Stone's Throw

Controversial director Oliver Stone recently spoke to a New Orleans convention and had a few things to say about the First Amendment, responsibility and media cynicism.


On July 13, director Oliver Stone returned to New Orleans to address the annual convention of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. His topic was the First Amendment, a subject with which he is better acquainted than most.

The 1991 movie JFK sparked a national debate over Stone's handling of the understood facts of the JFK assassination. One critic has said that with the exception of Uncle Tom's Cabin, JFK probably had a greater impact on public opinion than any other work of art in American history. Witness the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, which eventually led to several million pages of previously unavailable material being placed into the National Archives. An official report specifically credited JFK with riling up the public on this issue.

More recently, Stone had to turn his attention back to Louisiana once again, in a very different case, when a couple named Sarah Edmondson and Ben Darras went on a 1995 crime spree that included killing Bill Savage of Hernando, Miss. and shooting Patsy Byers, a Pontchatoula store clerk. Byers' family filed a lawsuit, stating that the pair were set off by their viewings of Stone's movie, Natural Born Killers. This spring a Louisiana state district court judge finally dismissed the lawsuit against Stone and Warner Brothers. That action is being appealed, a process that could take two years.

The following is an excerpt of Stone's remarks.

I could talk to you today about Natural Born Killers, and I could talk to you fairly superficially about the First Amendment. I'm sure we would all agree it is the right thing for America and must be defended and, of course, I would walk out of here blander than my usual self -- but certainly safer and without enduring a lot of criticism. But I think I will tell you what I really think.

The great threat to the First Amendment today, in my opinion, is not the Religious Right or John Ashcroft or liberals like Joe Lieberman, wrong-headed as these men may be. The enemy of the First Amendment is not censorship. It is the appalling cynicism of media empires such as the Washington Post and The New York Times. The alternative press must also take stock of their failures in this important matter.

In the Natural Born Killers case here in Louisiana, over the five years of the case, I began to understand that journalists were writing with the presumption that Hollywood people were seeking to hide behind the First Amendment's free speech clauses, while we were really laughing and making money exploiting the public. I find this outrageously cynical. As in any business -- yours included -- there are always deadbeats, but laws cannot be especially formulated for deadbeats without threatening the wider freedoms of the social contract.

But, still, whether anybody is hiding or not is not the issue because the First Amendment is the First Amendment. It need not be reinterpreted. And it protects a lot of assholes, as it does a lot of opinionated and right and wrong people. And no excuse needs to be given by me or the producers of Natural Born Killers -- or anyone for that matter -- as to why we express ourselves in the way that we do, except, of course, in the most radical fringe cases that in our social context we have labeled hate speech.

Warner Brothers and I spent close to $2 million and close to five years -- three years of which were devoted to the discovery process, in which the plaintiffs were unable to discover anything. Private investigations were paid for; huge amounts of paper were exchanged; depositions were taken, my own included. A great, great deal of time and energy was taken from many lives to defend ourselves as producers of a film against this charge of setting out to incite murder through film.

When novelist John Grisham attacked the film -- and me -- for basically inciting the murder of his friend in Mississippi, saying something to the effect that a hard lawsuit against the likes of Oliver Stone would be a good, cold slap in the laughing, haughty face of Hollywood, a Vanity Fair writer of some esteem did a glossy follow-up piece with a conclusion (probably influenced by his editors) that it was for the best to split the decision. Preferring generally to come down in the mediocre middle of the muddle, this high-paid seer for the New York intelligentsia also went after the director O. Stone for not admitting some sense of "responsibility" over these murders. What responsibility, I wondered then and now.

Once you take responsibility for one defective person's acting out his or her inner psychoses inspired by your movie or Beethoven's Fifth Symphony or Picasso's Guernica or I Walked With A Zombie or one of the Bible's myriad violent stories, how could you a) live with yourself as a human being or b) ever, ever create another work of edgy, fictional drama again? You can't, and that's the point. Responsibility is not divisible. You either are, or you're not.

