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Life Imitates Art

It’s nice when you make a documentary about how the major media outlets misrepresent reality, and the media response to the film proves your point. In fact, the media’s response to Oliver Stone’s “South of the Border,” which I wrote with Tariq Ali, really completes a number of the film’s arguments.

The first has to do with the sloppiness and lack of knowledge that characterizes the debate over U.S.-Latin American relations, problems to which the major media regularly contributes. A number of reviews had trouble getting the presidents and countries straight. Perhaps the most poignant example was in the Washington Post, which ran a picture of Sacha Llorenti, Bolivia’s Minister of Government, identifying him as “Evo Morales.” Llorenti is unknown in the United States, but appears in the film translating for President Morales. Someone at the Post must have seen them both in the film, and figured that the whiter guy speaking English must be the President.

Larry Rohter’s frontal assault on the film took up most of the front page of the New York Times’ Arts section, with a big sub-headline that read “Questions of Accuracy Arise.” However, he failed to find any factual errors in the film – despite some rather desperate attempts. In one such foray he used data on oil imports from 2004-2010 to try to refute an oil industry analyst who appears in a TV clip in the film, in April 2002. The whole 5-second sound bite had no relevance to the film in any case, but Rohter still got it wrong.

The errors in the reviews are far too numerous to list here. (You can vote for your favorite mistake here.) Many reviewers also reinforced the film’s critique of the media by viewing the whole story in ideological terms, and missing most or all of substantive points in the film. For example, the film provides five pieces of evidence of Washington’s involvement in the 2002 coup that overthrew Venezuela’s elected president, Hugo Chávez. These include such items as a U.S. State Department document acknowledging “that NED [the National Endowment for Democracy], Department of Defense (DOD), and other U.S. assistance programs provided training, institution building, and other support to individuals and organizations understood to be actively involved in the brief ouster of the Chavez government.”

This, together with other documentary evidence in the film – some of which has never made it into the major media — makes a compelling case that Washington was involved in the coup. This conclusion is also backed up by the Washington Post’s Scott Wilson, who was foreign editor at the time that we interviewed him, and who reported from Caracas during the coup.

Eduardo Porter, of the New York Times’ editorial board, also appears in the film and refers to the Bush Administration’s support for the coup: “[T]his particular incident was the worst possible decision the United States could have taken. It not only locked in eternal enmity from the Chávez administration but it made it very difficult for anybody else in Latin America to like the United States.”

Yet we have had thousands of articles and broadcast reports about relations between the U.S. and Venezuela in the past eight years, and almost nothing on the actual U.S. role in the coup. At most it is mentioned as an “allegation” by none other than Hugo Chávez – a demonized source – or brushed off as some kind of “tacit support.” Most of the journalists who reviewed “South of the Border” also seem to see this issue and the evidence presented as irrelevant.

Of the reviews that did notice the film’s criticism of the media, the problem was seen as Fox or other television news. But the film emphasizes that it is all of the major media – not just Fox or even the TV news – that has given Americans such a distorted impression of the historic changes that have taken place over the last decade in Latin America. It was the New York Times editorial board that openly endorsed the overthrow of a democratically elected government during the 2002 coup – a major point in the film. This also went unnoticed, despite the fact that it is something that the United States’ most prominent newspaper had not done in probably 30 or 40 years.

Not surprisingly, the film attracted a lot of the same hostility from the media that characterizes reporting on the same subject matter (although there were also favorable reviews). The L.A. Times’ review of the film, which contained several major mistakes, criticized it for not having enough substance. But it seems that the substance of the film was too much for most of the media to handle.

MARK WEISBROT is an economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He is co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: the Phony Crisis.

This article was originally published in The Guardian.

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Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. and president of Just Foreign Policy. He is also the author of  Failed: What the “Experts” Got Wrong About the Global Economy (Oxford University Press, 2015).

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