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

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?’”

New York Times Correspondent: From Colombia to Brazil

In his film, Stone points out that the mainstream media has, more often than not, demonized Chávez while giving a pass to horrible human rights violations committed in neighboring Colombia, a key U.S. ally in the region. In his attack on South of the Border, Rohter doesn’t address that allegation squarely, but continues to hark on human rights violations in Venezuela. What Rohter fails to disclose however is that he has provided sympathetic coverage to right wing paramilitaries in Colombia.

Indeed, as FAIR’s Extra! noted in its May/June 2000 edition, “when Carlos Castaño, leader of the Colombian United Self-Defense, the most notorious paramilitary group in Colombia, appeared on Colombian television and revealed the extent to which his own group was involved in the drug business, it hardly merited a passing word in the U.S. media. The New York Times’ Larry Rohter wrote a story about Castaño’s “grilling” on Colombian TV (3/12/00) that skirted the drug issue altogether.”

FAIR goes on to note, “Rohter’s report stands in stark contrast to a Reuters story about the same appearance (3/2/00), which lead with the admission: ‘The leader of Colombia's right-wing paramilitary death squads has publicly admitted the drug trade finances most of the bloodletting committed by his ruthless militia force.’ Castaño also explained that ‘drug trafficking and drug traffickers probably finance 70 percent’ of his total operations, another fact that the New York Times apparently found less important than the opinions of a waitress and a local magazine columnist, who felt that Castaño had undergone a ‘surprising metamorphosis.’ If Castaño’s intent was to present a ‘human’ face to the world, the New York Times at least seemed happy to help.”

Perhaps, Rohter was also irked by Stone’s sympathetic portrait of Brazilian leader and Chávez ally Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. In an explosive 2004 article, Rohter suggested that Lula had a drinking problem, and that the issue had become a “national concern” in Brazil. In a furor, the authorities suspended Rohter’s visa. When Rohter’s lawyers wrote a letter asserting that the reporter meant no offense, the Brazilian authorities restored the visa.

Brazilian media stood up for Rohter’s right to write, but was uniformly critical of the Times’ article. Speaking with NPR’s Bob Garfield, Brazilian journalist Antonio Brasil remarked “One thing is to say anything about a president…and his possible drinking habits. It's another thing when he says that the Brazilians were concerned… Most people say that was not…true. His sources and evaluation in terms of putting together the story would represent…sloppy journalism.”

Brasil added, “You cannot forget that this is a completely new government. In Brazil this is a Socialist…government for the very first time. Lula is from the Worker's Party, and they are very sensitive of any comment, especially coming from America.” In response, Garfield asked Brasil how local journalists could conflate the interests of the U.S. government with the New York Times. “You have to think [about] the whole situation of embedded journalists,” Brasil said. The journalist added that he was concerned about the Jayson Blair scandal at the Times, remarking that “maybe the standards are not…high.”

Perhaps, the Times is simply hitting back at Stone in a tit-for-tat. In South of the Border, the Hollywood director interviews a Times editor who admits to the paper’s lackluster coverage of Venezuela. I wondered how Stone got the Times man to talk on camera, and whether there was ever an official or explicit line about how to cover the Chávez story. Whatever the case, the paper’s old Latin American hand Rohter certainly got the word: then as now.


Response to Rohter by Oliver Stone, Mark Weisbrot and Tariq Ali:

Larry Rohter attacks our film, "South of the Border," for "mistakes, misstatements and missing details."  But a close examination of the details reveals that the mistakes, misstatements, and missing details are his own, and that the film is factually accurate. We will document this for each one of his attacks. We then show that there is evidence of animus and conflict of interest, in his attempt to discredit the film. Finally, we ask that you consider the many factual errors in Rohter's attacks, outlined below, and the pervasive evidence of animus and conflict of interest in his attempt to discredit the film; and we ask that The New York Times publish a full correction for these numerous mistakes.

1) Accusing the film of "misinformation," Rohter writes that "A flight from Caracas to La Paz, Bolivia, flies mostly over the Amazon, not the Andes. . ." But the narration does not say that the flight is "mostly" over the Andes, just that it flies over the Andes, which is true. (Source: Google Earth).

