Fortune offers a rare "inside look" at how 100%, totally wonderful Bechtel is

By Dan Raile , written on May 31, 2016

From The Disruption Desk

Last week, thirty-five year old Brendan Bechtel emerged from the cultivated obscurity of Bechtel Corporation’s front offices and allowed himself to be the subject of a Fortune Magazine profile, the headline of which invites readers to “Meet the Private Company that has Changed the Face of the World.”

Here is a company that has an imprint on the geography of the modern world which rivals that of the British East India company. A company that generations of investigative journalists have scrapped with, and that has operated alongside the US Government, with taxpayer financing, throughout the glories and the infamies of the “American Century” (a term coined, appropriately, by Fortune’s founder Henry Luce.)

With a century of muckraking to draw from, Fortune offers to introduce the company to the uninitiated. What follows is sometimes called “whitewashing.”

The piece is long on promise.

“In that … spirit of openness, Bechtel unveiled its strategy and inner workings to Fortune as never before,” writes Fortune editor-at-large Shawn Tully. But it soon becomes clear that beneath whatever veil was torn away waited another, and another and another.

As Brendan Bechtel told the journalist he’d invited to interview him for a “rare inside look” at his 118 year-old private company:

“It’s disappointing when your work is part of the public discourse.”

But anyway, on with the interview.

Tully seems to do his best not to further disappoint the young scion. The reporter tips his hand while listing countries in which Bechtel has done major projects. Each one mentioned in the piece is either a NATO member or a gulf state American ally. The company’s operations in Latin America, Africa and the rest of the Middle East – especially Iraq and Libya – have long been the most difficult from a PR standpoint, and compelling from the standpoint of the public interest. Fortune glides right past.

The article does mention Sally Denton’s new book about Bechtel, The Profiteers (you can read Pando’s Q&A with the author here). Fortune records Brendan Bechtel’s response, partially quoted above. Bechtel adds, “I reject the premise of cronyism.” Tully invokes “[i]nterviews with industry experts, analysts and competitors” which “support this view.”

He goes the extra mile, summing up the book’s allegations meekly, avoiding the most troublesome territory, portraying it as an account of long-forgotten Reagan-era intrigues. Denton’s book does gather together much of what has been written about Bechtel over the decades, but it is strongest in detailing the company’s connections to the war in Iraq and the fall of Qadafi, its dot-com era woes and its current role managing the United States’ nuclear weapons laboratories. It focuses on the continuous revolving door between Bechtel’s executive suites and the U.S. Government, and the conflict between its guarded privacy and the public source of its biggest contracts. Tully leaves all of this out of his “inside look.”

One can only guess at the machinations and assurances that lead to such a soft-punching expose. But the point is not that discussion of its more troubling aspects would reveal Bechtel as evil or illegitimate.  But to introduce readers to Bechtel is to grapple with challenging questions, accumulated over a century. Not doing so is an abdication of the purpose of the press.

To be fair, Tully does mention the nuclear weapons labs. This is significant because the fact that Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories are currently run by the one of the world’s largest nuclear energy corporations has shown an incredible ability to escape mention. In this case, Tully applauds the company’s lucrative new line of business in “helping the U.S. government run departments more efficiently,” and talks up the financials of the deal, in which American taxpayers pay Bechtel 3% on top of the costs of management. But he glosses over the layoffs, lawsuits and cost overruns that Denton dug up.

The Fortune article emerged online the same day that Peter Thiel was unmasked as Hulk Hogan’s real-life wrestling partner. Perhaps that has cost it its due in scrutinous eyeballs. But if the Thiel revelation has opened up a new conversation about the functions of a free press, then the Bechtel example ought to be considered.

Brendan Bechtel is the son of the son of the son of the man who started his company and his Bohemian Grove lodge (a sort of military-industrial Burning Man camp). His forbears have built the Hoover Dam and Kuwait, have privatized the water supplies of entire countries, funded the country’s most prestigious conservative think tanks, and even founded the Stanford Research Institute, where the Internet was invented. They’ve fought pitched public relations battles since the dawn of that profession.

For more than a century they’ve outlasted the efforts of the press to hold them to account, to the extent that now a generation of Internet news consumers need to be introduced to them for the first time – the investigative reporting of past generations is not easily accessed online. The very existence of corporations like Bechtel makes a powerful case for the continued public necessity of a robust, free press.

If we’re going to get all concerned about how billionaires control the press these days, let’s not forget how they always have.