The Media Empire Strikes Back: Reviewing Reviews of South of the Border

Oliver Stone's new documentary about Latin America's leftward political shift and its growing independence from Washington is being lambasted by the media. This shouldn't come as a surprise.

Oliver Stone’s new documentary about Latin America’s leftward political shift and its growing independence from Washington is being lambasted by the media. This shouldn’t come as a surprise as Stone calls out the mainstream media in his new film South of the Border for its mostly one-sided, distorted coverage of the region’s political leaders—most significantly Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez .

In an interview with CBS about his new film Stone remarked about America’s obsession with empire, maintaining global hegemony, and the paranoia that accompanies such obsessions, saying, “We’re a sick country.”

And as if on cue, the mainstream media has published a flurry of attacks on the documentary, consequently supporting Stone’s arguments in the film about ideological biases and misinformation  tainting media coverage about the region, while revealing symptoms of this “sickness” he mentions, such as intellectual impotence, pathological lying, and ideological blindness.

One spectacular example is courtesy of The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), which published a hit piece by Ron Radosh entitled “To Chávez, With Love.” In it Radosh remarkably calls out Stone for not mentioning the economic successes of Chile under the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet during the 1970’s as a point of comparison to show how Venezuelan society under Chavez is suffering. For Radosh and the editors at the WSJ, a bloody regime who would kill, torture and/or disappear a filmmaker like Stone is not only a success, but a model to be duplicated. Sick indeed.

On the other end of the minuscule ideological spectrum represented in the U.S. mainstream media is a blog post by Martin Peretz, editor-in-chief of The New Republic. Peretz, who uses the same title as the WSJ piece, actually praises Rodosh, calling him a “brave historian.” In a healthy society one could accuse Radosh of being brave, in a perverse sort of way, for thumbing his nose at decency and morality by publicly praising a murderous regime because you would expect widespread condemnation to follow. That, sadly, is not the case.

Peretz goes on to call the democratically-elected Latin American presidents interviewed in Stone’s documentary “tyrants”, while calling Stone’s work “trash,” nothing more than ideological-drivel and intellectual laziness. But how could we question the judgement and intellect of a journalism professional with 36 years at The New Republic, whose acute foreign policy judgements include urging former President Bush to attack Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein in a letter (which he co-signed) written by The Project for the New American Century and sent to Bush 9 days after the September 11 terrorist attacks?

The Village Voice also gets into the fray with a vacuous review by critic Karina Longworth. Longworth, who in the past was honest enough to admit that she “know[s] very little about journalism,” displays that she knows even less about Latin American politics and Washington’s historical relationship with the region. Longworth was upset that Stone would allow the leaders of these “regimes” to have a voice stating their positions, something seldom seen in the U.S. media (one of Stone’s and the film’s main complaints). She later mocks the idea that the United States might have anything to do with the political and economic underdevelopment of the region. The Village Voice would better serve its readers by leaving Longworth to review movies such as Macgruber, which unlike South of the Border she thoroughly enjoyed.

Tom Gregory, a self-described Democrat and contributor to another “lefty” outlet, The Huffington Post, writes that, “Stone wears the cynicism of a man looking for relevance.” First, who the hell is Tom Gregory? Second, while he goes on to accuse Stone of spoon-feeding viewers propaganda he is the one guilty of spreading propaganda, such as his false assertion that Chávez is “anti-semetic”, a charge based on a bulletin by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles which misquoted Chávez. The media unfortunately perpetuated this lie because reporters and editors couldn’t be bothered with fact-checking information they published, or with amply correcting their mistakes and amending subsequent public misperceptions created after the fact. Gregory, obviously, is no different.

As you can imagine Forbes, The Washington Times, and The New York Post are among other outlets that joined the circus of attacks and misinformation. But The New York Times seems to have taken particular umbrage to Stone’s new film, maybe for being featured in it for its editorial celebrating the short-lived military coup against Chávez in 2002. Larry Rohter and his review “Oliver Stone’s Latin America” attempts to fact check Stone (a practice the newspaper unfortuantely didn’t employ during the Bush Administration’s march to war in Iraq) and set the reader, and potential viewer straight.

One “questionable assertion” Rohter takes issue with is “Stone’s contention that human rights, a concern in Latin America since the Jimmy Carter era, is ‘a new buzz phrase,’ used mainly to clobber Mr. Chávez.” But human rights is in fact a new “buzz phrase” (or imperial alibi) used selectively by Washington and media outlets like The New York Times against countries deemed Washington’s adversaries. Human rights is now dangerously being used as a potential excuse for intervention through doctrines such as the U.N.’s “Responsibility to Protect“. But for Rohter to know this he would actually have to read publications other than The New York Times.

Rohter also decides to draw attention to an ongoing dispute over the responsibility of the deaths of 19 people during the Washington-backed coup in Venezuela in 2002. He pits an anti-Chávez film X-Ray of a Lie against Stone’s assertions which borrow from a film sympathetic to Chávez called The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. But while Rohter focused on this dispute he missed, or deliberately ignored, an opportunity to examine the big picture issue regarding his employer’s coverage of the coup, its lack of coverage of the Bush Administration’s role in it, and its continued hostile coverage of Venezuela’s president. I guess self-criticism and reflection is not in Rohter’s job description, nor a policy in general for journalists at the “newpaper of record”.

Rohter later in his article labels Bolivian President Evo Morales as a “Chávez acolyte”, an insulting and inappropriate label revealing his ideological biases, and then tries to defend Bechtel’s role in an International Monetary Fund (IMF) scheme to privatize Bolivia’s water system, which led to price gouging, and as a result a country-wide uprising which chased the multi-national corporation and its consortium out of the country.

Finally, Rohter lazily cites a review from his colleague at the Times, who called Stone’s film a “provocative, if shallow, exaltation of Latin American socialism,” and Entertainment Weekly’s quip that the film was “rose-colored agitprop.” Conspicuously missing are voices supporting Stone’s documentary and point of view. But that is what Stone’s been saying all along.

Honest criticism of Stone’s film should be welcome. It is certainly debatable whether South of the Border will be a popular and effective “101 introduction to a situation in South America that most Americans and Europeans don’t know about.” I hope it is. I hope that it reaches a broad audience and moves viewers to seek out more information on the history and current events of Latin America. But the reviews aforementioned do little more than expose the ideological biases that dominate the U.S. media and the laziness that afflicts journalists today.

These failures of the media are part of the reason why America is ailing.

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Cyril Mychalejko is an editor at www.UpsideDownWorld.org.