When Reporters Don't Let Facts Get in the Way of a Good Story
The Guardian Unlimited, June 22, 2010
See article on original website
Stephen Sackur provides a misleading and one-sided picture of Venezuela after a brief visit there, during which he interviewed President Hugo Chávez ("A chat with Chávez — Oliver Stone's new lead tells all," 14 June). I am the co-writer of Oliver Stone's forthcoming documentary on Chávez, South Of The Border, and was present throughout the interview.
Sackur says that Chávez "categorically denied claims frequently aired in the U.S. that Venezuela is supplying Iran with uranium." But Venezuela does not even produce uranium, as Chávez told him during the interview.
Sackur paints a distorted picture of economic failure under the Chávez government. "In the capital's sprawling hillside barrios, jobs are scarce," he says. But jobs are much less scarce today than when Chávez took office, with unemployment at 8% in 2009 compared with 15% in 1999 – which Chávez also mentioned to him.
There are a number of statistics made available to Sackur that show enormous progress during the decade: poverty fell by more than 44%; the number of primary care physicians in the public sector grew more than 10-fold; and poor people now have access to free healthcare.
There were very large increases in access to education at all levels, including a doubling of enrollment in higher education; real (inflation-adjusted) social spending more than trebled, including a vast expansion of social security benefits; and income inequality under Chávez was reduced more than anywhere in Latin America. By 2008 Venezuela had the most equal distribution of income in the region.
These statistics are accepted by international agencies such as the UN Economic Commission on Latin America and the World Bank. They represent a vast improvement in the lives of most Venezuelans.
But Sackur focuses almost exclusively on the negative. He brushes over the vast social transformation that has taken place in just one sentence: "Chávez quoted a stream of economic statistics ... unemployment halved, extreme poverty down from 25% to 5%." The average reader might miss this entirely, as it is so tiny and reported as a mere allegation from a source that the media has demonized for the past decade. By contrast, Sackur reports the negative data and even some unsubstantiated allegations as fact.
Sackur conjures up images of China after Tiananmen Square, with fantastically exaggerated rhetoric about a "crackdown on opposition." But there is no such thing, and the mass media in Venezuela is overwhelmingly opposed to the government – one of the most oppositional in the hemisphere.
Most of the western world thinks that Venezuela is some kind of dictatorship where Chávez has made people poorer. They have no idea why he has been re-elected twice, each time by a larger majority. This kind of reporting explains why they are so misinformed; sadly, it is all too typical.