Book review: Bad news from Venezuela

Macleod bad news blur min

Bad News from Venezuela: Twenty years of fake news and misreporting

Alan MacLeod, Routledge Focus on Communication and Society 2018

Hardback £45, Kindle £11.40

Alan MacLeod’s book could not come at a more opportune time. President Nicolas Maduro and the Venezuelan Bolivarian Revolution face a brutal economic war, ever-tightening sanctions, a sustained coup attempt and sabotage on all fronts. A propaganda blitz distorts every event, misrepresenting and manipulating the facts, spreading down-right lies and censoring mass mobilisations of revolutionaries defending their struggle for socialism. The capitalist press is a well-honed weapon of war, undermining desperately needed internationalist solidarity and manufacturing consent for imperialist intervention.

Whilst many solidarity activists and embedded journalists have torn apart specific defamatory articles and misleading reports, MacLeod and the Glasgow Media Group expose the trends of reporting on Venezuela, uncovering the insidious processes that achieve hegemony in the newsrooms.  The first half of the book analyses 501 newspaper articles from seven influential English-language newspapers: The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Miami Herald, The Guardian, The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Independent. Each chapter charts an important event in Venezuela’s history: the election of Hugo Chavez in 1998; the 2002 coup; Chavez’s death and funeral in 2013; Maduro’s presidential elections in 2013; and finally, the 2014 Guarimba street protests.  The second half analyses interviews with 27 journalists and academics to understand influences on their reporting. MacLeod applies Chomsky and Herman’s (1988) theory of ‘Manufacturing consent’, which argues public opinion in imperialist nations is manipulated through five systematic biases:

  1. Elite ownership of the media;
  2. Reliance on big advertising for income;
  3. Reliance on official sources and depicted ‘credible experts’;
  4. Flak – journalists learning to self-censor after negative experiences of failing to follow the editorial line;
  5. Anti-socialism – the consistent attacking of any organisation or government seen to be socialist.

The analysis of the 2002 coup is particularly instructive. On 11 April, a coup put business leader Pedro Carmona in the Miraflores Presidential palace whilst Chavez was kidnapped. The coup failed within 48 hours thanks to massive mobilisations of Caracas’s poor who streamed down from the hillsides in defiance, whilst loyal soldiers freed Chavez from prison, returning him to Miraflores. The US denied any involvement in the events, despite congratulating Carmona and ‘civil society’. Documents later obtained under the freedom of information act illustrate that through the National Endowment for Democracy and USAID, the US funded the coup-plotters, quadrupling their funding in 2001, and were aware of their intention to overthrow Chavez. The role of the Venezuelan private media is exposed in the fantastic documentary ‘The Revolution will not be Televised’ with Army leader Vice-Admiral Hector Ramirez boasting, ‘We had a deadly weapon: the media’. State channels were shut down, journalists, trade unionists and Chavista politicians were rounded up with 100 imprisoned in one day. The private media broadcast the lie that Chavez had resigned and refused to cover the counter-coup, with the RCTV channel director ordering ‘zero chavismo’ on screen.

The role of the international press is less documented, but every newspaper MacLeod sampled published material supporting the coup, demonising Chavez as a dictator, despite him having won three elections and referendums by this point. Conversely, Carmona was portrayed positively by a ratio of 3:1. The fact that that during his few hours in power he liquidated the courts, constitution, parliament and was rounding up journalists and activists, was hardly recognised. The events were painted as ‘an uprising’ with 166 references to the resignation or fall of Chavez. It wasn’t until 15 April, when Chavez had regained the presidency and the White House first referred to a ‘coup’, that the media began to more frequently use the word.  Coverage widely dismissed suggestions of US involvement with only 12 out of 31 British articles and 11 of 112 US articles considering the possibility, many of them presenting this as left-wing nonsense. As MacLeod notes, ‘The majority of the media closely mirrored the positions of the US government on all the key issues, not only in tone and substance, but even in wording. The lack of apologies afterward, recognising their errors in the fog of war, is hard to reconcile with the idea that the media attempted to report the coup accurately and honestly.’  We see the same skewed reporting in the coverage of this year’s attempted coup and the violent ‘Guarimba’ protests of 2014 and 2017.

