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'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.
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."
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.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of No Rain in the Amazon: How South America's Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2010) and Revolution!: South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008). Visit his website, http://www.nikolaskozloff.com/