Sins of Omission

The New York Times coverage of Hugo Chavez’ death was a bunker buster of misinformation.


The New York Times coverage of Hugo Chavez’ death was a bunker buster of misinformation.

The socialist left was plunged into a state of crisis last week when its leading advocate was felled by cancer. The death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez dealt a potentially crippling blow to the Bolivarian revolution’s hold on the Venezuelan nation. With their leader gone, Chavistas are scrambling to align their ranks behind Nicolas Maduro, an unimposing background figure in the Chavez narrative. And despite the stunning successes of the Chavez government—from a vertiginous drop in poverty to an equally dramatic rise in literacy, the establishment of a legislative apparatus designed to benefit the nation’s majority, and the nationalization of Venezuelan oil—the opposition is poised to renew its attack on the socialist experiment of the last decade and a half. Furious over repeated humiliations at the ballot box, the Venezuelan right, led by Henrique Capriles, is anxious to steer the country back to failed prescriptions of neoliberal economics, hoping to seize on an unexpected election to reclaim the presidency.

Naturally, few if any of the Bolivarian triumphs were mentioned in The New York Times ungenerous lead on the demise of the Venezuelan leader. Already, our leading propaganda daily has begun its historical revision of Chavez’ legacy. Its prejudiced coverage of the El Commandante’s death was remarkable only it what it elided from view—namely any of the progressive transformations the Bolivarian socialist engendered. Regarding the state of the nation, only a few conditions were noted. While vague mention was made that Chavez had “empowered and energized” millions of poor people, the print edition headline said Venezuela was a nation in “deep turmoil.” The digital edition brusquely mentioned, “high inflation and soaring crime,” as well as, “soaring prices and escalating shortages of basic goods.” While there is some truth to these claims—particularly in relation to crime—none of Chavez’ achievements were noted, an astonishing array of programmatic successes that have dwarfed the failures of his tenure.

But before adding anything else, let’s briefly look at the indictments delivered by the Times:

  • After devaluing its currency in 2010, pundits predicted massive inflation. Instead, inflation declined for two years, while economic growth topped four percent both years. This is ignored. Nor does the article note Venezuela’s spiraling rate of inflation before Chavez took office—or that he has actually significantly reduced it. While prices rise with inflation, the government offers subsidized goods through weekly Mercal and also regularly adjusts minimum wage to match or exceed inflation, which increases consumer purchasing power, which itself has increased 18 percent in Chavez’ first decade in office.
  • In stark contrast to improving economic numbers, Venezuela’s murder rate increased threefold during Chavez’ three terms in office, now third highest in the Americas, calling into question the effectiveness of police training. A new training program was launched in 2009, but has yet to produce results. The Bolivarian National Police, also launched in 2009, has lowered rates where it is active, but chronic problems continue to plague the country, particularly Caracas, including police corruption, biased judiciaries, the likelihood of not being prosecuted, the presence of millions of weapons, and the fact that Venezuela is a main thoroughfare for illegal drugs on their way to the United States.
  • Food shortages are also present, another surprising condition in a country of declining poverty. Western critics naturally point to price controls as the cause, providing a typically ideological explanation for a problem that appears to have a more nuanced answer. Food consumption in Venezuela has exploded since Chavez took office in 1999. The population consumed 26 million tons of food in 2012, double the 13 million tons they consumed in 1999. The government suggests the shortages are a consequence of rapidly increasing consumption. Food production is up 71 percent since Chavez took office, but consumption is up 94 percent.

Claims without Context

A day later, the Times decided that its stinting initial coverage was too generous: it had merely listed the flaws in Venezuelan society. What it had failed to do was pepper the pot with a heavy dose of falsification. It then released a factless catalogue of misinformation that, when it wasn’t quoting louche academics, was irrigating the column with toxic dogma. It began, in its home page tout, with a headline about “Debating Chavez’s Legacy,” by author William Neuman. The sub-line anxiously opened the festivities with an elephantine distortion: “Venezuela had one of the lowest rates of economic growth in the region during the 14 years that Hugo Chavez was president.”

Well, after that opener, why bother writing a column? The case has already been made. Best to have the tout lead to a broken link, or redirect to Thomas Friedman hyperventilating about the glories of globalization on display in Indonesian sweatshops. But no, the Times were out for blood. This was no ordinary socialist. Chavez deserved a double-barreled dose of disinformation.

Regarding its initial claim that Venezuela had one of the “lowest rates of economic growth in the region during the 14 years that Hugo Chavez was president.” This statistic is taken from the World Bank. It is true. What it fails to mention is the nosedive the Venezuelan economy fell into when U.S.-backed, right-wing elites overthrew the democratically-elected Chavez in 2002. The economy fell at nine percent into 2003. Then there were devastating oil production shutdowns engineered by the same cadre of oppositionists when Chavez moved to nationalize the oil industry.