When Chavez died in 2013 more countries declared national mourning than after the death of Nelson Mandela. Chavez’s initiatives for international solidarity included the PetroCaribe oil for development programme, the launch of the Bolivarian Alliance for Latin America (ALBA) with programmes for mutual aid and trade, the Operation Miracle programme offering free cataract operations across Latin America, and outspoken support for anti-imperialist struggles around the globe. Nevertheless, you would be hard pushed to find any positive coverage of Chavez’s legacy in the capitalist press. MacLeod compares obituaries of Chavez to those of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in 2015. Abdullah banned freedom of religion, ordered the public crucifixion of youth who supported the Arab spring, and ordered regular beheadings.  Despite this, the newspapers sampled described Abdullah as ‘popular’, ‘something of an advocate of women’s rights’ and repeated quotes from British PM David Cameron and US President Barack Obama naming Abdullah as ‘a peacemaker’, ‘educator’, with a ‘commitment to peace and for strengthening understanding between faiths’. In stark contrast, the same newspapers Chavez was presented as ‘full of idiotic bombast’, a ‘demagogue’ and a ‘tyrant’. As MacLeod highlights, ‘Hugo Chavez, a man who had won multiple clean elections, dramatically reduced inequality, poverty and extreme poverty… was presented in a less favourable light than King Abdullah, an absolute monarch boasting one of the worst human rights records in history.’

Such distorted reporting depicts near state control over the press, censoring anyone contesting elections against Hugo Chavez or his elected successor Nicolas Maduro. MacLeod destroys this myth in his analysis of the 2013 Presidential elections in which Nicolas Maduro, identified by Chavez as the candidate for the Bolivarian revolution, stood against opposition politician Henrique Capriles. State channels maintain an 8-10% share of the TV audience, whilst private channels capture over 60%, the remainder preferring pay television (cable/satellite) the majority of which is private. 70% of Venezuela’s TV and radio stations are privately owned and of the four main newspapers controlling 86% of circulation, three of them identify as opposition.  In the 2013 elections, the US Carter Centre (electoral observers) found that private TV devoted 73% of its coverage to Capriles, showing him in a positive light, whilst state coverage dedicated 90% of coverage to Maduro, showing him in a positive light.  Given the audience share, Capriles received nearly double the coverage of Maduro in the run up to the election. Despite this, 124 articles in MacLeod’s sample described the elections as unclean or unfair compared to 22 articles countering this idea.  Staggeringly, not a single article was written describing the Venezuelan press as free, whereas 166 articles portrayed a state media ‘empire’ with press ‘sanctioned wherever its toe strayed across a highly diaphanous line’. As MacLeod argues, ‘Capriles “competed” on the “cowed” private media by receiving three times as much coverage as Maduro on the four private terrestrial channels….All four of the private terrestrial channels ran more Capriles ads than Maduro ads, three of whom devoted so much attention to Capriles that every day of the campaign period they broke the law that imposes a legal maximum limit.’ As academic Pascal Lupien retorts, ‘I have a hard time understanding how anyone can argue that there is no critical TV media left in Venezuela….one can simply watch television for five minutes or read any of the newspapers to debunk that myth.’

In this invaluable analysis, MacLeod illustrates how the major English-language news-outlets consistently present Venezuela in a framework in line with US and British government positions, but why is this the case? Six multi-billion-dollar corporations control the US press and airwaves. In Britain, just three corporations, News UK (Murdoch), DMGT and Trinity Mirror control 70% of newspaper circulation. Not only are these corporations monopolising news, they are part of even larger conglomerations with financial and global interests. MacLeod notes that at the time of the invasion of Iraq, NBC was owned by General Electric, a massive arms manufacturer who stood to profit from the ensuing war. NBC dutifully lobbied for the invasion.

Furthermore, news outlets are dependent on advertising. Their patrons often intervene in editorial lines with US advertisers pulling out of the American distribution of The Guardian after it published Edward Snowden’s NSA spying revelations. The journalists themselves often represent a specific class interest. Over half of leading British journalists were privately educated and nearly 40% are Oxbridge graduates. The field is very competitive with journalists needing to live in London, pay high rents or mortgages and undertake unpaid internships to get a foot in the door. As Herman (1982) identified, journalists are ‘predominantly white middle-class people who tend to share the values of the corporate leadership… approval, advancement and even job survival depend on an acceptance of certain priorities… The mass media top leadership puts into key position individuals who reflect their values.’