Let me say, for Natural Born Killers, I take full responsibility for its vision and no responsibility for the way that vision is perceived by a sliver of eccentric people. In this age of spread the responsibility, spread the guilt, we are apparently all guilty. So says the establishment media, influenced I have no doubt by the centuries-old Anglo-Saxon mentality and the general nastiness of the British press that we have so emulated, as we have their theater and movies. And the press consistently, as a result of this, in widening gyres of calumny, has been rabid in promoting the concept that we all -- every single one of us -- is out for ourselves: the quick buck, the easy spin, fame, wealth, et cetera, et cetera. All the human motives and aspirations we may have as individuals have been trashed repeatedly and reduced by tabloid psychology to their basest instinct. I see in the press so little benefit of the doubt on behalf of the goodness of human beings or capacity for love. Why? Because I suspect, time and again, goodness does not news make.

Overall, calumny, gossip, rumor, libel and above all that vague accusation of collective guilt -- which we often cite as "lack of responsibility" -- is a terrible and very effective way to destroy the social contract and, in so doing, the core of our civilization. Democracy, to truly work, has to be participatory and that participation requires the trust of many diverse groups to debate openly and without malice. But how can that be done when any honest sentiment is almost immediately attacked as a character defect and is deemed guilty? What man in what country today can speak freely any more? Advanced civilization has made us all hypocrites who lie constantly to promote our better face to the public that now judges everything and everybody through the distorted looking glass of a media enamored of the idea that we are all motivated toward badness.

I wonder, often perhaps as you do, how can any one single man or woman go about the business of setting forth a new idea or a new way of doing things in our political or cultural process? How can a man or woman ever be president today with bold ideas and initiatives?

The truth to the whole thing is that, in the Natural Born Killers case, there was never really an issue that was explained to the public. I saw two newspaper articles that explained it in any kind of depth, so that people could have a sense of meaning, of what the risks were. One of these was in something called the Los Angeles Daily Journal, in which it says: "The Louisiana state court for the second time granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants. The attorneys for plaintiffs once again seeking satisfaction and saying 'The law must evolve' to deal with the consequences of this movie violence have appealed and said they will continue to do so as far as the United States Supreme Court."

To quote a judge in the earlier appeal, "Where the intentional infliction of suffering and agony has the goal of emulation ... those who for profit or other motive intentionally assist and encourage crime and then shamelessly seek refuge in the sanctuary of the First Amendment ..." et cetera. I would say to you, ladies and gentlemen, this is a judge who has no idea what the First Amendment is, and he's been reading and being influenced too much by what he hears in our modern cynical angry media.

The article concludes: "A company the size of Time Warner may have the resources to defend such claims through trial and appeal if necessary or even to absorb a multi-million dollar judgment. Smaller film companies cannot afford such financial risks. Large company or small, the threat of this type of lawsuit is likely to have a profound impact on the creative judgments of those who create entertainment content." How true.

In all the years, I never read that, except in this little newspaper. How can the public even know what's going on and the true meaning of the event unless some reasonable explanations are asked for and pursued? It makes me wonder, with so little mainstream coverage, what was the alternative press doing? This was an ideal issue for their attention, ideal, and they were conspicuously -- conspicuously -- absent.

When I look back at the '60s and '70s, the newspapers that I read -- the Village Voice and the other alternative newsweeklies -- seemed to be filled with idealism. They seemed to take on big issues, not just local issues, which are important, but also federal issues: the FBI, Hoover, the Supreme Court, assassination, conspiracy. I mean, they were playing hard ball. But now it all seems to have disappeared. When I pick up papers, there's an occasional story, but it seems to have descended into petty quarrels of factions within factions of each paper, arguing about the head of a pin again sort of like the Christian Synod in the early part of the first millennium.

Distraction and in-fighting has set in, and the greater picture of true corruption has been lost. What do you see now in your papers but endless, didactic, idiosyncratic movie reviews and reviewers venting their spleens and pet peeves, wholly subjective in nature. It's nonsense without much meaning. It's cheap for you guys to write and easy to publish. But what is being abdicated is an essential role that the alternative media must play in our country and which is the reason, by the way, I came here today for no profit and out of my time to plead with you to return to your roots and make a difference.

As stated in the article I read to you from the small paper, this wholly frivolous suit that was brought against Natural Born Killers went through three courts with the United States Supreme Court declining to review it. That process would have bankrupted any smaller film company. You can be sure a small company with limited financial resources will deeply hesitate before entering into the financing of any bold material, especially of violent or sexual content. It should be clear that the threat of legal action is sufficient, that it has a chilling effect on free expression in the same way that McCarthyism came to be, wherein no law was passed but words, like lynch mobs, could destroy lives. With this chilling effect comes a censorship that the First Amendment explicitly forbids.