2) Also in the category of "misinformation," Rohter writes "the United States does not ‘import more oil from Venezuela than any other OPEC nation,' a distinction that has belonged to Saudi Arabia during the period 2004-10."

The quote cited by Rohter here was spoken in the film by an oil industry analyst, Phil Flynn, who appears for about 30 seconds in a clip from U.S. broadcast TV.  It turns out that Rohter is mistaken, and Flynn is correct.  Flynn is speaking in April 2002 (which is clear in the film), so it is wrong for Rohter to cite data from 2004-2010. If we look at data from 1997-2001, which is the relevant data for Flynn's comment, Flynn is correct. Venezuela leads all OPEC countries, including Saudi Arabia, for oil imports in the U.S. over this period. (Source:  US Energy Information Agency for Venezuela http://www.eia.gov/dnav/pet/hist/LeafHandler.ashx?n=PET&s=MTTIMUSVE2&f=A and Saudi Arabia  http://www.eia.gov/dnav/pet/hist/LeafHandler.ashx?n=PET&s=MTTIMUSSA2&f=A )

3)  Rohter tries to discredit the film's very brief description of the 1998 Venezuelan presidential race:

"As "South of the Border" portrays it, Mr. Chávez's main opponent in his initial run for president in 1998 was "a 6-foot-1-inch blond former Miss Universe" named Irene Sáez, and thus "the contest becomes known as the Beauty and the Beast" election.

But Mr. Chávez's main opponent then was not Ms. Sáez, who finished third, with less than 3 percent of the vote. It was Henrique Salas Romer, a bland former state governor who won 40 percent of the vote."

Rohter's criticism is misleading. The description of the presidential race in the film, cited by Rohter, is from Bart Jones, who was covering Venezuela for the Associated Press from Caracas at the time. The description is accurate, despite the final results. For most of the race, which began in 1997, Irene Sáez was indeed Chavez's main opponent, and the contest was reported as "Beauty and the Beast." In the six months before the election, she began to fade and Salas Romer picked up support; his 40 percent showing was largely the result of a late decision of both COPEI and AD (the two biggest political parties in Venezuela at the time, who had ruled the country for four decades) to throw their support behind him. (See, for example, this 2008 article from BBC, which describes the race as in the film, and does not even mention Salas Romer: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/7767417.stm )

Rohter's description makes it seem like Saéz was a minor candidate, which is absurd.

4)  Rohter tries to frame the film's treatment of the 2002 coup in Venezuela as a "conspiracy theory."  He writes:

" Like Mr. Stone's take on the Kennedy assassination, this section of "South of the Border" hinges on the identity of a sniper or snipers who may or may not have been part of a larger conspiracy."

This description of the film is completely false. The film makes no statement on the identity of the snipers nor does it present any theory of a "larger conspiracy" with any snipers. Rather, the film makes two points about the coup:  (1) That the Venezuelan media (and this was repeated by U.S. and other international media) manipulated film footage to make it look as if a group of Chavez supporters with guns had shot the 19 people killed on the day of the coup.  This manipulation of the film footage is demonstrated very clearly in the film, and therefore does not " [rely] heavily on the account of Gregory Wilpert" as Rohter also falsely alleges. The footage speaks for itself.  (2) The United States government was involved in the coup (see http://southoftheborderdoc.com/2002-venezuela-coup/ and below).

Ironically, it is Rohter that relies on conspiracy theories, citing one dubious account in particular that he argues we should have included in the film.

5) Rohter accuses us of "bend[ing] facts and omit[ting] information" on Argentina, for allowing "Mr. Kirchner and his successor - and wife - Cristina Fernández de Kirchner to claim that "we began a different policy than before."

"In reality, Mr. Kirchner's presidential predecessor, Eduardo Duhalde, and Mr. Duhalde's finance minister, Roberto Lavagna, were the architects of that policy shift and the subsequent economic recovery, which began while Mr. Kirchner was still the obscure governor of a small province in Patagonia."

This criticism is somewhat obscure and perhaps ridiculous. The Kirchners were in the presidency for five out of the six years of Argentina's remarkable economic recovery, in which the economy grew by 63 percent. Some of the policies that allowed for that recovery began in 2002, and others began in 2003, and even later. What exactly are the "bent facts" and "omitted information" here?

