Beat the Press

Dean Baker's commentary on economic reporting


New York Times Does PR Work for Brazilian Energy Company

Remember the good old days when newspapers didn’t just unquestioning print what the powerful tell them? (Okay, maybe they never existed.) Anyhow, a Times article this morning reports that Petrobras, the Brazilian energy company, has invested $50 billion in Bolivia.

How does the Times know how much Petrobras has invested in Bolivia? Did their reporter go around and price out the various wells and pipelines that the firm has constructed over years? Maybe the reporter talked to an expert who gave his/her estimate of the amount invested. While both of these are possibilities, the article doesn’t tell us the source of the $50 billion figure, leaving open the possibility that the Times just printed what the company told them.

This matters because, as the article reports, Petrobras is currently engaged in a dispute with the Bolivian government over its efforts to renegotiate royalty agreements. Petrobras’ moral, if not legal, claim is improved, insofar as it has invested heavily in developing Bolivia’s resources.

One reason for viewing the Petrobras claim with skepticism is that Bolivia’s GDP is currently $9.7 billion. This means that Petrobras is claiming to have invested a sum that is more than 5 times Bolivia’s current GDP (that would be more $65 trillion in the U.S.). Such claims should at least come with a source.

Addendum: The reporter apparently did not get the $50 billion figure from Petrobras, or at least not from its website. The website gives a somewhat more plausible figure of $1.5 billion. (Thanks to my CEPR colleague Ben Zipperer.)


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