Throwing the Baby Out with the Bathwater

In a context of economic liberalization, Jessica Dos Santos is concerned about a growing private sector mentality in state media outlets.

A few days ago I had lunch with some friends I met during my years working in media outlets, most of them state-owned. They were my workmates from 2010, when I graduated as a journalist, until I quit some three years ago.

They are still pushing on in those spaces. I disconnected myself altogether when I left. First of all, I cannot tolerate the journalistic practices imposed these days. Any non-complacent or non-agreed-to question will turn you into a traitor.

But beyond that, I don’t understand how journalists, especially in public outlets, manage not to starve to death. These workplaces demand time, travel, and commitment but pay as if they only took 15 minutes of your day.

So this lunch was a prime opportunity for some digging, although not so much about the first issue. In Venezuela there’s a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude when it comes to journalism. We know many things are wrong and efforts to defend them become really uncomfortable. Instead, I was more curious about the second issue:

How much is a public outlet paying these days? Is this comparable to other state companies? Is it a proper salary or is it disguised under some fancy title such as “loyalty bonus”? Are there under-the-table payments from these private media channels that are being set up by people very close to the government?

My friends explained that the incomes depend on whether the public entity gets “independent funding” or not. And what is independent funding? “Well, if an institution rents out its spaces for events and that generates revenues that do not depend on the state, those are independent funds,” they explained.

In the specific case of media outlets, the answer is obvious: advertising. Nevertheless, in all my years as a journalist, anchor and then editor-in-chief, there was a clear position on this. I remember an episode where a private telecomms company made an offer and my bosses went berserk. “Dear God, Jessica, this company played an active role in the disinformation surrounding the 2002 coup d’Etat.”

Damn, what counter-argument could I offer? None, really. They were right. “Thanks, but no thanks,” we told the would-be sponsors. Still, this line of reasoning meant turning down nearly everything, because at the time the hostility between the state and the private sector was at its high-point. No one was going to risk looking like they were making a deal with the enemy.

With that in mind, and with the crisis hitting public companies and media pretty hard, I offered “softer” alternatives: let us rent our radio studios to students, singers, etc. Let them record their projects, make demo tapes. Or what if we rent the auditorium for workshops and have some income from it. But every proposal was shot down from a moral high ground:

“Charge money from poor students who have no income sources?” “Help musicians who are living the high life instead of supporting grassroots talent for free?” “And what if in those workshops someone starts criticizing the government?”

After several tries, I gave up. I was made to feel terrible in the process, by the way. I was the capitalist chick, the sell-out, the one with no ethics or commitment to Venezuela’s contemporary battles. In truth, I was looking for small concessions that would allow us to continue fighting for our principles in the long run.

Fast forward to today, and it turns out anyone can be a sponsor! Principles are for sale, it would seem. Private companies remain not too keen, but state media will not let that stop them from trying. That is how you will be treated, on the country’s public broadcaster, to an in-depth story about the great work being done by a major pharmacy/convenience store chain that not-so-long-ago was accused of being one of the main drivers of medicine hoarding and speculation.

If anyone finds it strange, there is an explanation: “it turns out that this chain is organizing some very neat Covid-19 vaccination drives and we must highlight the good things.” The “good things” have always been around, if that’s the criteria. The difference is that now it looks like there are no “bad things” anymore, lest any potential advertisers be alienated.

Present-day Venezuela also has a number of up-and-coming entrepreneurs, with their bodegones [high-end stores selling imported goods]. Many times they are just a front for the real rainmakers.

Other sponsor candidates are the growing number of foreign businesses sprouting up everywhere and being treated like the country’s “saviors”, getting breaks and benefits that would have been considered a sacrilege just a few years ago. And rightly so.

In the worst-case scenario, advertising is just money moving from one public entity to another. That’s how you get, for example, a key state company paying thousands and thousands of dollars for publicity in state media programs. Furthermore, journalists or anchors who secure advertisers get a cut of the deal (as high as 40 percent in cases I know of).

As a result, some people who in times past would rail against the commodification of information, against a profit-driven media environment, are nowadays capable of saying that the oil industry is at its best ever moment so long as [state oil company] PDVSA can fork out a small fortune for 15 seconds of praise on their shows. Seems like lying before the whole country is somehow less damaging than charging a musician $10 to rent a studio for an hour…

It is absurd no matter how you look at it. On one side, you have a state enterprise wasting money to put make-up on its poor performance. On the other, the people charged with defending “Venezuela’s truth” are more interested in securing sponsors than doing anything resembling journalism.

The lunch was delicious but I left with a bad taste in my mouth. These are sour times for those of us with a good memory or an inability to just whistle along. Two key skills to face certain realities without succumbing to indignation… or indigestion!

Jessica Dos Santos is a Venezuelan university professor, journalist and writer whose work has appeared in outlets such as RT, Épale CCS magazine and Investig’Action. She is the author of the book “Caracas en Alpargatas” (2018). She’s won the Aníbal Nazoa Journalism Prize in 2014 and received honorable mentions in the Simón Bolívar National Journalism prize in 2016 and 2018.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.

Translated by Venezuelanalysis.