Chavez and headlines

by Pascual Serrano, Público

[this is a rough translation from the Spanish original]

In Spain, information about Venezuela always arrives with an unusual political slant. Looking at the way it presents what is going on shows that if it were a nation other than the one governed Hugo Chávez, the bias would be different. Events that appear uncontroversial elsewhere are presented as exceptional when dealing with Venezuela.

A few days ago, reports announced a Venezuelan ban on Coca-Cola Zero soda, and while mentioning a Venezuelan minister's statement that the withdrawal from sale is due to the presence of a specific chemical compound, the press linked the story to company labor disputes company and Coca Cola's poor relations with the Venezuelan government. One story was titled: "Coca-Cola gives way to confrontation with Chavez and withdraws drink." The paper did not explain that the sweetener used in the Latin American version of this drink contains a chemical formula which is already banned in the U.S., Canada and many other countries because it did not pass safety tests for consumption. Venezuela has merely applied the same standards of food safety used by U.S. authorities.

A month ago it was news that the Venezuelan State bought out the Banco de Venezuela, owned by Santander, after reaching an agreement with shareholders. The headlines personalized the transaction by asserting that the buyer was Hugo Chávez: "Chavez becomes the first banker in Venezuela" and "Santander gives Chavez the Bank of Venezuela for 755 million." Thus the government decision to negotiate the purchase of a bank was cast as a personal initiative of the president, subtly suggesting that an individual with a lust for power, not a state, bought the bank. What would we think of an opposite headline, for example "Botin pockets 755 million from all Venezuelans?" When the United States acquired stakes in many of its banks earlier this year, there were no headlines saying that Bush or Obama bought them.

The personalization of Chavez regarding Venezuelan state decisions is an obsession for the mainstream press, who always try to tie the president's name to things. When the Venezuelan tax authorities fined the company that had organized an exhibition utilizing plasticized corpses and human organs for customs mistakes, the story was entitled "Hugo Chávez prohibits the exhibition 'Bodies Revealed'". A week later the situation was repeated in France, but the headline was "The Ministry of Justice prohibits the exposure of 'Our Body' corpses." What in this second case was presented as a decision of judicial authorities, in the first, although it was also an order of agency staff, was announced as a presidential ban.

And if anyone thought that the coverage could not reach the absurd, let's see how it reported a year ago a decision of the Venezuelan National Telecommunications Council, which determined that a private television schedule should pull the children's cartoon series The Simpsons. It is known that the film on the same family, which screened in cinemas, has been rated for over 13 years in all countries. But that decision provoked headlines such as "Chávez criticized The Simpsons," "Hugo Chávez even attacks cartoons" or "Chávez strangles The Simpsons." A month later, the Catalunya Audiovisual Council took a similar decision on the program schedule of professional wrestling on the ground that was not recommended for children and, as is becoming the norm, the news was more than local. What would we think if someone had written "Montilla chokes wrestling?"

Information on Venezuela has an overwhelming presence in the Spanish media. Andres Izarra, former minister of communications of that country, produced a study which showed that over a period of two months, the leading Spanish newspaper published 142 articles about Venezuela, an average of 2.4 a day. Of course, all with a clear negative trend and against the Venezuelan government. This role is designed to create the image of a country in crisis and continued upheaval, though there is not anything unusual happening. In contrast, other national leaders have no presence in the media, in order not to harrass them and allow them to exercise without discomfort their neoliberal policies. We have seen how the name of the president of Mexico is barely mentioned in the information about the swine flu crisis in that country.

Eleven years ago, if we had asked the Spanish to identify the president of Venezuela, very few would have known how to respond. Today no one would know. The annual barometer of the Real Instituto Elcano, which measures the Spanish peoples' knowledge of international policy, revealed in 2007 that while 45% of respondents answered "don't know /no answer" to a question concerning the Lisbon Treaty and how Spain voted in the referendum on the European constitution, 90% of them had a clear opinion about the president of Venezuela. That showed that the media had managed to consolidate its agenda through a certain image of Hugo Chávez, but pay less attention to the European constitution. Who knows, thanks to the role performed by the press, the Spanish would have been more likely to vote in any of the many recent Venezuelan elections than they have done this month in Europe.

Pascual Serrano is a journalist. His latest book is "Disinformation. How the media hides the world."

article originally published at Público.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey