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Oliver Stone Exposes NYT's Distorted Latin America Coverage, Rebuts Paper's Attacks

Oliver Stone touches a nerve in his takedown of the corporate media's support of US Interventions in Latin America and ongoing demonization of Hugo Chavez.
 
 
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Update: Read Oliver Stone's response to the the Times article below this commentary.

Look out: the gloves are off and as usual the New York Times is determined to destroy Hollywood filmmaker Oliver Stone. On Friday, the paper published not one but two critical articles about the director’s latest documentary, South of the Border, about the tectonic political changes occurring in South America. Stone, who is known for such popular hits as Wall Street and Platoon, made his film based on interviews with such leaders as Raul Castro of Cuba and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. In his movie, Stone takes the New York Times and the mainstream media to task for their shoddy coverage of Latin America and demonization of Hugo Chávez, someone who Stone openly sympathizes with.

Going for a knockout, the Times hit Stone with a one-two punch. First up was film critic Steven Holden, who in a rather sarcastic review called South of the Border “shallow” and “naïvely idealistic.” Unusually, the Times then continued its hatchet job on Stone by publishing another lengthy article in its movie section, this time penned by veteran Latin America correspondent Larry Rohter. In his piece, Rohter accuses Stone of numerous mistakes, misstatements and missing details. I don’t think the points which Rohter raises are terribly earth-shattering, though I imagine script writers Tariq Ali and Marc Weisbrot will respond in short order.

For me, the wider point here has to do with political agendas. At one point, Rohter takes Stone to task for not disclosing the various biases of his sources. In his film, Stone relies on commentary from leftist observers of Venezuela, including Greg Wilpert, a longtime editor of Venezuelanalysis.com, a web site providing sympathetic coverage of the Chávez government. The site was set up with donations from the Venezuelan government and Wilpert’s wife is Chávez’s consul-general in New York [as long as we are talking disclosure: before it became, in my view, too identified with the Chávez government I personally wrote many articles for the site].

Rohter Does Venezuela

Rohter’s point is fair enough, but he is hypocritical for not disclosing his own particular bias. Far from a removed film critic, Rohter is an establishment reporter with a political axe to grind against the South American left. In 1998, when Chávez was first elected, the journalist described the political shakeup thusly: “All across Latin America, presidents and party leaders are looking over their shoulders. With his landslide victory in Venezuela’s presidential election on December 6, Hugo Chávez has revived an all-too-familiar specter that the region’s ruling elite thought they had safely interred: that of the populist demagogue, the authoritarian man on horseback known as the caudillo.”

Four years later in April, 2002 Santiago-based Rohter expressed satisfaction over Chávez’s forcible removal by the Venezuelan opposition. “Chávez was a left-wing populist doomed by habitual recklessness,” Rohter wrote, adding that the Venezuelan leader’s fall could not “be classified as a conventional Latin American military coup.”

Later, when Chávez was returned to power and the short-lived coup government discredited, Rohter reversed himself and actually used the word “coup” in a story about recent political developments in Venezuela. If his readers had any doubts about the true intentions of the Bush administration, Rohter assured them that “there were no obvious American fingerprints on the plot that unseated Mr. Chávez.”

Three years later, Rohter was at it again, this time writing that Chávez was “stridently anti-American.” Chávez on the other hand said it wasn’t true, arguing that reporters were confusing his distaste for the Bush administration with anti-Americanism. In its magazine Extra!, media watchdog group FAIR shrewdly wrote “If dislike for the current administration is anti-American, doesn’t that make tens of millions of Americans ‘anti-American’? Moreover, by the media logic that calls Chávez ‘anti-American,’ shouldn’t the Bush administration, whose distaste for Chávez moved it to support his ouster by an anti-democratic coup, be called ‘anti-Venezuelan?’”

 
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