All the journalists interviewed had lived or stayed in Chacao, Eastern Caracas, the wealthiest district in Venezuela and heartland of the opposition. Though Chacao is an epicentre of violent street protests, these reporters cite security as the main reason for not going out to the barrios to investigate the reality for the working class and poor, the backbone of the Chavista movement. Consequentially, as regular columnist Francisco Toro explains, ‘There is a tendency to cave up in the little east side bubble in Caracas, where the fancy mansions are and where the English-speaking sources are.’ Furthermore, the opposition pressure journalists to present in a certain way. Lee Salter (University of Sussex) explains, ‘you cannot mention, in English, that you think the Bolivarian Revolution is anything other than some Nazi Blitzkrieg over Venezuela. If you say anything other than that they are on you… These people invite you to their garden parties. You want to go for a drink in your local bar or café and if they think you are a supporter of Chavez then you are going to get it in the neck all the time.’ In fact, Irish journalist Michael McCaughan reports being physically assaulted and kicked out of a hotel by the manager after he mentioned he was attending a Chavez rally.

There is a close relationship between the international media and the private Venezuelan media. Julia Buxton (Central European University) explains, ‘There are contracts, networks, family and alumni links and business relationships between people in Venezuela and the US media…. rather than having investigative journalism, what we have instead is a recycling of the material.’ All the major international press organisations have opposition Venezuelan journalists on their staff. Opposition reporter Virgina Lopez-Glass is now employed by the BBC and Guardian. Emilia Diaz-Struck, former staff of El Nacional and El Universal, now writes for The Washington Post. There is little difference between the internal Venezuelan media and the international media.

Similarly, in the newsroom the few dissenting journalists are pressured to conform to the official line.  Matt Kennard (Financial Times) explains, ‘I just never even pitched stories that I knew would never get in… After I got knocked back from pitching various articles I just stopped… I wanted to test out that Manufacturing Consent idea. And it was explicit. What happens if you put “US-backed” into a newspaper? Will they take it out? Yes. And the funny thing is that no one would ever know because the journalists would just never think it. It is a form of mind control because everyone thinks they are free. And the best people to write censored articles are the people who don’t even realise they are performing self-censorship.’

This coupled with intense time pressures, cuts and the need to pen ‘clickbait’ to compete online, produces ridiculous headlines like the allegedly starving Venezuelan’s breaking into zoos to eat the animals. The actual story reported by local news was that a horse had died, and several men were under investigation, nothing to do with food or starvation. Elements of Chomsky and Herman’s analysis are clearly operating in international capitalist press coverage of Venezuela, manufacturing consent for ever hostile intervention and sanctions.

Though MacLeod highlights that under Chavez, Venezuela revived OPEC, increasing oil prices and became an ‘epicentre of a Latin American challenge to Western Imperialism’, a deeper analysis of European and US imperialism in Venezuela is beyond the scope of this book.  We must understand the current attack on the struggle for socialism in the context of a global economic crisis. It is not just that the US, Britain and the rest of Europe are opposed to paying higher prices for oil, but due to the over-accumulation of capital, there is an ever-desperate scramble for the exploitation of nature and human resources. The US is threatened by increasing Russian and Chinese investment in its own ‘back yard’ whilst there is a need to crush any revolutionary alternative to crisis ridden capitalism. The fight for socialism in Latin America, the vanguard of the socialist movement in the last 20 years, must be crushed, discredited and discarded and in this task of imperialism, the role of the international press is central. We do not agree with MacLeod’s suggestion that what Corbyn’s Labour party proposes is a model of 21st century socialism for Britain, whatever empty phrases are used in their manifesto. But MacLeod’s work is critical to understanding the role of the capitalist press in promoting the interests of imperialism, at home and abroad. ‘Bad news from Venezuela’ is an informative read and gives us a framework for fighting the propaganda war against Venezuela and the struggle for socialism around the world.

Sam McGill


 

Alan MacLeod has also recently published articles analysing media coverage of Guaido’s attempted coup for FAIR - Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting https://fair.org/author/alan-macleod/

 

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