' lawyer Dan Stormer said he was confident that the case, despite Friday's setback, would go to a jury trial. He said Chaney had ruled earlier that the plaintiffs' other theories of liability must be decided by a jury....

First, notice the difference between the headlines.  The AP/WaPo article states flatly that Unocal was found to be not liable.  The LAT article emphasizes that only one of the legal claims was denied.  The body of the LAT text includes a damning statement by the judge, plus some information regarding the possibility of other legal avenues toward prosecution.  Ms. Girion (LAT) makes it clear that the case has not been dismissed; the ruling handed down on Friday pertains only to one aspect of the case.  Reading the AP/WaPo article, you might conclude that the case is over.  To her credit, Ms. Wides (AP) does make it clear that there still is a case pending in Federal court, as opposed to the State court.  But you have to read the entire article before you realize that Unocal is not out of the woods yet.

There are conclusions to be drawn here.  Most obviously, if you want to have any chance of getting the whole story, you have to read from multiple sources.  We still do not know the truth about Unocal, but we have learned something about the media.  Second, reporting on legal cases is difficult.  This probably is similar to the challenges faced by reporters who are writing about science.  There are nuances that can be missed if you do not have a full understanding of the process you are witnessing and reporting upon.   Although you may think you understand the content, you can miss important facets if you do not understand the process

The distinction between process and content is critical.  I would like to take this opportunity to go back to one of my favorite themes: education.  In an earlier article (1/4/2004) I blogged about the "No Child Left Behind" initiative.  One point of that article is that the increasing emphasis on "teaching to the test" tends to emphasize rote recitation of facts.  This may lead to better test scores, but I would argue that it also produces students who know content, but do not understand process.  This brings me to my third and final conclusion from this little exercise: there is no substitute for a good liberal arts education, with a heavy dose of individualized interaction between teacher and student.  That is the only way to develop a citizenry who can understand what their leaders and corporations are doing.  

For some interesting background on the education issue, see these articles: 1 2.