U.S. Media: Chávez-Bashing of Old Begins Anew

After the landslide victory of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in the country’s August 15 recall referendum, U.S. press coverage of Venezuelan politics took a brief turn for the better. While the outcome of the referendum briefly tempered U.S. press hostility toward Chávez, recent media commentaries suggest that media hostility has returned with a vengeance.

By Justin Delacour - FAIR
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[The original version of this article, entitled “Oil Calms Troubled Reporting,” appeared in the December 2004 issue of Extra!, the magazine of the U.S. media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (http://www.fair.org/).  The article has been revised and updated.]

After the landslide victory of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez Frias in the country’s August 15 recall referendum, U.S. press coverage of Venezuelan politics took a brief turn for the better. After it became clear that Chávez was likely to win, theNew York Times offered much more balanced coverage than in April 2002, when the Times’ editorial board joined the Bush administration in temporarily supporting a failed coup against Chávez.

The lull in press hostility appears to have been partly the result of instability in international oil markets. The brief change in press coverage coincided with the Bush administration’s own decision to recognize Chávez’s electoral victory so as to temporarily stabilize Venezuela politically and thereby assure the steady and continued flow of oil from that country.

However, a longer-term analysis of the sources that U.S. correspondents have relied upon—and the hemispheric policies that the U.S. media, government and corporations jointly support—reveals a stark media bias against the Chávez government.  While the outcome of the referendum briefly tempered U.S. press hostility toward Chávez, recent media commentaries suggest that media hostility has returned with a vengeance.

Making peace with Chávez?

Last August, the New York Times’editorial board—which had long derided Chávez as a polarizing, anti-democratic figure—needed to explain how the left-populist Venezuelan president could defeat his opposition so handily at the polls. For once, the Times’ editors accurately explained (8/18/04) that, unlike most of Chávez’s predecessors, “he has made programs directed at the everyday problems of the poor—illiteracy, the hunger for land and inferior health care—the central theme of his administration, and he has been able to use higher-than-expected oil revenues to advance social welfare." After international observers of both the Carter Center and the Organization of American States found Venezuela's electoral process to have been clean and transparent, the Times editorial argued that the opposition needed to “stop shouting foul.”  This point was echoed in the Los Angeles Times’ August 21 editorial. “To say that the process was marred by a massive electronic fraud, as the opposition has done, is irresponsible, considering there is no proof to back up the assertions,” the L.A. Times noted.

TheNew York Times editorial also criticized Chavez’s opponents’ violations of constitutional norms, pointing out that they had “backed a briefly successful military coup attempt in 2002 and have led four national strikes aimed at bringing down the elected government.” Not surprisingly, the Times neglected to mention that it, too, had backed the failed coup against an “elected government.” In fact, just as coup leader Pedro Carmona was dissolving Venezuela's democratically elected Congress and jettisoning the democratically ratified constitution , the Times published an editorial (4/13/02) stating that, with Chávez gone, Venezuelan democracy was “no longer threatened by a would-be dictator."

The oil connection

Clearly, the Times’ belated criticisms of anti-democratic forces within the opposition could not be misconstrued as sympathy for Chávez. Rather, the U.S. press’ recognition of the Chávez government’s popular legitimacy --as well as their disavowal of the opposition’s dubious claims of “massive fraud”-- appears to have been partly motivated by short-term geopolitical and economic considerations.

On August 17, theWall Street Journal—in a story headlined “Crude Prices Ease as Venezuela Vote Allays Some Fears”reported that Chávez’s decisive victory “erased fear that political unrest could disrupt the flow of oil from the world’s fifth-largest exporter.” Linda Giesecke, a Latin America analyst of the consulting firm Energy Security Analysis (ESAI), was quoted as saying that there had been “concerns” that a close vote in Venezuela would “create disturbances that could somehow impact crude exports and possibly crude production.” Chávez's clear victory, however, suggested that “these disturbances may not occur,” Gieseke said.

The Bush administration’s surprisingly early recognition of Chávez’s electoral triumph must be understood in this context. With Iraq's oil supplies threatened by violence, high gas prices became a point of political contention in the U.S. presidential race. On August 11, theWall Street Journal presciently noted that --despite the Bush administration’s antipathy toward Chávez-- “the risk of sending prices at the gasoline pump even higher could prompt Washington to put a premium on stability over having friends in power.”