6) Rohter tries to make an issue out of the fact that the logo of Human Rights Watch appears for a couple of seconds on the screen, during a discussion of Washington's double standards on human rights. The film doesn't say or imply anything about HRW. Most importantly, in his interview with Rohter, HRW's Americas director José Miguel Vivanco backs up exactly what the film does say, that there is a double standard in the U.S. that focuses on allegations of human rights abuses in Venezuela while ignoring or downplaying far graver, far more numerous, and better substantiated allegations about human rights abuses in Colombia: "It's true that many of Chávez's fiercest critics in Washington have turned a blind eye to Colombia's appalling human rights record," says Vivanco.

7) Rohter attacks co-writer Tariq Ali for saying that "The government [of Bolivia] decided to sell the water supply of Cochabamba to Bechtel, a U.S. corporation." Rohter writes: "In reality, the government did not sell the water supply: it granted a consortium that included Bechtel a 40-year management concession . . ."

Rohter is really reaching here. "Selling the water supply" to private interests is a fair  description of what happened here, about as good for practical purposes as "granting a 40-year management concession." The companies got control over the city's water supply and the revenue that can be gained from selling it.

Rohter's animus and conflict of interest:  We gave Rohter an enormous amount of factual information to back up the main points of the film. He not only ignored the main points of the film, but in the quotes he selected for the article, he picked only quotes that were not fact related that could be used to illustrate what he considered the director's and co-author's bias. This is not ethical journalism; in fact it is questionable whether it is journalism at all.

For example, Rohter was presented with detailed and documentary evidence of the United States' involvement in the 2002 coup. (see http://southoftheborderdoc.com/2002-venezuela-coup) This was a major point in the film, and was backed up in the film by testimony from then Washington Post foreign editor Scott Wilson, who covered the coup from Caracas.  In our conversations with Rohter, he simply dismissed all of this evidence out of hand, and nothing about it appears in the article.

Rohter should have disclosed his own conflict of interest in this review. The film criticizes the New York Times for its editorial board's endorsement of the military coup of April 11, 2002 against the democratically elected government of Venezuela, which was embarrassing to the Times. Moreover, Rohter himself wrote an article on April 12 that went even further than the Times' endorsement of the coup:

"Neither the overthrow of Mr. Chavez, a former army colonel, nor of Mr. Mahuad two years ago can be classified as a conventional Latin American military coup. The armed forces did not actually take power on Thursday. It was the ousted president's supporters who appear to have been responsible for deaths that numbered barely 12 rather than hundreds or thousands, and political rights and guarantees were restored rather than suspended." - Larry Rohter, New York Times, April 12, 2002

These allegations that the coup was not a coup - not only by Rohter - prompted a rebuttal by Rohter's colleague at the New York Times, Tim Weiner, who wrote a Sunday Week in Review piece two days later entitled "A Coup By Any Other Name." (New York Times, April 14, 2002)

Unlike the NYT editorial board, which issued a grudging retraction of their pro-coup stance a few days later (included in our film), Rohter seems to have clung to the right-wing fantasies about the coup. It is not surprising that someone who supports the military overthrow of a democratically elected government would not like a documentary like this one, which celebrates the triumphs of electoral democracy in South America over the last decade.

But he should have at least informed his readers that the New York Times' was under fire in this documentary, and also about his own reporting: in 1999 and 2000 he covered Venezuela for the Times, writing numerous anti-Chavez news reports. The media's biased and distorted reporting on Latin America is a major theme of the documentary, one which Rohter also conveniently ignores in is 1665-word attempt to discredit the film.

We spent hours with Rohter over the course of two days and gave him all the information he asked for, even though his hostility was clear from the outset. But he was determined to present his narrative of intrepid reporter exposing sloppy filmmaking. The result is a very dishonest attempt to discredit the film by portraying it as factually inaccurate - using false and misleading statements, out-of-context, selective quotations from interviews with the director and writers, and ad hominem attacks. The Times should apologize for having published it.


Oliver Stone

Mark Weisbrot

Tariq Ali


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