Despite this and other opposition attempts to sabotage the economy through food hoarding, price speculation, and other noble measures, the Times neither bothers to contextualize their claim nor balance it against the significant achievements of the Bolivarian government. If elements of socialism actually work, don’t the Times readers deserve to know about them? Evidently not, according to the editors, who see it as their duty to shelter their gullible readership from the facts. But consider these facts about Venezuela’s socialist experiment:

  • Per capita GDP in Venezuela is up 50 percent since the coup.
  • The Venezuelan economy was among the fastest growing Latin nations in 2012.
  • Its economy has grown steadily for nine consecutive quarters.
  • Inflation has been cut nearly in half since Chavez took office, when it was spiraling out of control thanks to the ever-efficient neoliberal private sector leadership.

A Legacy Belittled

The article then claims that Chavez’ massively attended funeral was “a tribute to the drawing power of the charismatic leftist leader, although perhaps not to the lasting influence of his socialist-inspired policies.” This line nicely inverts the obvious truth—the masses turned out precisely because of Chavez’ socialist-inspired policies. The policies the paper had given an unfair drubbing in the opening tout have driven consistent growth in society’s most impoverished sectors. Poverty has been reduced by 70 percent since Chavez won the presidency. Nutritional measures among the poor are up across the board, while strengthened pension programs, freely available healthcare, and an inflation-linked minimum wage are helping produce a viable workforce with growing purchasing power—a prerequisite of demand and economic expansion.

The paper then says Chavez’ revolution “remains more limited than he would have liked,” a spurious attempt to cast the Bolivarian revolution as a failure, when in fact, against most significant social and economic metrics, the socialist experiment exceeded itself. To reinforce this portrait of another foreclosed attempt to establish a socialist state, the Times trots out Alejandro Toledo, a former president of Peru. Toledo replaced the Peruvian strongman Alberto Fujimori, and was so unpopular—even though he succeeded one of the continent’s most vile authoritarians—that his approval rating dropped to six percent in 2004, when street rioting briefly paused to permit the survey. Here is Toledo:

“The important thing is that Mexico has not followed his example, Chile has not followed his example, Peru has not followed his example, Colombia has not followed his example, Brazil has not followed his example. I’m talking about big countries with large, sustained economic growth.”

Toledo, like the paper, obviates Chavez’ stunning impact on continental politics, an influence that has encouraged similar leftist triumphs in Ecuador, Argentina, Paraguay, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and others. Chavez convinced many of his regional colleagues of the dangers of forging discrete trade agreements with the United States—with NAFTA as the ne plus ultra in the category—and then promoted regional agreements among his Latin counterparts. Chavez worked to expand Mercosur into a continental trade platform, not simply that of South America’s southern cone. Then he established such inter-continental co-operatives as Telesur, PetroCaribe, and Petrosur, as well as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA).

Sidelining Socialism

With little left to criticize, and plenty of column width to fill, the author resorts to repetition and veiled attacks on socialism. The claim about Venezuela’s low rates of growth is repeated. Then the social flaws from the previous day’s coverage are hurried back into commission: high inflation, shortages of basic goods. High crime, bitter political divisions.

Then, in a turn both sour and childish, the Times concedes that “poverty went down significantly,” but quickly adds that, “other countries…made progress in reducing poverty while following paths very different from that of Mr. Chavez.”

A Brazilian academic then claims that governments in countries like Brazil have “a more balanced position” and that unnamed left-leaning governments are looking to its model and not Venezuela’s for guidance.

No evidence is offered for this claim. Nor does the Carioca academic mention what precisely is “balanced” about a Brazilian society in which the household income of the top one percent is equal to that of the bottom 50 percent of society.

After a short series of additional points—including the passing notation that masses of citizens marched for hours alongside Chavez’ casket—much is made of Chavez’ use of oil resources to build relations with other South American governments. The unstated claim: that Chavez bought his friends. An “energy fellow” at the Council on Foreign Relations, notes rather peevishly that “Venezuela’s influence in Latin America was built on the back of oil exports,” as if it is somehow bad form to play one’s cards in international affairs. And as if the United States hadn’t been bribing its way across the Middle East for the last decade.

Disarming Protest

There you have it: the disingenuous reality of The New York Times, a paper that disguises its bias behind a thin veneer of cool detachment and a studied use of non-inflammatory language, much like the paper’s bedmate in neoliberal apologetics, The Economist. The lengths to which the paper will go to discredit the creditable would be laughable if the paper weren’t so popular among self-proclaimed progressives. It is a powerful tool by which corporate power softens the blunt edges of austerity and disarms mainstream liberals with soothing messaging about good intentions and “balanced” approaches to economic development.

By rehearsing the standard refrains of American exceptionalism—a love of democracy, an abiding concern for the voiceless inhabitants of the developing world and the scourge of tyrants that seem forever to afflict them, and a noble need to extend our love of freedom to points south as well as the backward caliphates of the East—the Times tranquilizes would-be progressive protestors with the gentle rationalizations of corporate life—the ultimate virtue of which is the appearance of even-handedness. The kind of professorial restraint best represented by Obama, a façade the opposite of which—the dangerous passions of the oppressed—is frowned upon as “counterproductive” and known to be the bane of respectable men. And by respectable one may read fatally compromised.

Jason Hirthler is a writer, strategist, and 18-year veteran of the communications industry. He has written for Counterpunch, Open Democracy, and other political communities. He lives and works in New York City. He can be reached at [email protected]