AlterNet - June 24, 2003
Viewed on August 29, 2003
Editors note: As a globetrotting investigative reporter who has worked for major news outlets on both sides of the Atlantic, Greg Palast has had ample opportunity to see how media coverage can strongly skew how events are seen by the public. Last week, in an original article published on AlterNet, "The Screwing of Cynthia McKinney", he showed how sloppy reporters at the New York Times and National Public Radio were complicit in the political destruction of progressive Rep. Cynthia McKinney. Now, in another case study, he takes on U.S. media coverage of Venezuela's political turmoil.
Last June, on Page One of the San Francisco Chronicle, an Associated Press photo of a mass of demonstrators carried the following caption:
"TENS OF THOUSANDS OF VENEZUELANS OPPOSED TO PRESIDENT HUGO CHAVEZ..."
The caption let us know this South American potentate was a killer, an autocrat, and the people of his nation wanted him out. The caption continued: "[Venezuelans] marched Saturday to demand his resignation and punishment for those responsible for 17 deaths during a coup in April. 'Chavez leave now!' read a huge banner."
There was no actual story in the Chronicle -- South America simply isn't worth wasting words on -- just the photo and caption. But the Chronicle knew no story was needed. Venezuelans hated their terrible president, and all you needed was this photo to prove it.
And I could confirm the large protests. I'd recently returned from Caracas and watched 100,000 march against President Chavez. I'd filmed them for BBC Television London.
But I also filmed this: a larger march, easily over 200,000 Venezuelans marching in support of their president, Chavez.
That picture, of the larger pro-Chavez march, did not appear in a single U.S. newspaper. The pro-Chavez marchers weren't worth a mention.
By the next month, when the New York Times printed a photo of anti-Chavez marchers, they had metastasized. The Times reported that 600,000 had protested against Chavez.
Once again, the larger pro-Chavez demonstrations were, as they say in Latin America, "disappeared." I guess they didn't fit the print.
Look at the Chronicle/AP photo of the anti-Chavez marchers in Venezuela. Note their color. White.
And not just any white. A creamy rich white.
I interviewed them and recorded in this order: a banker in high heels and push-up bra; an oil industry executive (same outfit); and a plantation owner who rode to Caracas in a silver Jaguar.
And the color of the pro-Chavez marchers? Dark brown. Brown and round as cola nuts -- just like their hero, their President Chavez. They wore an unvarying uniform of jeans and T-shirts.
Let me explain.
For five centuries, Venezuela has been run by a minority of very white people, pure-blood descendants of the Spanish conquistadors. To most of the 80 percent of Venezuelans who are brown, Hugo Chavez is their Nelson Mandela, the man who will smash the economic and social apartheid that has kept the dark-skinned millions stacked in cardboard houses in the hills above Caracas while the whites live in high-rise splendor in the city center. Chavez, as one white Caracas reporter told me with a sneer, gives them bricks and milk, and so they vote for him.
Why am I explaining the basics of Venezuela to you? If you watched BBC TV, or Canadian Broadcasting, you'd know all this stuff. But if you read the New York Times, you'll only know that President Chavez is an "autocrat," a "ruinous demagogue," and a "would-be dictator," who resigned when he recognized his unpopularity.
Odd phrasings -- "dictator" and "autocrat" -- to describe Chavez, who was elected by a landslide majority (56 percent) of the voters. Unlike our President.
On April 12, 2002, Chavez resigned his presidency It said so, right there in the paper -- every major newspaper in the USA, every single one. Apparently, to quote the New York Times, Chavez recognized that he was unpopular, his time was up: "With yesterday's resignation of President Hugo Chavez, Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator."
Problem was, the "resignation" story was a fabulous fib, a phantasmagoric fabrication. In fact, the President of Venezuela had been kidnapped at gunpoint and bundled off by helicopter from the presidential palace. He had not resigned; he never resigned; and one of his captors (who secretly supported Chavez) gave him a cell-phone from which he called and confirmed to friends and family that he remained alive -- and still president.
