As lawyers in a San Francisco courtroom try to prove that oil giant Chevron orchestrated an attack on Nigerian protesters in 1998, anti-Chevron activists are going after a less likely nemesis: Pat Murphy, editor and publisher of the San Francisco Sentinel, an online news rag that isn't exactly the Huffington Post in terms of political influence. Campaign organizers at Amazon Watch, an environmentalist watchdog group with offices near Union Square, allege they caught him taking Chevron money in exchange for propaganda disguised as news.
A fixture on the local political scene, Murphy is soft-spoken but easily recognizable in bow ties and other accoutrements (he wore spats on election night). He runs the Sentinel from his second-story Tenderloin apartment.
Murphy's interests are varied. In addition to writing stories favorable to Chevron — for instance, he accused one of the Nigerian plaintiffs of "hoping to hijack the American legal process" — he recently covered a tribal art sale in the Presidio and the dedication of a Catholic shrine. He also published the recipe for a real-estate broker's morning elixir, which includes one heaped teaspoon of almond butter ("Almonds are the only nut that is not acid-forming upon digestion").
Amazon Watch staffer Mitch Anderson told SF Weekly that a co-worker in Ecuador (where there is another lawsuit against the oil company) discovered Murphy's deal with Chevron. They spotted mentions on the Sentinel site of his work for a Chevron PR firm, Don Solem and Associates, plus a Web page offering "fee-based" coverage. Amazon Watch reported its claims in two recent press releases.
But Murphy insists Amazon Watch screwed up the facts. He said he once offered fee-based coverage for cultural events, not news, but stopped because nobody was willing to pay for the service — and that he last worked for Solem in 1978. (Screen shots supplied by Amazon Watch allegedly exposing Murphy's transgressions actually support his side of the story.)
In a Sentinel post, Murphy mocked Amazon Watch for accusing him of bias and taking corporate money and then launching a one-sided attack against him aided by a corporate PR firm: "Oy, what putzes!"
Implausible as it seems that Chevron, or any multinational corporation, would pay Murphy to be its mouthpiece, Amazon Watch staffers' suspicions are unshakable. "Talk to [Supervisor] Chris Daly," said Steven Donziger, one of the group's attorneys. "Chris told me personally he had a problem with Pat Murphy."
As if that settles it. Later, Donziger asked not to be quoted in print. Why? "I'm a lawyer on a multibillion-dollar environmental case," he said, referring to the Ecuadoran suit against Chevron. "I think it looks petty to be talking about this."
You should have thought of that before your group sent out a press release attacking an obscure Tenderloin blogger.