Let's not kid ourselves: in the movie business, magazine business, newspaper business, we all know the threats that face us up the line if we push too hard against the conservative grain. It is no accident that Senators Lieberman and McCain and various others have been very effective in exploiting Hollywood's cowardice. When huge amounts of money are at stake, most people are cowards. The very threat of legislation against a fragile, idea-based marketing in the name of protecting our children -- which I find to be the most common and the most hypocritical excuse the political establishment uses -- results not in legislation, but in every filmmaking financial entity backing away more and more from R-rated material.

And given the nature of capitalism, adult material will be consigned to a lower-attending audience, which in turn results in fewer of these films being made. Thus it is through economic reasons, not legislative ones, that we dumb down a society. That is another erosion, whether you agree with it or not, of the First Amendment.

What if a similar threat, by the way, had existed against JFK, the movie? Do you really think Warner Brothers would have made the film? I guarantee you, if they knew what was coming, which none of us did in 1991, the financing entity would have run for the hills, and the film would never, never have been made. But an equally terrible thing happened to JFK and I believe it reinforces the point I made at the beginning of my comments. The hidden enemy of free speech is not censorship, per se, because we were allowed to make the film -- no, we made the film, we were not allowed -- but it was the cynicism of the press that became its greatest enemy, and not just the cynicism, the laziness.

Ten years later, clippings are sent to me every week in which the film and I are labeled irresponsible, an irresponsible lie, the word "irresponsible" again hoisted on the public. To this day, it truly confounds me as a relatively logical person that intelligent people from the mainstream media East Coast establishment, people who are able to live with multi-tasking minds, continue without even a hint of shame not to read a single book questioning the Warren Commission results. And these people maintain, without knowing anything, the three-bullet Oswald theory, I guess the way certain people behaved in the Renaissance when they heard Galileo's theory but felt more comfortable with the idea that the world was flat. Who is irresponsible? Is it me? Or is it them for not doing any homework?

The Washington Post came out, six months before the release of the film, having illegally obtained an early version of the screenplay, which was not in fact the final shooting script, and lambasted that script in a large headlining Sunday story in its culture section, which was a violation of our copyright, but more importantly -- in revealing story points (most of them inaccurately) -- clearly diminishing the value of the story that we were making with private funds. We fought back as hard as we could, and I finally got his highness Ben Bradlee on the phone and insisted on equal time. After much finagling, I was able to get a piece in his paper, which came out two weeks later, but was in turn at the same time responded to at length by the same writer who had originated the first piece. I call it -- and I see it often -- "the two-for-one technique."

The Post story was picked up by other outlets, and thus the film was notorious long before its release. When it was released there was another series of devastating articles -- 20 to 25 pieces in the Times alone, by the end of day -- libeling me or, if you prefer, maligning me as a liar, fraud, cynic, conspiracy nut, anti-American and whatever else you want to throw into the fruit punch. (One of the highlights of my political life was when Nixon came out in 1995 the Times desperately ran to Charles Colson -- that great American just out of prison now a born-again Christian -- who lambasted me in an editorial saying I was un-American. But what do you want from a newspaper that considers Maureen Dowd an intellect?)

The truth of the matter was that I stepped on a nexus of nerves that I had not foreseen, and one of those nerves was the inviolability of the free press as an organ of information for our culture. They were asleep on November 22, and they had been asleep for about 30 years before it, too. And they never asked any serious questions about that murder or about the shoddiest of investigations that followed and became the uncritical basis of the Warren Report.

It was my first major run-in with the press in this country. I was shocked by the lack of logic in addressing this issue. I was hurt. I was unprepared. I never saw anything specific; I had the feeling that no one had read anything. And I felt, when it was all over after a year of being battered on TV shows, that the American way of thinking is something reminiscent of an expression we had in Vietnam as soldiers, which is "Shoot the motherf--ker first, then ask the question."

We should go into, briefly, the lack of coverage given the Assassination Review Board, which closed shop in 1998. Quite a few things came out that bothered many people, but they were either ignored or not printed or on the last pages of the newspapers. The people who found these things are private people; they did it for no profit and out of the public interest. It's the 25 people who worked on the original assassination material, who really gave the American public the information the government did not. And it was that information that was crucial to the making of our movie.

