The New York Times and Biased Reporting on Venezuela

Here Venezuelanalysis brings you two articles from the New York Times Examiner, and a letter from VA's Gregory Wilpert, outlining the biased coverage of the New York Times on the Venezuelan elections.


The Times Vs. Hugo Chavez

Whatever New York Times readers may think about Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, the Times itself has no doubts. Simply stated, they don’t like the man. (See, for example, NYTeXaminer, and Gregory Wilpert’s “New York Times Meets Venezuelan Opposition and Smiles,” Feb. 21, 2012). Their bias has never been clearer as the recent Venezuelan election shows.

Two days before Venezuelans went to the polls the paper opened fire with a front page piece by William Neuman. Given the chilling head “Fear of Losing Benefits Affects Venezuela vote” the election was mistakenly portrayed as “a race that is too close to call” with Chavez seen as “vulnerable as never before” (Chavez won by 54.4-44.9%, a winning margin Obama and Romney would love). It adds that Chavez “runs a well-oiled patronage system, a Tammany-Hall operation, but on a national scale”—a practice obviously unknown in American politics. Neuman also interviewed Chavez’s opponent Henrique Capriles Radonski.

Now Capriles may well be the pro-American, moderate and tolerant democrat the Times favors, though it never scrutinizes his views, his allies, and how he feels about Chavez’s reforms and whether or not he would shut them down. The front page article never asks what special interests paid for both candidates’ expensive campaigns and also overlooks U.S. support for the 2002 military coup against Chavez.

Not to be outdone, the piece was followed up on the same day with “How Hugo Chavez Became Irrelevant,” an Op Ed by Françisco Toro, a Venezuelan journalist and political scientist. In it, he campaigns for Caprile, celebrating him as a Brazilian-style center-left man, “committed to ending the Chavez era’s authoritarian excesses.” Among other claims he makes is that child deaths “have not improved any faster under his government than they did over several decades before he rose to power,” a statement interpreted otherwise by the UK’s Guardian in its October 4th issue. Poverty and joblessness too, they say, have been reduced though crime has risen. What is true are serious questions about the freedom to dissent. Still, in laying out the ideological case against Chavez, Toro states that Barack Obama’s election “badly undermined the [Latin American] radicals’ ability to rally opposition to gringo imperialism.” But did it? Obama’s questionable policy regarding coups was disregarded with the overthrow in 2009 of Honduras’s democratically elected president, a revolt denounced by every country south of the border while Washington remained silent and supportive. “They really thought he was different,” said Julia Sweig of the Council on Foreign Relations at the time, referring to Latin American opinion of Obama. “But those hopes were dashed over the summer.” The U.S. also has seven bases including the Palanquero AFB in Colombia, the better to observe any leftist Latin American government that dares defy Uncle Sam.

What the Times also avoided is the extent to which Chavez has actually changed—or did not change—Venezuela. What has really happened to unemployment rates, the level of poverty, crime, infant mortality, the freedom to differ and dissent? Nor did the Times bother to examine the election’s underlying issues—as the UK’s Guardian’s Jonathan Watts astutely did before the election: “On a global level, Sunday’s election is about who controls and distributes one of the world’s biggest recoverable oil reserves. For ideologues it is a frontline battle between Bolivarian socialism and neoliberalism. But for most Venezuelan voters, it’s about safety, fairness and a character who arguably inspires more love and hate than almost any other politician in the world.”

In contrast to Toro’s Op Ed, consider that Brazil’s former president Luis Inacio Lula de Silva, whom he rightly praises, is quoted elsewhere as saying that Chavez’s victory would demonstrate the ongoing political changes in Latin America. Then there is yet another democratic leader, the Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who tweeted Chavez (according to the BBC) after he won: “Your victory is our victory! And the victory of South America and the Caribbean.”

What the paper needs to explain, fairly and objectively, if it can, is whether or not Chavez has improved or damaged the lives of Venezuelans and why he was re-elected in an unquestionably free and democratic election, too often an historical rarity in Latin American elections. Slightly more than 80% of the electorate bothered to show up to vote—about half the percentage of voters who bother to go to the polls in our presidential elections.

Tibisay Lucena, who chairs the country’s Comejo Nacional Electoral, which was constitutionally established in 1999 to oversee elections, put it best in the Washington Post: “To participate in an electoral process like this one, in democracy, is a victory for the whole people of Venezuela. The entire country has won.”

