Distorting Democracy – The Media and Venezuela

You can’t. You can’t walk with your own legs. You are not able to think with your own head. You cannot feel with your own heart, and so you’re obliged to buy legs, heart, mind, outside as import products.”[Eduardo Galeano, Democracy Now!, May 19, 2006] [1]

The context within which facts are presented has an inherent and inescapable influence on their interpretation. The context is essentially the product of various consciously and unconsciously imposed frames – providing a set of assumptions or standards via which the facts are to be understood. This context may not necessarily be supported by the facts, but the very method of offering them within it can be enough to either alter or bring into question their meaning.

Media Lens have commented, referencing Philip Lesly, author of a handbook on public relations and communications, that the PR method of creating ‘organised confusion’ can be used ‘to prevent profit-costly action being taken on everything from ozone depletion to global warming, to nuclear disarmament, to lifting sanctions against Iraq’:

“People generally do not favour action on a non-alarming situation when arguments seem to be balanced on both sides and there is a clear doubt. The weight of impressions on the public must be balanced so people will have doubts and lack motivation to take action. Accordingly , means are needed to get balancing information into the stream from sources that the public will find credible. There is no need for a clear-cut ‘victory’… Nurturing public doubts by demonstrating that this is not a clear-cut situation in support of the opponents usually is all that is necessary.” [Philip Lesly, ‘Coping with Opposition Groups,’ Public Relations Review 18, 1992, p.331] [2]

This system of ‘balancing information’ is essentially aimed at nurturing doubt. And while the above outlines an overt plan to undermine public perception, the creation of distorting frames can be similarly influential. These frames may lead the reader to believe they are interpreting the facts without prejudice; however, the preconceptions imposed by these distortions can imbue uncertainty which inevitably leads to an incorrect or biased understanding. This manufactured doubt is again likely to repress ‘motivation to take action’ – ensuring, whether the writer intends it or not, that the reader remains a passive consumer.

In practice, distorting frames have been shown to turn common sense interpretation of verifiable facts on their head. Such that in this manufactured context – lack of evidence of a nuclear arms program points towards faulty intelligence, hostility towards occupying forces points towards outside interference and free and fair elections points towards a burgeoning dictatorship.

Absolute power and the ballot

Like much of the Western media, the Irish mainstream professes profound concern for Venezuela’s current political and economic direction. This interest generates masses of column inches, covering everything from protests and elections to the most insignificant of events there – such as a planned daylight savings time change, which led David Usborne of the Independent to mild hysterics: ‘Mr Chavez is seizing control of time’. Venezuela is by far the most talked about country in Latin America where the Western media is concerned. And their concern is borne out of distrust for just one individual, democratically elected President Hugo Chavez. [3]

Not content with the president’s democratic credentials or the significant improvements he has helped create for the Venezuelan people, entering their fifth year of economic growth – The UN Economic Commission for Latin America commented: “Thanks to rapid GDP growth and the ongoing implementation of broad social programmes, in 2006 alone the poverty rate was lowered from 37.1% to 30.2% and the indigence [extreme poverty] rate from 15.9% to 9.9%.” [4] [5] – the mainstream media have sought to cast the president in the role of ‘dictator in waiting’, faithfully echoing the US’s intransigent opposition:

“The US is bent on casting the president, Hugo Chavez, as a tyrant” [‘Pilger’s may be a partisan voice in the wilderness but few can quarrel with the evidence he presents’, Eithne Tynan, 26/08/2007] [6]

Although this program of undermining Chavez has been hampered thus far by events there:

Elections, over the 9 years since Chavez was first elected president, have been described by international observers as “a remarkable demonstration of democracy in its purest form.” [US President Jimmy Carter, Chicago Tribune, August 12 1998] [7]

In 2000, Chavez increased his winning margin from 56/40 to 60/38 percent in elections “monitored and certified by a variety of observers including the Organization of American States, the European Union and the Carter Center .” The Carter Centre concluded “that the presidential election legitimately expressed the will of the people.” [7] [8]

In 2004, following a publicly petitioned re-call (a democratic safeguard introduced by Chavez) in which Chavez took 59% of the vote, former US President Jimmy Carter and OAS Secretary General César Gaviria announced that the OAS electoral observation mission’s members had “found no element of fraud in the process”‘ and certified the vote as fair and open. [9] [10]

In March 2007 a report published by the US Department of State noted with predictable restraint, of the December 3 2006 national elections won by Chavez, that ‘Official observation missions from both the European Union and Organization of American States deemed the elections generally free and fair’. [11]

And following the latest referendum on constitutional reforms, December 4 2007, Latin American leaders and European ministers gave these comments of support:

[Former] Argentinean President Nestor Kirchner called President Chavez a “great democrat” and said he wished politicians in Argentina could practice the same recognition of democratic results.

