No reasonable person would have bet serious money that news editors at The New York Times would be huge fans of Oliver Stone’s new documentary about South America, “South of the Border.” A key point of the film is that mainstream US press coverage of South America in recent years has generally followed State Department priorities more than objective news standards. The New York Times comes in for specific criticism in the film, which notes that the paper editorially backed the short-lived US-backed coup against the democratically-elected government of Venezuela in 2002. (Key evidence on the US role in the coup can be found here. After the coup collapsed, the Times half-apologized for its pro-coup editorial, as also noted in the film.)
But still, accepting that no one likes to be criticized, there are supposed to be rules for newspapers like the Times. In an editorial, they can express any opinion they want. But news articles are supposed to be accurate, and if a reporter has a direct interest or bias in a situation, the paper should assign another reporter or at least disclose the interest or bias.
But on Friday, The New York Times ran an attack on Oliver Stone’s documentary by Larry Rohter, an attack that claimed the film was full of inaccuracies. Not only was The New York Times attack itself inaccurate in its factual claims, as documented by Stone, Mark Weisbrot and Tariq Ali in their response – do they have fact-checkers at the Times ? – but more importantly, the Times failed to acknowledge the bias of Larry Rohter in running the article. Rohter covered Venezuela for the Times during the period of the April 2002 coup, and during the coup, on April 12, 2002, Rohter wrote a piece for the Times claiming that the coup was not a coup, but a popular uprising. That alone should have disqualified Rohter from writing a piece on the film for publication by the Times. At the very least, the paper should have acknowledged Rohter’s previous advocacy for the coup – and its own.
From much past experience, I know that many will respond cynically to yet another attempt to raise the alarm about bias at the Times. “So The New York Times is a stenographer for the State Department. Tell me something new!” But this glosses over the fact that The New York Times’ biased reporting is an ongoing source of major social harm, because the Times continues, whether we like it or not, to be a leader in US media from whom others take cues. What appears in The New York Times appears to many to be holy writ. We swim in a sea of false information that the Times helps propagate, and frequently many – including many who count themselves cynical – aren’t aware of the false things that they believe that can be ultimately traced to a “report” in the Times.
No doubt, many supporters of US policy in South America and opponents of the region’s progressive governments will now cite Rohter’s piece in the Times as “evidence” that the film is “inaccurate,” in an attempt to discredit the film. “See, even the liberal New York Times says the film is inaccurate,” they may say, which would be funny if it weren’t so sad.
Fortunately, anyone can go to the film’s web site and read for themselves the filmmakers’ refutation of The New York Times attack. If you think The New York Times’ public editor ought to investigate whether the Times acted appropriately in running Rohter’s piece, you can tell that to the public editor here.
And Rohter can’t stop you from seeing the film, if it’s showing near you – you can find screenings here.