The Price of dumbing down Venezuela

By Olivia Burlingame Goumbri, ZNet

All is fair in love and war. No statement ever rang truer in describing the American media. From politicians to celebrities, and even on down to your average Joe; when the political pundits make their mind up about you, all bets are off. And as Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez can attest, the American media can be cruel and downright vindictive.

Today, our national popular imagination is shaped by media outlets that are largely owned by a tiny group of corporations with annual revenues ranging between 10 and 40 billion dollars. In one of the most highly regarded scholarly works on media ownership, The New Media Monopoly, Ben Bagdikian documents that almost 99% of the media industry is controlled by just five corporations: Time Warner, Disney, Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, Bertelsmann of Germany, and Viacom (formerly CBS). When Bagdikian first started keeping track in 1983, the list was ten times longer. With such a rapid acceleration of media consolidation over the last few decades, the pressures to serve the profit motive have increased at an ever-expanding pace, while diverse political perspectives have dwindled. Former New York Times Chief of Staff John Swinton candidly admitted this when he said, "We are the tools and vassals for rich men behind the scenes. We are intellectual prostitutes. The business of the Journalist is to destroy truth; to lie outright; to pervert; to vilify."

Venezuela serves as an excellent case in point. Though democratically elected, Venezuela's larger than life head of state continues to be portrayed in the US media as a "left-wing dictator" and "autocratic strongman." Over the last two months, I have watched with sad amazement as the largest circulating and most revered newspapers in America artfully evade accurate reporting on arguably the two most newsworthy events in recent Venezuelan history, all in the hopes of safeguarding Chavez's "bad boy" image. This does an enormous disservice to us all. And despite our own President's notions to the contrary, it is still possible to learn from other nations.

As last year came to a close Venezuelan voters rejected a series of constitutional reforms proposed by Chávez. This marked the first electoral loss for the South American leader since he was elected by an overwhelming majority in 1998. In the run-up to the referendum, however, most American newspapers were cynical that a democratic election could be carried out. Empty rumors spread by Chávez's political opponents were repeated, alleging that the National Electoral Council was corrupt and biased. Influential newspapers issued articles characterizing the democratically elected leader as a "strongman" hoping to consolidate power through the passage of some 69 constitutional updates. Polls were cited, opposition leaders were quoted, and the general tone was set: the reforms were inherently undemocratic and would serve only to centralize state power.

Soon after, most of those same news dailies issued editorials expanding upon their already existing bias. Editorials appearing in the Houston Chronicle and Chicago Tribune wrongly stated that Venezuelans would lack due process during states of national emergency, a provision not included in the reforms. The Washington Post claimed that the reforms would curtail freedom in Venezuela. The Washington Times inaccurately stated that Chávez "controls most major Venezuelan media," an allegation debunked by any quick review of Venezuela's print and TV media. This particularly uninformed editorial followed an opinion piece earlier in the month penned by none other than notorious Cold War hawk Oliver North, who argued that Chávez had already "pulled a coup" on the Venezuelan people.

Similarly egregious opinion pieces were disseminated in the national press. A Los Angeles Times op-ed - written by an opposition journalist who elsewhere compared President Chávez to Bin Laden - made the unsupported and very emotional claim that constitutional reforms would cause a global recession due to higher oil prices. The Miami Herald predicted an end to freedom of expression. What these exaggerated accounts ignored was the fact that voters would ultimately decide for themselves at the polls.

As Venezuelan citizens eagerly awaited the election results in the early morning hours of December 3rd, opposition leaders led a series of public tirades on the steps of the National Electoral Council. Accusations of fraud were lodged and the public was told to be weary of the outcome of the election. When the official results were announced shortly thereafter, the constitutional reforms had lost: 51% to 49%.

In a move that logically should have shocked the press and elicited story after story, President Chávez gracefully accepted defeat; affirming on live television that the people of Venezuela had sent a message and that their will would be respected. He asked Venezuelans to celebrate peacefully, and congratulated the opposition for their victory.

Over the following days, no newspapers focused on the president's extraordinary response. Given his status as "dictator" and "autocrat" his gracious acceptance of defeat certainly merited a word or two. In fact, an entire expose could have been crafted on the leader's sudden change of heart! After all, how many dictators concede defeat? Alas, the democratic overture was largely overlooked and instead the American print media regurgitated previous dismissals of Venezuela's democracy.

Even more disturbing, though, was the fact that the top ten largest circulating newspapers in the nation gave no attention to the story that followed.

In a provocative move unforeseen by opposition and government supporters alike, President Chávez rang in the New Year by pardoning more than 30 persons involved in the unsuccessful coup d'etat that briefly deposed him in 2002.

Chávez appeared live on state television to hold out an olive branch to the opposition, remarking that the time was ripe to begin "turning the page." The new law would further safeguard civilians' rights to engage in acts of civil disobedience and allow for the immediate release of accused and convicted criminals imprisoned during the attempted coup, so long as they had previously submitted to authorities. Those who fled or those who were being held for crimes against humanity would not be pardoned, he said.

Again, the largest circulating US newspapers remained astonishingly silent. Among them, only two - the Chicago Tribune and Washington Post - even mentioned the historic event, and they did so by merely publishing one reprint each from the newswires. The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and the Dallas Morning News all neglected the story and in the days following the amnesty decree, chose to run feature stories criticizing Chávez.

Madeline Albright wrote in the Los Angeles Times that the coming foreign policy battle would be one between democratic and autocratic tendencies, and used President Chávez as an example of the latter. The next day, the Times published an opinion piece on free trade that categorically rejected Venezuela's alternative model of trade and development. The Wall Street Journal followed suite with "Liberty Theology," which bashed the religious movement of liberation theology for its links to socialist leaders.

Others ran headlines on the "failure" of President Chávez's efforts to secure the release of Colombian hostages being held by FARC guerrillas. Headlines such as "Chávez's Promised Hostage Release Fizzles" (New York Times) and "Chavez Led Alliance Fails to Get Hostages" (Washington Post) made it apparent that only negative stories would surface. Despite these dismissals, in a most unexpected twist to the saga, the Colombian hostages were indeed liberated just days later, on January 10th.


In addition to forward thinking about political compromise and reconciliation, inspiring models of citizen participation are increasingly occurring in South America but are often lost on us because we have no alternative reference point to compare them to. In Venezuela alone, 18 million people have received new or updated ID cards, enabling them to register to vote - 5.5 million of them - for the first time in their lives. Even more astounding are the results of Venezuela's last presidential election which saw the highest voter turnout in Venezuelan history - with nearly 75% participation- rates that have not been matched in the U.S. since 1820.

As Americans await the results of national primaries, and gubernatorial and mayoral campaigns approach in Venezuela, an exciting series of newsworthy events are due to unfold. With the Venezuelan opposition energized from a win at the polls, and with President Chavez calling on his supporters to reflect and re-energize, heated battles for local public office are just around the corner. American presidential contenders will not be the only candidates calling for change this year. They will however, be the only ones wondering how to get the majority to the ballot box.

How newsmakers cover the developments of this Caribbean nation remains to be seen, but if past coverage is any indicator I am afraid we are headed down a dangerous road where "objective" reporting is sacrificed for the official line of Washington. In light of that unfortunate trend, a more balanced depiction of current affairs in Venezuela is in order and it would behoove all of us to advocate for it.

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