Bolivian President Evo Morales praised Chavez “because he submits his thinking, his feelings, and his ideas to the decision of the people. And that is democracy.”

President of Paraguay Nicanor Duarte also praised the Venezuelan president, stating that “his posture demonstrates that he is a great democrat and it puts to death the impression that he is authoritarian.” [12]

Spanish Foreign Affairs minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said he was pleased to see that “free expression of people’s sovereignty has been accepted by all sides including those who had promoted the referendum.” [13]

Contrarily, the mainstream media chose to ignore these and other comments and instead sought the thoughts of the Western stakeholder:

“The US government has branded Chavez a menace to democracy in Latin America and welcomed his defeat.” [Brian Ellsworth, Chavez power play backfires in narrow referendum defeat, Irish Independent, December 4 2007] [14]

“The United States which considers Mr Chavez a threat to its influence in the region.” [Chavez’s idea of democracy… it’s a job for life, Irish Independent, August 17 2007] [15]

As discerning media readers will know, this is nothing new; the mainstream media appears almost completely reliant on the Washington perspective where international news is concerned.

Noam Chomsky offered the following explanation as to why Washington sees leaders such as Hugo Chavez as a ‘threat to their influence’:

“It is an extremely serious challenge. From Venezuela to Argentina the region is falling out of US control, moving toward independent policies and economic integration, beginning to reverse patterns of dependence on foreign powers and isolation from one another that go back to the Spanish conquests.

Morales’ election reflects the entry of the indigenous population into the political arena throughout the continent. Along with other popular forces, indigenous people are demanding control over their own resources, a serious threat to Washington’s plans to rely on resources from the Western hemisphere, particularly energy.” [BBC News, March 30 2006] [16]

A sentiment echoed by Argentinean President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner at the opening ceremony of Banco Del Sur, the region’s answer to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund:

“I want, on such a special day for all of us, for all Argentineans, to tell you that never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined a situation like this. Never, here, on a ninth of December in a white room in the casa rosada (the pink house), accompanied by presidents who, as I keep on saying, for the first time resemble their people.” [December 9 2007] [17] [18]

This inconsistency reveals a disparity of understanding as to what constitutes ‘democracy’ – between those that practice it independently and those who wish to impose it externally. In relaying events within the Washington context the media is compelled to understand the situation in those terms, the underlying assumptions, as we will see, appear to be shaping the coverage, the ‘facts being fixed around the policy’ as it were.

Don’t think of a dictator

The dominant frame that runs almost without exception throughout Irish mainstream coverage is that President Hugo Chavez is on the road to becoming a dictator. While it is perhaps counterproductive to introduce a distorting frame, it is necessary to recognise it in order to dispel it.

In the lead up to and following the recent referendum on proposed constitutional changes the Irish media devoted numerous articles to their discussion. But while the proposed changes numbered nearly 70, including “amendments that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or physical health; provide for gender parity for political parties; guarantee free university education and make it more difficult for homeowners to lose their homes during bankruptcy,” the media focused on just one – the proposed abolition of presidential terms limits. And despite the proposal being very clear: “The Presidential Period is 7 years. The President of the Republic may be re-elected.” (i.e. the citizens will remain in control of any re-elections), many journalists appeared to encounter severe interpretive difficulty in fully grasping the proposition. Thus we were served up some remarkably inaccurate statements and observations including the following: [19] [20]

“HUGO Chavez proposed sweeping changes to Vene-zuela’s constitution yesterday, which would make him president for life.” [Chavez’s idea of democracy… it’s a job for life, Irish Independent, August 17 2007] [15]

“He … is currently in the process of destroying the Venezuelan constitution to allow him become ruler-for-life.” [What’s the Spanish for a useful idiot?, Irish Independent, August 08 2007] [21]

“proposals were more focused on allowing Chavez to remain in office for as long as he wanted, and in the manner he wanted” [No, Mr. President, The Sunday Tribune, December 9 2007] [22]

“proposed changes to its constitution that would give its populist leader Hugo Chavez new tools to accelerate his socialist revolution and potentially remain president for life.” [David Usborne, Venezuela votes on Chavez revolution, Irish Independent, December 3 2007] [23]

“One of the most controversial proposals in the charter would abolish presidential term limits, giving the 53-year-old populist the opportunity to remain in office indefinitely.” [Proposal in Venezuela may mean less work, more play, Juan Forero, Irish Times, November 2 2007] [24]

This pervasive distortion of easily identifiable fact reinforces an underlying and corrupting ideology behind much of the mainstream reporting on Venezuela. That numerous intelligent and critical thinkers, which many journalists no doubt are, can settle on the same misrepresentation, one that coincidentally pars with the rhetoric of powerful Western leaders, either constitutes an amazing turn of chance or simply further evidences the embedded nature of corporate journalism.

