Has Charlotte Gone Bananas?
As business leaders celebrate the arrival of Chiquita’s headquarters and continue to lionize Dole Food Company’s David Murdock, a new documentary raises questions about the history of each corporation
On November 29, 2011, in a room inside the Charlotte Chamber building on Tryon Street, a group of local political and business leaders sprang to their feet to give a standing ovation. They’d just been told that Chiquita Brands International was relocating its corporate headquarters to Charlotte from Cincinnati, lured in part by a local and state incentive package worth more than $22 million.
Chiquita Chairman and CEO Fernando Aguirre approached Gov. Bev Perdue, hand raised. The two slapped palms in a high-five, then clasped hands in an iconic moment captured by news cameras. Later that evening, Duke Energy turned the lights on its uptown Charlotte headquarters building yellow and blue—Chiquita’s corporate colors—to celebrate the announcement.
Similar scenes of celebration by corporate and business leaders have played out over the past several years in the Charlotte region thanks to the chairman and owner of another banana behemoth, Dole Food Company. David Murdock, who has earned much of his fortune thanks to the tropical fruit, has footed most of the bill for a $1.5 billion biotech center in nearby Kannapolis—along with about $47 million committed from taxpayers to make the North Carolina Research Campus a reality.
A couple months after Aguirre high-fived Perdue, a banana-themed documentary made headlines at the Sundance Film Festival and left its viewers sour on both Dole and Chiquita.
Big Boys Gone Bananas! tells a story of corporate behavior by Dole and Chiquita that can only be described as corporate bullying. Both companies have faced allegations that their use of pesticides and other practices in Central America harm the workers who grow bananas there, and they have responded to those allegations with heavy-handed tactics that targeted the journalists who reported them. Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten, well known as a foreign correspondent and newspaper, radio, and television commentator in his home country, paints a picture of public-relations machines that pay scant attention to truth, justice, or First Amendment rights in their zeal to quash negative allegations against the companies. He also targets lazy reporters and editors who let PR firms set the agenda.
The documentary has been making the rounds at film festivals all spring, including Durham’s Full Frame Documentary Festival in April, and is expecting to see theatrical and DVD releases later this year. The Ottowa Citizen called it “probably the most important movie … at Sundance” and Variety’s review said the film’s “proximity to U.S. elections will make ‘Big Boys’ particularly pertinent, especially for politically minded viewers.”
For Charlotte, the film hits at an awkward time. The city has already suffered a blow to its economy and self-esteem since both Bank of America and Wachovia were revealed as major players in the mortgage scandals that led to the nation’s housing crisis. The news that Chiquita would open its offices in the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s office tower to accommodate about 400 employees, more than 200 of them to be hired locally, was a welcomed point of civic pride. Meanwhile, the region has spent several years pinning its hopes for jobs to replace textile losses to Murdock’s venture in Kannapolis, viewing him as a benevolent rescuer.
The film and its timing can’t help but raise the question: Are local and state leaders doing enough soul-searching about who they’re using tax dollars to recruit? Gertten says he doesn’t blame Charlotte for recruiting Chiquita or lionizing Murdock. “I totally understand the community needs jobs,” he says. “Hopefully the city has good people who can change these corporations.”
Big Boys Gone Bananas! focuses primarily on Dole, with Murdock’s name popping up several times in court documents featured onscreen. The story begins with a prequel of sorts: Gertten first produced a 2009 documentary entitled Bananas! that focuses on Nicaraguan banana workers who say they were harmed by Dole’s use of pesticides. That film was slated to premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival in summer 2009, but shortly before the festival, Gertten received a cease-and-desist letter from Dole. Gertten hired a film crew to begin following him as he heard the news that the film festival was pulling the documentary from its competition in response to pressure from Dole. The Los Angeles Business Journal published a scathing article saying the documentary “needs a fact-check,” and many other media outlets soon followed suit with similar stories, most based primarily on news releases issued by Dole. In Big Boys Gone Bananas! a bleary-eyed and outraged Gertten is shown having Skype conversations with his producers and lawyer while holding up copies of the headlines that attacked him.
Nobody at Dole or any of the reporters who wrote about the movie had yet seen the film.
After the film finally premiered at a special noncompetition screening, Gertten faced a two-year battle against Dole, all depicted in Big Boys Gone Bananas! He eventually prevailed in a lawsuit Dole filed against him and won theatrical release for the film last fall (it’s available on Netflix). Big Boys Gone Bananas! also takes a significant detour to detail a scandalous chapter in Chiquita’s history.