Working for the Guardian and the BBC, I was able within hours of the kidnapping to reach key government people in Venezuela to confirm that this "resignation" factoid was just hoodoo nonsense.
But it was valuable nonsense to the U.S. State Department. The faux resignation gave the new U.S.-government-endorsed Venezuelan leaders the pretense of legitimacy -- Chavez had resigned; this was a legal change of government, not a coup d'etat. (The Organization of American States bars recognition of governments who come to power through violence.) Had the coup leaders not bungled their operation -- the coup collapsed within 48 hours -- or if they had murdered Chavez, we would never have known the truth.
The U.S. papers got it dead wrong -- but how? Who was the source of this "resignation" lie? I asked a U.S. reporter why American news media had reported this nonsense as stone fact without checking. The reply was that it came from a reliable source: "We got it from the State Department."
"He's crazy," shouts a protester about President Chavez on one broadcast. And if you watched the 60 Minutes interview with Chavez, you saw a snippet of a lengthy conversation -- a few selective seconds, actually -- which, out of context, did made Chavez look loony.
In the old Soviet Union, dissidents were packed off to insane asylums to silence and discredit them. In our democracy we have a more subtle -- and more effective -- means of silencing and discrediting dissidents. Television, radio, and print press obligingly sequester enemies of the state in the media's madhouse. In this way, Bush critic Rep. Cynthia McKinney became "loony" (see "The Screwing of Cynthia McKinney"); Chavez a mad "autocrat."
It's the electronic loony bin. You no longer hear what they have to say because you've been told by images, by repetition, and you've already dismissed their words ... if by some chance their words break through the television Berlin Wall.
Try it: Do a Google or Lexis search on the words Chavez and autocrat.
For who is the autocrat? Today, there are hundreds of people held in detention without charges in George Bush's United States. In Venezuela, there are none.
This is not about Venezuela but about the Virtual Venezuela, created for you by America's news wardens. The escape routes are guarded.
January 5, 2003, New York City. Picked up bagels and the Sunday Times on Delancey Street. Looks like that s.o.b. Chavez is at it again: Here was a big picture of a half-dozen people lying on the ground. The Times story read: "Protesters shielded themselves from tear gas during an anti- government rally on Friday in Caracas, Venezuela. In the 33rd day of a national strike, several protesters were shot."
That was it -- the entire story of Venezuela for the Paper of Record.
Maybe size doesn't matter. But this does: Even this itty-bitty story is a steaming hot bag of mendacity. Yes, two people were shot dead -- those in the pro-Chavez march.
I'd be wrong to say that every U.S. paper repeated the Times sloppy approach. Elsewhere, you could see a photo of the big pro-Chavez march and a photo of the "Chavista" widow placed within an explanatory newswire story. Interestingly, the fuller and correct story ran in an outlet that's none too friendly to Chavez: El Diario, New York City's oldest Spanish-language newspaper.
Lesson: If you want to get accurate news in the United States, you might want to learn a language other than English.
Friday, January 3, 2003. The New York Times ran a long "News Analysis: Venezuela Outlook." Four experts were quoted. For balance, two of them don't like Chavez, while the other two despise him.
The Times reporter wrote that "the president says he will stay in power." "In power?" What a strange phrase for an elected official. Having myself spoken with Chavez, it did not sound like him. He indicated he would stay "in office" -- quite a different inference than "in power." But then, the Times' phrasing isn't in quotes.
That's because Chavez never said it.
This article was based on a contribution to the compendium, "Abuse Your Illusions," released this month by Disinformation Press. Oliver Shykles, Fredda Weinberg, Ina Howard, and Phil Tanfield contributed research for this report. Palast, an investigative reporter for BBC television, is author of the New York Times bestseller, "The Best Democracy Money Can Buy" (Penguin/Plume 2003).