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When A Reporter Doesn't Know When to Quit

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Written by Mark Weisbrot   
Friday, 02 July 2010 13:03

Larry Rohter, whose attempt to discredit our documentary “South of the Border” took up most of the front page of the New York Times Arts section last Saturday, is not backing down. We responded by showing that every one of his alleged “questions of accuracy” was actually a mistake on his part. But facts apparently do not mean much to this guy. In a letter posted June 29, he writes that the filmmakers:

“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.”

He is digging himself a deeper hole. Let’s look at the claims he is stubbornly defending, just so there is no ambiguity here about who is completely wrong, and being dishonest in this debate.

(1)    In his letter, Rohter writes:

“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.”

They sure are. Let’s look at the numbers from these two links:

rohter_response0722010

First, Rohter’s claim that “the United States has imported more oil from Saudi Arabia than Venezuela every year since 2000” is false. In 2009 – that’s last year, Larry – we imported more oil from Venezuela than Saudi Arabia. Should I accuse Rohter of “outright lying?”  No, I will assume that he just read the numbers wrong off the two tables.

Second, the main point that we made originally still stands. It is completely dishonest (or stupid, take your pick) to try to impugn a statement made in April of 2002, with data from 2004-2010. That is what Rohter did.

Now, looking again at the numbers, we can see why the oil analyst who appears in a TV clip in the film would say that the United States imports “more oil from Venezuela than any other OPEC nation.” If we look at 1997-2001, the relevant years for when Flynn is speaking (and the date is clear in the film), we can see that the United States imported more oil from Venezuela than from Saudi Arabia.

Since the numbers fluctuate from year to year, and 2000 and 2001 were years where oil production was hurt by the fight between the managers of PDVSA (the state-owned oil company) and the Chávez government, it makes sense for Flynn to look at a longer period than just the prior one or two years. That is what almost anyone who deals with these numbers would do.

Third, I have to apologize for wasting so much of the reader’s time on this. It really has nothing to do with the film. Rohter is complaining about a five-second sound bite from an oil analyst on U.S. broadcast TV, in a clip that is focused on a different point. I mean, what if this particular analyst, and Saudi Arabia actually did export a bit more oil than Venezuela did to the U.S.? He is just an oil analyst on TV, he is not the narrator of our film, nor does the film use this particular sound bite to make any point. This shows how far Rohter had to reach in order to find a “question of accuracy,” and how desperate he is to find a way to discredit the film.

In his most recent letter Rohter also defends his complaint about the film’s description of the 1998 Venezuelan presidential race. His allegations center on this 20-second clip of Bart Jones, who describes the race as follows in the film:

Bart Jones: “By 1997, Chávez decides to run for president. His main opponent is a 6′1” blonde former Miss Universe. The contest becomes known as the beauty and the beast. The former Miss Universe is mouthing sugary platitudes while Chávez is preaching revolution, and that is what the people wanted to hear.”

In his most recent letter Rohter writes:

“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 Chávez’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?”

OK, let’s do that. Was Nader ahead of either Bush or Gore in the polls from April 1999 to June of 2000? Was he still Bush’s main opponent as late as August of 2000? I like Nader, but he never polled anywhere near Gore or Bush in that race. To pretend that Saez was a marginal candidate because of the final result, as Rohter did in his original article, is deceptive. But Rohter is not attempting to criticize the film, he is trying to smear it.

Unlike Rohter, Bart Jones actually covered the Venezuelan presidential race, for the Associated Press. So perhaps Rohter doesn’t know much about it from just looking at the final vote tally (so I won’t accuse him of “outright lying.”)

Note first of all that Bart Jones begins with, “By 1997, Chávez decides to run for president. His main opponent is . . ..”

So he is not even talking about the entire presidential race. At that time, Saez was the front-runner; and as it turns out, Saez was Chávez’s main opponent for the vast majority of the race.

The election occurred on December 6, 1998.  As early as May of 1996 the New York Times refers to Sáez as “the one most often cited as a possible next President.”[1]  By April of 1997, when Hugo Chávez began speaking about running for president, Sáez was comfortably atop the opinion polls.[2]  The Washington Post ran a story in July 1997 referring to Sáez as “Venezuela’s leading presidential candidate”.[3]  In August of the same year, Sáez was polling near 40 percent [4], with no other contender in sight.

Throughout the next year of presidential campaigning, media coverage focused almost exclusively on the battle between Hugo Chávez and Irene Sáez.

A Nexis search of “US Newspapers and Wire Services” from April 1997 through the end of August 1998 reveals that there were 27 news reports discussing the race between Chávez and Sáez, only 5 of which even mention Salas Romer. (This changed in the last three months of the race.)  Prior to the last three months, no reports mention Salas Romer without also mentioning Sáez. Numerous other articles discuss Sáez as a leading presidential candidate without mentioning either Chávez or Romer. This clearly shows that for the vast majority of the presidential campaign the race was indeed between Sáez and Chávez.

