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NYT's Larry Rohter Responds on His South of the Border Slam

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New York Times reporter Larry Rohter turned in a factually challenged fact-check of Oliver Stone's new film South of the Border. So Stone and the film's co-writers Mark Weisbrot and Tariq Ali wrote a devastating rebuttal. A reader passed along a link to that piece to Rohter, suggesting that he "should be embarrassed" by his review.

Unsurprisingly, Rohter would not seem to be embarrassed at all, judging his reply email, which FAIR has received:

Dear Mr. Fuentes:

Actually, it's Oliver Stone and company who need to heed your advice. I've been scrupulously honest in my reporting and writing, and they are offended and embarrassed at having their many errors and inaccuracies disclosed. Rather than owning up to those mistakes, they've chosen to double down and up the ante. Where they might merely have been mistaken before, they are now lying outright, the letter you link to below being the prime example.

Don't take my word for it. I urge you to go back and look at what Stone and his screenwriters are saying in that letter. As regards the issue of U.S. oil imports from OPEC countries, for example, go ahead and click on the two links that Stone & Weisbrot provide and look at the numbers contained there. You will see that the United States has imported more oil from Saudi Arabia than Venezuela every year since 2000. So no matter how Stone and company want to slice, dice bend or twist it, the assertion they make in the film about U.S. oil imports is simply wrong. The numbers are clear and indisputable.

Same thing goes for the 1998 Venezuela presidential race. The numbers don't lie: Irene Saez got only 3 percent of the vote, compared to 40 percent for Henrique Salas Romer, yet she is Chavez's "main opponent" and he is not? Let's apply that same pretzel logic to some other elections and see what we come up with. Was George Bush's "main opponent" in 2000 Al Gore or Ralph Nader? Was Harry Truman's "main opponent" in 1948 Thomas E. Dewey or the Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond? Was Jimmy Carter's "main opponent" in 1980 Ronald Reagan or John Anderson?

It's also worthwhile using a little bit of simple logic to analyze the issue of the Cochabamba water privatization. Tariq Ali's argument seems to be that there is no substantial difference between a sale and a 40 year lease. Granted that the notion of private ownership may be anathema to someone with his ideological leanings, and therefore his understanding of different property regimens may be flawed. But the outright sale of an asset is not the same as granting a concession to use that asset for a fixed period of time, as anyone who has ever leased a car knows well. The devil is in the details, and Stone and company have chosen to ignore those. I could subject each of their other wild and erroneous claims to the same kind of dissection for you, but I trust you get the picture from the examples I've cited. Thank you for writing.

Talk about doubling down.

Rohter, for some reason, decided that this passing comment in the film deserved to be debunked: "We import more oil from Venezuela than any other OPEC nations." As the film makes clear, that comment was made by an oil industry analyst in a 2002 TV appearance, though Rohter's Times piece oddly cited 2004-10 data to contradict him. Stone and co. cite 1997-2001 as a more relevant time frame; in that period, the United States did in fact buy more oil from Venezuela than from Saudi Arabia (though in 2000-01, Saudi Arabia was the bigger supplier). In his emailed response, Rohter ignores this explanation, and says the links provided by Stone, Weisbrot and Ali don't support their point. It would seem that they do. It's a strange item to seize on, anyway; the filmmakers included the oil analyst to make the point that various business interests--including oil companies--supported the coup against Chavez, which is not at all controversial.

Rohter's complaint about Chavez's 1998 election is similarly tendentious. Irene Saez was considered by many observers to be Chavez's main rival in the presidential campaign. That's what reporter Bart Jones says in the documentary; it's also what the New York Times reported shortly after Chavez's victory (12/9/98):

Until last spring, Irene Saez, a former Miss Universe, had been leading in voter surveys, peaking at 35.7 percent to Mr. Chavez's 20.6 percent. Then the price of oil, which underpins Venezuela's entire economy, fell steeply. "We went from an optimistic country to a pessimistic one," said Luis Vicente Leon, director of the Datanalysis polling agency.

The following month, Miss Saez accepted a lukewarm endorsement from one of the two traditional parties. The backing compromised her claims to being an outsider and her popularity ratings slid into the single digits.

On the debate over Bolivian water rights, the matter seems hardly worth reviewing; it comes down to how one chooses to characterize a deal that would hand a private company 40-year control over a nation's water supply. Apparently in Rohter's mind, calling such a deal "privatization" is evidence that someone has the wrong "ideological leanings" to understand complex financial transactions.

Rohter assures that he "could subject each of their other wild and erroneous claims to the same kind of dissection for you." I think we've seen enough.