For example, the Assassination Review Board found the papers of the lawyer for the Warren Commission, the top lawyer. In these papers were drawings of the bullet wounds on Kennedy. Let me read to you because this is really shocking. It's a story I saw on the very back sections of most papers earlier in 2000. And it says "Ford Editing Altered JFK Panel Report."

"Thirty-three years ago, Gerald Ford took pen in hand and changed ever so slightly the Warren Commission's key sentence on the place where a bullet entered John F. Kennedy's body when he was killed in Dallas. The effect of Ford's change was to strengthen the commission's conclusion that a single bullet passed through Kennedy and severely wounded John Connally."

This is the amount of investigation that went on: they went to Ford. "A small change," said Ford, on Wednesday when it came to light. "One intended to clarify meaning, not alter history."

And then Ford has the gall to say, "My changes had nothing to do with a conspiracy theory; my changes were only an attempt to be more precise." And the journalist bought it. He doesn't go on with it. Next question, please. What's the next question? What are you clarifying?

When one of these cretins wants to get off the hook, the first thing they go after is the "conspiracy theory." It's an easy target, and it's a great scapegoat, and people in the media use it again and again. They ridicule these people. Well, you know, some of them are crazy; some of them are accurate. You've got to look at everything in shades of grey.

Every time the Parkland Hospital doctors say anything or the autopsy says anything, the American Medical Institution -- like every big American institution -- squelches it with some insane article written by some Gerald Posner-type, who can bury anything, smother anything, and is a good hitman, liquidator.

Case Closed, his book -- what a smug title -- received one of the most amazing receptions in the history of bookdom. I never saw such reviews in unity around a book as I did Posner's. It was treated with the authority of Einstein's relativity theory. And thousands of loving reviews were followed by the sheep who hate that lonely process of thinking for yourself. They lined up to bleat as they jumped over the cliff.

Posner selectively dismisses any incident he deems unworthy of research -- among them the very apparent connection between David Ferrie and Lee Harvey Oswald here in New Orleans -- and, in typical sort of fashion of debate, misapplies or misinterprets every one of his opponent's points, rendering them as straw men for his bonfire of old, stale ideas.

To touch on the sad tragic matter of Jim Garrison and his fate in this community, it was one of the most outrageous libels of modern times. His work was worthy. Mistakes were made. But no one has ever focused on the good things that were accomplished in the trial, such as the unveiling of the Zapruder film, his analysis of the Dealey Plaza -- he deconstructed it beautifully. Just trying to prove, in this country, the covert operations of this government and bring it to justice was difficult, we thought, in the '60s, but now, with what happened in the Oliver North trial and John Poindexter trial -- it just seems impossible today to even consider a covert operation suit against the government. All those characters are still running around making millions of dollars. The arms industry, Rockwell, General Dynamics, there's a lot going on, but that's another story. I'm going to make another movie about that ... if I live.

But the point is that Garrison has been written well about and no one ever covers the books. I could point to two books that are really good that tell you a lot about Jim Garrison that people don't know. William Davis -- he's neither left nor right, he's no ideologue, he just wanted to get the facts -- wrote an interesting book about Jim Garrison. Never saw a review of this book anywhere close to the mainstream press and very rarely in the alternative press. Jim DiEugenio, the scholar on Garrison, knew him, knows a lot about the case wrote a book, very interesting again. Ignored.

In the same vein, John Newman, who worked with us as a technical consultant, wrote two books -- Oswald and the CIA, his last one; JFK and Vietnam, his first one. Ignored. Ray and Mary La Fontaine, two hard working journalists out of Houston, found out by just sludge work that Oswald was in a cell the night of his arrest with two people. Very interesting story, what Oswald told these people that night. Never saw the book on any mainstream review. Joan Mellon has a very good book coming out on Garrison, but I doubt we'll see or hear much of that.

So where were your reviews of those books? You still have a chance to redeem yourselves. Please, somebody, pay attention; write something.

Where is the alternative press when we need it? We need it now more than ever, to fight the liars and the hypocrites, not in the streets as in the '60s but in the boardrooms of our culture where ideas are power and money and content are controlled.

They all laughed, the media, in 1984 when Time magazine ran a smug cover saying "Where is George Orwell Now?" Their prescience then was as unerring as their confidence 20 years earlier in the Vietnam War. All the more reason we, the public, need you editors, writers, men and women of the mind. Fight, not always for the truth because that we sometimes often do not know, but for our right to look for the truth.


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