Sáez maintained the lead in pre-election polls until early 1998 when Chávez moved into first place. Following Chávez’ rapid rise, Sáez was still polling second at the end of June 1998.  Saez lost ground in the polls through the fall of 1998, and in a final blow to her candidacy, just days before the elections, Accion Democratica and COPEI, the two traditional political parties in Venezuela at the time, decided to back Salas Romer. COPEI had backed Sáez while AD had backed another candidate, Luis Alfaro.

After looking at the duration of the presidential election through 1997 and 1998, one can clearly see that for the majority of the campaign the battle was actually between Chávez and Sáez. A quick search of Nexis shows that the Associated Press[5], Chicago Tribune[6] and Washington Times[7] all used “beauty” versus “beast” as a frame for election coverage. Here is the first line in the Chicago Tribune’s report on August 9, 1998 just four months before the vote:

“In this nation that loves a populist, December’s presidential race offers a clear choice: beauty or the beast.”

Now look at the clip from Bart Jones again that Rohter attacks, beginning with the words, “By 1997, Chávez decides to run for President. His main opponent is a 6′1” blonde former Miss Universe.” Is this not what happened? Was his main opponent at that time not Irene Saez? And as the clip indicates, Chávez pushed her out of the race because his “preaching revolution” had a broader appeal. It is only after she falls that Salas Romer moves into second place.

Is this clip inaccurate? Is it “outright lying?” Or is Larry Rohter just blowing a lot of smoke here in his desperate attempt to discredit a film that he doesn’t like for political reasons?

Rohter’s last defense of his article is barely worth mentioning. He sticks to his claim that it is inaccurate to describe “granting a 40-year management concession” over the municipal water supply as “selling the water supply.” Rohter writes in his letter: “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.” This is pretty weak. Any privatization deal between a foreign company and a government can be reversed, as the nationalizations of recent years in Bolivia have shown. A 40-year lease is as secure as ownership in this circumstance.

In our response to his original smear article, we refuted every one of Rohter’s points about the film’s “factual accuracy.” Clearly he could use a fact checker. In any case, it’s good that he’s no longer reporting on South America, but has switched to the Arts section, where he can focus on fiction. That is certainly safer territory for someone who likes to play fast and loose with the facts.

Rohter ends his letter with “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.”

Indeed we do. Bring it on.

_______________________________________

1. Schemo, Diana Jean. “Caracas Journal; After a Beauty Crown, Now the Jewel of City Hall.” The New York Times, May 7, 1996. Accessed via Nexis, June 29, 2010.
2. Jones, Bart. “Failed 1992 Coup Leader Will Run for President.” Associated Press, April 2, 1997. Accessed via Nexis, June 29, 2010.
3. Boustany, Nora. “Venezuelan Touts Beauty of Her People.” The Washington Post, July 18, 1997. Accessed via Nexis June 29, 2010.
4. McCullogh, Ed. “Ms. Universe Mulls Presidential Run.” Associated Press, August 25, 1997. Accessed via Nexis, June 29, 2010.
5. Gutkin, Steven. “Yale-trained economist mounts serious bid for Venezuelan presidency.” Associated Press, September 2, 1998. Accessed via Nexis, June 29, 2010.
6. Goering, Laurie. “Venezuelan Voters See Beauty, Beast as Popular Choices.” Chicago Tribune, August 9, 1998. Accessed via Nexis, June 29, 2010.
7. Paulin, David. “Some Venezuelans find little appeal in top contenders; Beauty vs. Beast; ‘malaria’ vs. ‘cholera’.” Washington Times, April 28, 1998.

Comments (3)Add Comment
LAWSUIT AGAINST NEW YORK TIMES
written by Leo Marquez, July 05, 2010 1:28
There was a time when journalists,most journalists had more respect and professional integrity to not print outright lies and half truths. It would seem to me that there would be some way that libel and slander would apply in a civil suit and could be applicable in this case. By suing the New York Times (by the way I thought the venerable Times was above this type of News Corp.B.S.) you would be doing at least 3 things: 1.) You would be making the Times "journalistcaly resposible" for printing the truth 2.) you would be bringing to light so the public could see the "crappy" journalism that is masquerading as truth because I still think that the public doesn't like to be lied to 3.) the resulting publicity,and a suit against the N.Y. Times could go a long way in exposing in the press, how Republican neo-con crap is pedaled to the American Public and it would bring publicity to the Oliver Stone documentary. The corporate press is having a field day feeding American's with a steady diet of lies and half truths. Perhaps it could raise the jornalistic standard in America which is at an all time low.
...
written by PeonInChief, July 05, 2010 11:41
Larry Rohter has been an apologist for the CIA for a very long time. So many years ago that I don't want to admit that I was an adult then, I wrote a piece on one of his Cuba articles, pointing out that not only were his facts wrong, but that his editor hadn't bothered to point out internal inconsistencies in his article.
...
written by MarkJ, July 05, 2010 7:41
The dishonest spin of the press is so rampant these days that an "advertisement" or "op-ed" disclaimer should be labeled on all articles that fail to meet at least some minimum level of honest journalism.

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