Look Out: The Gloves are Off and the New York Times is Determined to Destroy Oliver Stone

A critical look at the New York Times treatment of Stone's film South of the Border and the in-built ideological bias of the Times' coverage of Latin Amerian politics.

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 leaders such 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, mistatements 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 (Ed Note: They already did!).

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 long-time editor of Venezuela Analysis, 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 US 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 led 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.