However, both the Irish Times and RTE proved interpreting the actual meaning was not entirely impossible, though naturally the US government-orientated context and focus remain the same:

“President Hugo Chavez suffered defeat today as Venezuelans rejected his bid to run for re-election indefinitely.” [Chavez loses vote bid for new powers, Irish Times, December 3 2007] [25]

“Mr Chavez defended his constitutional reform plan, denying that he was seeking to ‘enthrone’ himself and saying a president’s re-election was ultimately in the hands of Venezuelan voters.” [Chavez plans to amend constitution, RTE.ie, August 16 2007] [26]

Having established that Chavez’s proposed constitutional amendments, to be voted on in referendum, were merely an unobvious attempt to secure long term power, the confused journalist then puts two and two together to get ‘one president for life’:

“Student protests spearheaded an opposition campaign with rights and business groups, opposition parties, the Roman Catholic Church all lined up against him. They accused him of pushing the constitutional reforms to set up a dictatorship.” [Brian Ellsworth, Irish Independent, December 4 2007] [14]

“While some should win broad support, including a shorter work day and increased pension rights, others prompted allegations of a dictatorship in the making .” [David Usborne, Irish Independent, December 3 2007] [23]

“The modern Latin dictator does not seize power with tanks. Rather, he gets himself more or less fairly elected, then promptly sets about dismantling every check on his power, closing down parliament, nationalising the media, stuffing the judiciary, vitiating the electoral commission, rewriting the constitution.” [Unlucky strike: why oil wealth is a curse, Irish Independent, August 1 2007] [27]

The inversion of logic and truth here is astounding – the distorted interpretation of democratic referenda is extrapolated to declare the existence of a dictator. This goes beyond mere lazy journalism and takes us well into the territory of willful misrepresentation, as always, presented as informed critical analysis.

An individual revolution

In the mainstream media vision Chavez does not ‘run’ or ‘lead’ the country like Western presidents and prime ministers, he ‘rules’ or ‘reigns’ over the country. He does not ‘lead’ a revolution; it is ‘his revolution’. This idea fits perfectly within the context of ‘the dictator in waiting’, despite the fact let us remember, that it is only through numerous public votes that the revolution has been progressed. Which is to say it is far from the truth and seeks only to further undermine the ‘democracy’ Venezuelans have chosen.

This idea of an individual revolution controlled entirely by a monarchical figure runs systematically throughout the reporting of Ireland’s liberal broadsheets. It is “his socialist revolution”, “his assault on “evil” capitalism.” [14] “his ongoing quest for what he calls “21st-century socialism” [22] “his programme of change.” [Defeat for Chávez, Irish Times, December 6, 2007] [28] and “his self-styled socialist revolution.” [Venezuela votes on extending Chavez’s reign, Rory Carroll, Irish Times, December 3, 2007] [29]

This supposition further predicates the unsubstantiated contention that Chavez does not ‘propose’ changes but rather he ‘imposes’ them – and directly conflicts with Chavez’s recognized and established position – again a matter of easily verifiable record which is studiously ignored. In an event broadcast on national TV December 15 2006 to celebrate the recent election victory President Chavez stated:

“the most important issue is socialism. I haven’t got a blueprint, I am calling on you to build socialism, so that we build it from below, from within, our own socialist model.” [30]

The economic and social revolution spear headed by Hugo Chavez has seen unprecedented popular support, and not just from a formally marginalised majority – the poor. It can only be from an elementary misinterpretation of this democratic backing that the mainstream media have seen fit to attribute the entire success, though it is rarely described as such, of the program to the President. And it is clear that far from being proof of an electoral attempt to temper ‘Chavez’s revolution’, the recent defeat of the referendum, marginal as it was (51/49), was simply evidence that the revolution will be progressed on the people’s terms.