In 1998, the Cincinnati Enquirer published an eighteen-page section of articles accusing Chiquita of a host of misdeeds, including mistreating Central American workers and polluting the environment. But the Enquirer soon admitted that much of the evidence was obtained by illegally hacking into the company’s voicemail. The Enquirer fired the lead reporter, Michael Gallagher, published a front-page retraction of the entire series, and paid Chiquita a multimillion-dollar settlement. The series even disappeared from news search engines such as LexisNexis. Lost in the fallout was any significant examination of the truth of the underlying allegations—after all, nobody said the reporter fabricated the voicemails, just that they were illegally obtained.
Gertten draws parallels between what happened to the Enquirer and what happened to his own journalistic work on Dole. At Sundance in January, he recalled being introduced to a high-level Chiquita executive (whose name he didn’t recall). “At a lunch, he said they were much better than Dole and they never would have done what Dole did to me. I said, ‘What about the Cincinnati Enquirer?’ He said, ‘That story was really good for us. That story made us change a lot of our behavior.’ I said, ‘Yes, but the journalist lost his job and the newspaper had to pay millions.’”
In response to inquiries about the film for this story, Chiquita offered up an interview with its corporate social responsibility officer, Manuel Rodriguez. He first pointed out that the reporting had been retracted by the Enquirer, but he eventually echoed Gertten’s account of his conversation with the unnamed Chiquita executive. “There is no question that the Cincinnati Enquirer articles helped generate a sense of urgency,” he said. “It did help us accelerate internal reforms.”
Rodriguez and Chiquita’s PR executive, Andrew Ciafardini, also acknowledge that nobody in the Charlotte media who reported on Chiquita’s relocation asked them about the Enquirer’s allegations. The Charlotte Observer did note in its coverage a more recent unsavory chapter of the company’s past, when it agreed in 2007 to pay a $25 million fine to the U.S. Justice Department for paying $1.7 million to paramilitary groups in Colombia between 1997 and 2004. Those groups had committed atrocities against Colombians, and the U.S. government had labeled at least one group a terrorist organization.
Rodriguez says Chiquita is now viewed as a leader in the area of corporate social responsibility, and he and Ciafardini can readily cite a long list of awards it has won. Kati Hynes, who spearheaded the recruitment of Chiquita for the Charlotte Chamber, notes that few of the company’s current employees were there at the time of the 1998 scandal. “Everyone was very aware of the history of the company, and they were very transparent about it,” she says.
Dole is keeping more mum on its part of the story. The company’s investor relations department referred questions to Phyllis Beaver, Murdock’s spokesperson in Kannapolis, and over several weeks of interview requests, Beaver said Murdock was unavailable. She declined to speak about Big Boys Gone Bananas! on his behalf. (Neither Dole nor Chiquita executives have been offered screeners or opportunities to see the film outside of the festivals where it has appeared, though a detailed synopsis is available on its website.)
Hynes says that while the Chiquita recruitment has faced the usual opposition from people who simply don’t like corporate incentives, nobody has questioned the choice to recruit Chiquita based on its corporate history. She says the use of tax incentives in this case is a good deal for Charlotte, especially since more than 200 of the 400-plus jobs the company is bringing will go to locals. “It’s definitely a stimulation of the economy,” she says. Chiquita also promises philanthropic involvement, is encouraging healthy-eating efforts, and is bringing to town the Chiquita Classic golf tournament.
For his part, Gertten says he hopes Charlotte-area residents will step up their vigilance of their corporate citizens, and he hopes the media will do the same in its reporting. “Investigative journalism is going down. Who’s going up? It’s the PR industry, and they tend to produce news,” he says. “We as citizens need to look out, and (examine) why certain news stories get big headlines and others get none. We have to be a little more critical of the media.”
The behavior he documented of Dole and Chiquita, he says, is emblematic of behavior practiced by many large corporation employees.
“This is not a revenge story,” he says. “It’s only me telling our experience and trying to learn from our experiences. The big boys, the mighty … I think Dole and Chiquita should learn to be kinder, and that includes respecting the basic values of democracy: free speech, free press. A big corporation should respect that. Suing a filmmaker is not respecting democracy.”
Consumers can also help, he says, by being aware of how bananas are produced and demanding organic and fair-trade produce. One-third of the price of a typical banana goes toward pesticides, he says, a fact that launched him on his first Bananas film.
“I think you should welcome them to your city,” he says. “But also tell them that we prefer you to be a good company [and] moral in your behavior.”
Leigh Dyer is a former reporter and editor for The Charlotte Observer. This is her first article for Charlotte magazine.