Had the circumstances been different, the Bush administration might very well have embraced the opposition’s claims of “massive fraud.”  In fact, during most of Bush’s time in office, U.S. government officials have frequently peddled completely baseless allegations against the Chávez government. 

In U.S. News & World Report(10/6/03), the magazine'sLatin America bureau chief Linda Robinson uncritically repeated claims that Chávez was “flirting with terrorism.” Robinson quoted an unnamed “U.S. official” as saying that it was “no secret” that the Venezuelan government was cooperating with Colombian guerrillas in the trafficking of drugs and the smuggling of arms into Colombia.

In response to this charge, the Caracas-based U.S. sociologist Gregory Wilpert asked, “If this is no secret, then why does the U.S. government not make a formal complaint and officially declare Venezuela a ‘narco-state’?” (Venezuelanalysis.com, 10/2/03). Noting that U.S. News had made “extremely heavy use of unnamed government officials,” Wilpert suggested that these officials’ decision to speak off the record permitted them to propagate claims that they could not prove in an effort to discredit a government that they did not like.

The Granda Affair: Chávez-bashing returns

Today, the Bush Administration --after having won the November U.S. election-- is intensifying its belligerence toward the Chávez government.  Once again, the U.S. administration appears poised to peddle disinformation to the U.S. media as a means to malign the Chávez government.

In mid-January, one month after the Colombian government hired bounty hunters to kidnap a FARC spokesperson, Rodrigo Granda, from the streets of Caracas, the U.S. Ambassador to Bogotá declared “100 percent” support for Colombia’s obvious violation of Venezuelan sovereignty (Washington Times, 01/20/05).  

While the editors of the Los Angeles Times’ (01/28/05) jumped at the opportunity to cast Granda’s presence in Caracas as proof that Chávez had been “harboring Colombian guerrillas,” Associated Press (01/27/05) offered a slightly different account.  AP noted that Granda, “with his graying hair, wire-rim spectacles and fondness for cardigans, looks more the part of a mild-mannered professor than of a Colombian rebel…” AP pointed out that Granda had “hobnobbed for years at conferences with prominent Latin American leftists” and that Tomas Borge, Nicaragua’s former interior minister during the Sandinista government, described him as a “political representative, not as a combatant, of the FARC.”  Similarly, a letter signed by a number of prominent progressive intellectuals—including the U.S. linguist Noam Chomsky and the Venezuelan sociologist Margarita López-Maya—described Granda as a member of the FARC’s international relations team who had been received by “high state representatives and important political and social organizations throughout the world, as part of his diplomatic activity in the search for a politically negotiated solution to the Colombian conflict” (Venezuelanalysis.com, 01/06/05).

According to the L.A. Times editorial, Granda’s kidnapping was a “bold move, justifiable under the circumstances.”  The Times’ editors neglected to explain what was so “bold” about the Colombian government’s weeks-long denial that it had used bounty hunters to nab Granda from Venezuelan territory.  If Chávez’s assertion of a violation of Venezuelan sovereignty was so “comical,” as the Times claimed, one wonders why the Colombian government would continue peddling the lie—until all evidence pointed to the contrary—that Granda was captured in the Colombian border town of Cucutá.

As the Bush Administration’s attacks on the Chávez government have become more shrill, so too have the commentaries about Venezuela in U.S. media.  Describing Chávez as “Venezuela's demagogic president,” the editors of the Los Angeles Times (01/28/05) parroted Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s most recent claim that Chávez has tolerated Colombian rebel camps on the Venezuelan side of the border.  Similarly, FOX News  (02/04/05) recently asserted—without any supporting evidence—that Chávez is “backing guerrilla movements in the region.”  The resounding echo of anti-Chávez propaganda then traveled, once again, to the pages of U.S. News (02/14/05), where publisher Mortimer Zuckerman claimed that Chávez, “a left-wing demogogue,” had allied himself with “the worst criminal organizations in Latin America, especially the narcoterrorists in Colombia.”

Amidst all this hysteria, each of the above-mentioned commentaries neglected to mention that—in a December interview with Venezuela’s state-run television station (Venezolana de Televisión, VTV)—Colombia’s own Defense Minister, Jorge Alberto Uribe, dismissed as mere “rumors” the accusations that Venezuela protected guerrillas (Venezuelanalysis.com, 02/04/05).

Obviously, the Colombian government has difficulty getting its stories straight.  Nevertheless, the U.S. press continues basing its unsubstantiated assertions that Chávez “harbors” Colombia’s guerrillas on precisely the ever-changing claims of Colombia’s government.  In sum, for the media mouthpieces of U.S. State Department propaganda, Colombia’s right-wing government can do no wrong.