The Sunday Tribune’s Eithne Tynan, reviewing journalist John Pilger’s film ‘The War on Democracy’, commented:

“Pilger points clearly to a wealthy, business elite that has long been pulling the strings politically (and I think we’re all well-acquainted with how that arrangement works). He visits rich, frustrated people in the posh suburbs of Caracas, who, like white South Africans before them, are now thinking of quitting Venezuela because those “bleddy natives” don’t know how to run a country.” [‘Pilger’s may be a partisan voice in the wilderness but few can quarrel with the evidence he presents’, Eithne Tynan, August 26 2007] [6] [31]

In accepting the ‘dictator’ frame and thus fully internalising the ‘rich, frustrated’ oppositions rhetorical position, a predominant feature of the Venezuelan mass media (a fact we are rarely exposed to), her colleagues in the Irish and Western media may have inadvertently internalised the underlying prejudice exposed in Pilger’s exposition. Alternatively, they may be well aware of what they are doing – eager only to prove their credentials to the mainstream media club which has so far rarely failed to support the Washington agenda.

This latest assault on the validity of Venezuelan democracy, one that undermines the Venezuelan people’s right to self determination, is alleged to haven arisen out of benevolent concern. However this ‘critical eye’ is not cast uniformly. On the contrary, much was made by those same benefactors, the media and Washington alike, of the purple stained fingers of Iraqi ‘democracy’. Despite the fact no recipe for free and fair elections existed, certainly nothing that remotely compared to the fairness and transparency of the elections which have taken place in Venezuela under Chavez, the Irish mainstream media remained unerringly confident in the occupier’s process and lavished praise upon them:

‘Poll success eclipses past blunders for US’ [Conor O’Clery, February 1 2005] and ‘Opportunity for Iraq’ [February 15 2005] proclaimed the headlines in the Irish Times, in its typically understated approval. [32] [33]

The unpalatable reality of militarily imposed ‘democracy’ thus successfully whitewashed, the perpetrators exonerated and the truth disappeared down the memory hole. And through this contrarian approach to analysis of democracy, a clear message sent to those not yet conforming – only when ‘we’ are there to hold your hand can you try democracy.

Suggested Action

Please open the debate with journalists and editors on these issues:

Irish Independent Editor, Gerald O’Regan independent.letters@unison.independent.ie

Irish Times Editor, Geraldine Kennedy gkennedy@irish-times.ie edsoffice@irish-times.ie

Letters to the Editor lettersed@irish-times.ie

David Usborne d.usborne@independent.co.uk

Juan Forero forero@nytimes.com

Brian Ellsworth brian.ellsworth@reuters.com

Conor O’Clery coclery@irish-times.ie

Rory Carroll rory.carroll@guardian.co.uk

MediaBite supports an open and constructive debate with the media and individual journalists, please ensure all correspondence is polite. Please copy all emails to editors@mediabite.org.
[Correction: It was suggested by a reader that the term ‘distorted frame’ was ambiguous, and should be replaced with ‘distorting frame’. 13/01/08]

1. http://www.democracynow.org/2006…legendary_uruguayan_writer
2. http://www.zmag.org/Sustainers/content/2002-01/15edwards.cfm
3. http://news.independent.co.uk/world/americas/article2984796.ece
4. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/3023
5. http://www.newstatesman.com/200711260004
6. http://www.tribune.ie/article.tvt?_scope=Tribune…chavez&FC

7. http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=3009
8. http://www.cartercenter.org/documents/297.pdf#page=10
9. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venezuelan_recall_referendum,_2004
10. http://www.cartercenter.org/documents/2020.pdf
11. http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2006/78909.htm
12. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/2960
13. http://www.mercopress.com/vernoticia.do?id=12055&formato=HTML
14. http://www.independent.ie/world-news/south-america…1236273.html
15. http://www.independent.ie/world-news/south-america…1061096.html
16. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/4813378.stm
17. http://hughgreen.wordpress.com/2007/12/10/if-the-wind-changes/
18. http://afp.google.com/article/ALeqM5gNDfrovUk6vINegpO3Hw2A1OKUCA
19. http://www.newstatesman.com/200711210001
20. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/3008
21. http://www.independent.ie/world-news/south…1053468.html
22. http://www.tribune.ie/article.tvt?_scope=…chavez&FC =
23. http://www.independent.ie/world-news/south…1235163.html
24. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/world/2007/1102/1193444383892.html
25. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/breaking/2007/1203/breaking53.html
26. http://www.rte.ie/news/2007/0816/venezuela.html
27. http://www.independent.ie/other/unlucky-strike-why-oil…1049196.html
28. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/opinion/2007/1206/1196838981122.html
29. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/world/2007/1203/1196375209760.html
30. http://www.marxist.com/political-instrument-revolution-socialism201206.htm
31. http://www.johnpilger.com/
32. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/world/2005/0201/1104400435753.html
33. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/opinion/2005/0215/1107916246635.html

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