The Times’s Anti-Chávez Bias

The New York Times seems to have it in for Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. The paper’s Latin America bureau chief, Simon Romero, has a big anti-Chávez bias, and it shows.

Take Romero’s story on Chávez’s massive electoral triumph the past weekend. The lead reads: “President Hugo Chávez won a landslide victory in the presidential election on Sunday. But campaign officials for the opposition candidate contended that the results were tainted by intimidation and other irregularities.” The headline writer adopted the same tone. “Chávez Wins Easily in Venezuela, but Opposition Protests,” the headline read, while the subhead stated: “Challenger’s Vote Exceeds Predictions.”

Now, charges of fraud should be reported on, but Chávez’s margin of victory should have made Romero question the opposition’s accusations, instead of giving them such prominence. The fact that these assertions were half-hearted can be seen by the fact that Chávez’s opponent, Manuel Rosales, conceded defeat the same day.

Curiously, it seems that the Times’s web editorial staff recognized the problematic aspects of Romero’s piece. The online version reads quite differently, with the headline and opening sanitized and the subhead taken out altogether.

Romero continued his anti-Chávez crusade the day after Chávez’s triumph. “If President Hugo Chávez rules like an autocrat, as his critics in Washington and here charge, then he does so with the full permission of a substantial majority of the Venezuelan people,” his piece opened. The pull quote for the piece referred to “some heads being chopped,” come January. (Interestingly, the person quoted is Steve Ellner, a progressive scholar who has written on Venezuela for publications such as In These Times, and his full quote is much less hostile to Chávez.) Another person cited in the piece says that “Chavez is not a dictator, but he’s not a Thomas Jefferson either.” Well, who is? Not too many current world leaders have Jefferson’s caliber, including the person currently occupying his post.

Romero’s hostility toward Chávez was also obvious in the run up to the presidential election. In a story two days before election day, he chose to highlight a crime wave in Venezuela, and quoted the opposition presidential candidate Rosales (without providing any balance) blaming Chávez for the phenomenon.

“Chávez nourishes the anarchic forces that are tearing Venezuela apart with a discourse advocating aggression on all fronts,” Rosales told the Times. And the Times accepted this tendentious sociological analysis without question.

Romero is not the only person at the Times with an anti-Chávez agenda. After all, the editorial staff at the Times gleefully supported the 2002 U.S.-backed military coup against Chávez, a duly elected leader. In a classic case of doublespeak, the Times stated that “Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator.” The Times gently explained to its readers that Chávez “stepped down after the military intervened and handed power to a respected business leader.” Chávez’s triumphant return three days later forced the Times to eat crow.

I have mixed feelings about Chávez. Although his social programs are commendable and his defiance of the Bush Administration’s agenda for the hemisphere is praiseworthy, his military swagger and showboating leave me cold. Still, he has won multiple elections and referendums since 1998, and in spite of his attempts to pack the courts and spew vitriol at his opponents, his democratic legitimacy can’t be denied. (See the coverage in The Progressive by my colleague, Liz DiNovella, of a crucial 2004 referendum.) The Times, on many an occasion, barely acknowledges this fact.

Given the Times’s history on this issue, perhaps this isn’t surprising. As ex-Times reporter Stephen Kinzer’s “Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq” documents, the Times has been very willing to go along with the official agenda when it comes to governments deemed hostile to the United States. In the case of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, whose CIA-orchestrated ouster in 1954 bequeathed Guatemala a near-genocidal dictatorship, the Times went so far as to remove, at John Foster Dulles’s behest, its disobedient reporter (Sydney Gruson) from the country.

No need for the Times to do that with Romero. He is faithfully recording Washington’s wishes.