For Immediate Release
Dan Beeton, 202-239-1460
New York Times Reporter Errs in Attack on Film, "South of the Border"
Director Oliver Stone and Writers Mark Weisbrot and Tariq Ali Respond
WASHINGTON - As is well-known to those who follow the work of the Center for
Economic and Policy Research, CEPR has the highest reputation for
accuracy and is extremely careful with details when it comes to numbers
and facts. So we were surprised when a prominently featured, 1665-word
article in the New York Times claimed that there were "questions
of accuracy" with regard the documentary film, "South of the Border." The Oliver Stone film was
written by CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot and Tariq Ali.
It turns out that all of the mistakes in
this article belong to the author, New York Times reporter Larry
Rohter -- and none to the film. This is shown in the following letter,
sent to the New York Times from Oliver Stone, Mark Weisbrot, and
"South of the Border" began a nationwide
theatrical run on June 25 in New York City (Angelika Film
Center) earning the weekend's top per-screen average of $21,000 beating
out last week's per-screen champ, Fox Searchlight's "Cyrus," on opening
weekend. The film widens on July 2 in Los Angeles (Laemmle's
Monica 4-Plex and Laemmle's Sunset 5), Pasadena (Laemmle's
Playhouse 7), Santa Ana (Regency South Coast Village) and Washington,
D.C. (AMC Loews Shirlington 7), July 9 in Chicago (Showplace
ICON Roosevelt Collection), July 16 in San Francisco (Sundance
Kabuki Cinema), Berkeley (Rialto Cinemas Elmwood) and Palm
Springs (Cinemas Palm D'Or), July 23 in Phoenix (Harkins
Valley Art) Dallas (AMC Grand 24) and Houston (AMC Studio
30), July 30 in Minneapolis (Showplace ICON at The West End) and
Seattle (Regal Meridian 16) with more to be listed at http://southoftheborderdoc.
Distributed by Cinema Libre Studio.
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
and Saudi Arabia http://www.eia.gov/dnav/pet/
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/
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
" 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.
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
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"
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
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.
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.
The Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) was established in 1999 to promote democratic debate on the most important economic and social issues that affect people's lives. In order for citizens to effectively exercise their voices in a democracy, they should be informed about the problems and choices that they face. CEPR is committed to presenting issues in an accurate and understandable manner, so that the public is better prepared to choose among the various policy options.