Opposing "core values"

One reason that U.S. government officials and compliant media seek to discredit Chávez is that his government serves as an impediment to the economic domination of the hemisphere by U.S.-based multinationals, among which are most of the major media conglomerates.

Chávez is unequivocal in his opposition to the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas pact (FTAA); the Venezuelan leader was once quoted as saying (AP, 11/13/03) that, under FTAA, competition between Venezuelan companies and powerful U.S. and Canadian multinationals "would be like a fight between a 12-year-old boy and Cassius Clay."

Analyst Michael Shifter of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue noted (In the National Interest, 7/16/03), “Venezuela under Chávez potentially poses a challenge to U.S. policy objectives, leadership and core values in this hemisphere.” By “core values,” Shifter is not referring to the core values of Middle America, but to the values of economic and policy-making U.S. elites. Prominent among their core values is “free trade,” which is, incidentally, a value that much of the U.S. population does not seem to share.

Like Shifter, corporate media are avidly committed to “free trade” as a “core value” of the United States. A search of major papers in the Nexis database for the month of April 2001--when governments of the Western Hemisphere met to discuss the proposed FTAA at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City-- found 34 editorials in U.S. papers supporting the FTAA and none opposing it (Extra!, 8/01).

Given Chávez’s expressed view that FTAA is a “colonialist project" (AP, 11/13/03), it should come as little surprise that U.S. News and World Report, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times—among many other U.S. publications—call him “demagogic” in their commentaries.  As FAIR associate Norman Solomon pointed out (CommonDreams.org, 7/8/04), big media routinely characterize anti-“free trade” positions as “demagogic”:

 In the simple algebra of corporate media, “protectionist” equals “demagogic.” So, in the media world view, economic populism is like a dog that must be housebroken and kept on a leash. Sometimes, to maintain discipline, it needs to be whacked on the nose with a newspaper.  Who gets to speak? 

U.S. reporting on Venezuela relies overwhelmingly on pro-“free trade” and anti-Chávez sources like Shifter. The progressive economist Mark Weisbrot pointed out in a syndicated column for Knight-Ridder/Tribune Information Services (6/1/04) that, “although there are any number of scholars and academics—both Venezuelan and international—who could offer coherent arguments on the other side, their arguments almost never appear.” Judging from the fact that no U.S. newspaper published Weisbrot’s column, the U.S. press does not seem to have taken kindly to the criticism.

A new analysis of reports about Venezuela in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, Chicago Tribune and Christian Science Monitor corroborates Weisbrot’s charge of media imbalance.  Since the failed coup of April 2002, the most frequently quoted anti-Chavez analysts are cited in more than five times as many press reports as their Chavez-sympathizing counterparts.  This evident bias is even starker at the New York Times, where analysts who sympathize with the Chávez government are out-quoted by their anti-Chávez counterparts by a 7-to-1 margin.

When looking only at the media’s citations of Venezuelan sources, the anti-Chávez bias appears even starker. While readers of U.S. reports about Venezuela are treated to a steady barrage of quotes from myriad Venezuelan analysts opposed to the government, independent Venezuelan experts who sympathize with the government are virtually never quoted.

Searches of the six U.S. publications reveal that, in a two-and-a-half year period from April 12, 2002 to October 12, 2004, only six press reports included quotes from the prominent Venezuelan sociologist Margarita López-Maya and the historian Samuel Moncada, both of whom speak English fluently and sympathize with the Chávez government.

In contrast, the ranks of Caracas-based anti-Chávez analysts whom U.S. newspapers quote are extensive. Alberto Garrido --an anti-Chávez historian-- was cited 24 times (a four-fold advantage over Moncada and López-Maya combined). Other oft-quoted opposition sources include the virulently anti-Chávez Venezuelan pollsters Luis Vicente León and Alfredo Keller; Alejandro Plaz and Maria Corina Machado of the opposition “civic organization” Súmate, which is partially U.S.-funded; and Teodoro Petkoff, the editor of the anti-Chávez Caracas daily Tal Cual. Even José Antonio Gil Yepes—a pollster who once told the L.A. Times (7/8/02) that Chávez “has to be killed”—was quoted more often than López-Maya.

Perhaps the starkest indicator of bias was that, for every report that cited one of the two pro-Chávez Venezuelan academics, there were more than 17 stories in which one or more of the anti-Chávez Venezuelan analysts was cited.

