Opinion and Analysis: Media Watch
Filmmakers Respond to Attack from the New York Times' Larry Rohter
The following letter was sent to The New York Times:
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.
- 28/06/2010: The Media Empire Strikes Back: Reviewing Reviews of South of the Border
- 23/06/2010: Academy Award-Winning Filmmaker Oliver Stone Tackles Latin America’s Political Upheaval in "South of the Border"
- 18/06/2010: How the Media Misreports Venezuela, Even When Given Full Information
- 03/04/2008: New York Times v. Hugo Chavez
- 23/05/2006: The New York Times Versus Chavez
- 30/10/2006: Why A Book About Hugo Chavez Touched A Nerve at The New York Times