By Murray Polner

Murray Polner has written for many publications. His most recent book, written with Thomas Woods Jr., is “We Who Dared Say No To War”.

The original article can be found here: http://www.nytexaminer.com/2012/10/the-times-vs-hugo-chavez/

New York Times Coverage of Venezuelan Elections was Poor

Hugo Chávez won his third straight presidential election this past weekend, and as the New York Times correspondent William Neumann put it in his latest article, “Chávez Wins New Term in Venezuela, Holding Off Surge by Opposition,”: “Though his margin of victory was much narrower than in past elections, he still won handily.” By more than 10 percent, Chávez defeated center-right candidate for the Justice First party, Henrique Capriles.

The problem with Neumann’s article, and his pre-election article “Fears Persist Among Venezuelan Voters Ahead of Election” is that he said nothing about Capriles’ campaign while providing considerable space to hearsay and accusations he, and Times editors, didn’t back up with examples. What resulted was clear cases of anti-Chávez hysteria and poor journalism.

In Neumann’s pre-election article he wrote that “polls diverge widely, with some predicting a victory for Mr. Chávez and others showing a race that is too close to call,” but he offers no examples of these “too close to call” polls. When the Center for Economic and Policy Research looked at available data they found that “Capriles [had] a 5.7 percent probability of winning the election.”

And just as Neumann doesn’t provide any examples of those who have “anxiety” about  ”a new electronic voting system that many Venezuelans fear might be used by the government to track those who vote against the president” there are no examples provided of “[m]any government workers” whose names “were made public after they signed a petition for an unsuccessful 2004 recall referendum to force Mr. Chávez out of office” and subsequently ”lost their jobs.” This claim has been circulating for nearly ten years, and if Neumann has proof it occurred he should certainly share it. That would be more newsworthy than the unfounded fears of unknown persons.

The fearmongering does not stop there. Neumann also claims, without providing any supporting evidence, that “Government workers are frequently required to attend pro-Chávez rallies.” Despite having won three successive presidential elections by large margins, and whose voter base continues to grow, it seems Neumann cannot accept the fact that Venezuelans vote for and “attend pro-Chávez rallies” because they actually support the man and his policies.

Another problem with Neumann’s articles is that, on one hand of Neumann’s Anti-Chávez argument, Chávez has sown “fear” and rules by intimidation. This is why nearly eight million Venezuelans voted for him—an increase by more than half a million votes, or an almost ten percent gain in votes since the 2006 election. Then, on the other hand, we are told that Chávez rules by bribery. Neumann claims that the reason “it has been harder for Mr. Capriles to dent the strong support for Mr. Chávez in rural areas” is the government spending on poverty, which Neumann refers to as “the government largess [Mr. Chávez] doles out with abandon.”

In his post-election article Neumann continues with his bias, which would be more appropriate in the opinion section, when he offers advice to Capriles. Neumann warns that ”the opposition is a fragile coalition with a history of destructive infighting, especially after an election defeat,” and that “Mr. Capriles will have to keep this fractious amalgam of parties from the left, right and center together in order to take advantage of the new ground they have gained.”

While noting that “Mr. Chávez has trumpeted his programs to help the poor,” or the so-called “government largess” which Chávez “has pointed to a sharp reduction in the number of people living in poverty” as proof that he is delivering the goods, Neumann tries to explain this not so much as an actual agenda by Chávez but due to the fact that the president “has governed during a phenomenal rise in oil prices, which have soared from $10 in 1998, the year before he took office, to more than $100 in recent years and the high $80s now, pouring huge amounts of revenue into Venezuela.” When it comes to Neumann, Chávez can’t win for losing.

Neumann also spends an inordinate amount of time talking about Chávez’s health. In fact, he provides more coverage of that, as well as criticizing Chávez at every turn and giving voice to unqualified accusations, than he does talking about the actual campaigns of the candidates. While Neumann writes in his post-election article that Capriles “campaigned almost nonstop” he doesn’t say what Capriles campaigned on, and if he provided his readers with such information they might actually get a glimpse into why the opposition fared much better than the past two elections.

In an article published this past April, Reuters wrote that “Henrique Capriles defines himself as a center-left ‘progressive’ follower of the business-friendly but socially-conscious Brazilian economic model,” while Global Post wrote that “Capriles has based his campaign on improving education, which he sees as a long-term solution to the country’s insecurity and deep poverty,” and that ”Capriles’ methods are not to shout down Chavez — indeed, he praises many of the president’s ideas.” Far from being an “opposition” candidate, Capriles tried to appear as Chávez-lite.