A skewed narrative

Michael Shifter—the anti-Chávez U.S. commentator who is quoted more frequently than all pro-Chávez analysts combined—illustrates the tendency among opposition sources to provide a skewed and incomplete picture of Venezuela’s political and economic situation. In addition to being quoted profusely, Shifter has been granted ample column space to deride the Chávez government in the op-ed pages of the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times.

In the immediate wake of Chávez’s referendum victory, Shifter sourly opined in a Washington Post column (8/23/04) that Venezuela's performance under Chávez had been “dismal.” “All key indicators point to deterioration,” he wrote. Shifter neglected to point out that the business-led opposition had contributed heavily to the country’s economic problems by attempting to sabotage the government through lockouts, capital flight and political destabilization.

It should be noted that some correspondents do occasionally recognize what their anti-Chávez sources neglect to point out to them. Even New York Times correspondent Juan Forero—who has frequently quoted Shifter—could not help but notice (8/8/04) that residents of poor Caracas neighborhoods tended to blame the opposition for the economic free fall of 2002 and 2003, “which was set off by strikes aimed at removing Mr. Chávez from power."

However, most press narratives stick to the anti-Chávez script. As just one example, a report in the Washington Post on March 11, 2004 cast Venezuela’s political and economic situation as follows: “Chávez's policies, Venezuela's faltering economy and allegations of creeping authoritarianism are ostensibly driving the violent street protests here and the growing efforts to oust the president.” The report then quoted an anti-Chávez politician, Julio Borges, who said that inflation was rising, the economy had lost jobs, crime in urban centers had increased and Chávez “is a demagogue.”

A balanced approach would at least recognize the existence of a counter-narrative that blames economic troubles not on Chávez but on the business-led opposition, and would have pointed out the remarkable recovery of Venezuela’s economy following the opposition’s disastrous campaign of economic sabotage from December 2002 to February 2003.  Venezuela’s gross domestic product in the first quarter of 2004 was 30 percent above the first quarter of 2003, and the IMF was predicting a growth rate between 9 and 10 percent for all of 2004, the highest in Latin America (Venezuelanalysis.com, 5/19/04).  In fact, the IMF’s growth projection turned out to be grossly underestimated, as Venezuela’s economy actually grew 17 percent last year (Newsweek International, 02/14/05).

In sum, despite uncharacteristic balance in the immediate wake of Chávez’s recent electoral victory, longer-term trends in press content and the recent barrage of virulently anti-Chávez commentaries suggest that major U.S. media are predominantly hostile to the Chávez government. As long as Chávez remains an impediment to “free trade” and other “core values” of U.S. elites, one can expect U.S. media hostility toward the Chávez government to continue.

Justin Delacour is a freelance writer and a doctoral student of political science at the University of New Mexico.  He receives email at [email protected]

Editor's note: The following chart was first posted here on December 29, 2004. We reprint it here, as it is meant to go with the above article.

Citations of sources in U.S. reports about Venezuela (April 12, 2002-October 12, 2004)

Chicago Tribune

Christian Science Monitor

Los Angeles Times

Miami Herald

New York Times

Washing-ton Post

Total Number of Citations

Michael Shifter

11

4

3

10

14

2

44

Alberto Garrido

1

3

1

11

7

1

24

Teodoro Petkoff

6

0

3

4

7

0

20

Luis Vicente León

7

1

0

8

0

3

19

Alfredo Keller

5

5

0

1

2

3

16

Maria Corina Machado

1

1

1

7

1

3

14

Janet Kelly

2

2

2

3

2

2

13

Alejandro Plaz

1

0

1

3

1

3

8

Moisés Naím

1

0

0

0

4

3

8

Ricardo Hausmann

0

1

1

2

2

0

6

Riordan Roett

1

0

1

0

2

0

4

José Antonio Gil Yepes

1

0

1

2

0

0

4

Peter Hakim

0

1

1

1

0

0

3

Larry Birns

8

0

2

0

5

0

15

Mark Weisbrot

0

2

0

5

0

0

7

Samuel Moncada

0

1

0

2

0

2

5

Gregory Wilpert

1

0

1

0

1

1

4

Deborah James

0

0

1

2

0

0

3

Margarita López-Maya

0

0

0

1

0

0

1

Anti-Govt. Sources to Pro-Govt. Sources  

37:9

18:3

15:4

52:10

42:6

20:3

184:35