New York Times coverage of the presidential election in Venezuela was bizarre, but typical. The political leanings of the “paper of record” are notorious for reflecting the views and interests of the political and economic establishment. And with Chávez not being an ally of the U.S. government and business community, and is instead encouraging the regional independence that has been unfolding for the past decade much to their ire, and with Chávez expected to and having “won handily,” it comes as no surprise that the Venezuelan election process, which former American president Jimmy Carter has hailed as the “best in the world,” would get picked over by the New York Times as being the results of intimidation and bribery.

By Michael McGehee

The original article can be found here: http://www.nytexaminer.com/2012/10/new-york-times-coverage-of-venezuelan-election-was-poor/

Regarding “Fears Persist Among Venezuelan Voters Ahead of Election”

From Gregory Wilpert:

Dear William Neuman,

I am writing to you to point out a couple of what I consider to be serious problems with your recent article on Venezuela (“Fears Persist Among Venezuelan Voters Ahead of Election” Oct. 6, 2012, p. 1).

First, I have no doubt that the headline of the article is correct and that the people you quote said what they said to you. Having said that, though, one cannot discount the distinct possibility that someone who wants to make the government look bad could falsely claim to be an ex-Chavista who is voting for Chavez only out of fear. I mean, who would be stupid enough to say that and then give their real name to the New York Times if they are truly afraid? (And if those weren’t their real names, wouldn’t you have had to say that in your article?)

The main problem with your article is that by extensively quoting four opposition supporters who supposedly fear their vote is not secret and only one Chavez-supporter who apparently benefits personally from Chavez, you make it sound like there are no Chavez supporters in Venezuela who do so for other than reasons of material gain. This is a very old opposition line, going back to at least the 2004 recall referendum, that Chavez only wins in Venezuela because people are either afraid to oppose him or because they are material beneficiaries of clientelism. However, poll after poll (and here I refer to opposition-sympathizing pollsters, such as Datanalisis and Hinterlaces) show that a majority of at least 60% of the population believe that Chavez has done a good job and that the bolivarian revolution is good for Venezuela.

Second, your article quotes Capriles’ statement that Chavez has “sown fear” about voting in Venezuela and as an example you provide the 2004 recall referendum petition. Here one should point out that a petition is not the same thing as a vote, since it is by definition not secret. Also, the fact that the opposition all too often (especially in 2004 and in 2005) acted as if the vote was not secret and that fraud was possible, even though international observers regularly declared it was one of the safest voting systems in the world (perhaps you saw Pres. Carter’s recent statement on this, which would have been good to quote at this point in the article). In short, it is the opposition that has spread fear about the vote, not Chavez or his movement. In addition, according to polls, about 70% of the population declares that they trust the CNE, which is one of the highest percentages of any Venezuelan state institution. Another indicator of Venezuelans’ trust in their electoral systems are the Latinbarometro polls, which regularly show that Venezuelans trust their democracy more than citizens of almost any other South American country.

Third, to describe Chavez’s electoral system as akin to Tammany Hall does an incredibly great injustice to the massive enfranchisement of Venezuela’s poor that has taken place and it is a ridiculous dismissal of the enormous achievement of halving Venezuela’s poverty rate, of creating the country with the least inequality in South America (which was previously near the top of that list), and of its achievements in just about any health indicator. Did you know that the CNE has doubled the number of voting centers, with most going into poor neighborhoods, so as to equalize the time that the poor have to stand in line? Previously the number of voting centers per capita was far greater in middle class neighborhoods than in the barrios. Also, more Venezuelans of voting age are registered to vote now than was ever the case in Venezuelan history (97%).

To suggest that the main reason people vote for Chavez is because of Tammany Hall-like patronage and fear and not because of actual achievements in social, economic, and enfranchisement policies is incredibly misleading. In my 2007 book, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power, I too criticize the persistence of clientelism and patronage in Venezuela (you make it sound like Chavez invented it, when actually it is as old as the Venezuelan state). To suggest that Tammany Hall corruption is why Chavez gets (re)elected completely misses the big picture of advances because of a focus on less important failings.

It is a shame that the main impression New York Times readers are given of Venezuela are those spread by this article, which completely ignores all kinds of important facts about what is happening in Venezuela.


Gregory Wilpert

The original letter can be found here: http://www.nytexaminer.com/2012/10/regarding-fears-persist-among-venezuelan-voters-ahead-of-election/