Jordan Times, June 6, 2004
Knight-Ridder/Tribune Information Services - June 1, 2004
Last week the New York Times published an 1100-word note "From the Editors" criticizing its own reporting on the build-up to the Iraq war and the early stages of the occupation. On Sunday the newspaper's Public Editor went further, citing "flawed journalism" and stories that "pushed Pentagon assertions so aggressively you could almost sense epaulets sprouting on the shoulders of editors."
This kind of self-criticism is important, because the media played an important role in convincing the American public -- and probably the Congress as well -- that the war was justified. Unfortunately, these kinds of mistakes are not limited to the New York Times -- or to reporting on Iraq.
Venezuela is a case in point. The Bush administration has been pushing for "regime change" in Venezuela for years now, painting a false and exaggerated picture of the reality there. As in the case of Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction and links to Al-Qaeda, the Administration has gotten a lot of help from the media.
Reporting on Venezuela relies overwhelmingly on opposition sources, many of them about as reliable as Ahmed Chalabi. Although there are any number of scholars and academics -- both Venezuelan and international -- who could offer coherent arguments on the other side, their arguments almost never appear. For balance, we usually get at most a poor person on the street describing why he likes Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, or a sound bite from Chavez himself denouncing "imperialist intervention."
Opposition allegations are repeated constantly, often without rebuttal, and sometimes reported as facts. At the same time, some of the most vital information is hardly reported or not reported at all. For example, the opposition's efforts to recall President Chavez hit a snag in March when more than 800,000 signatures for the recall were invalidated. These signatures were not thrown out but were sent to a "repair process," currently being tallied, in which signers would get a second chance to claim invalidated signatures.
The opposition accused President Chavez of trying to illegitimately deny the people's right to a referendum, and the press here has overwhelmingly echoed this theme. But some vital facts were omitted from the story: the disputed signatures were in violation of the electoral rules, and could legitimately have been thrown out altogether. Furthermore, these rules -- requiring signers to fill out their own name, address and other information -- were well-known to organizers on both sides and publicized in advance of the signature gathering process.  These rules are also common in the United States, including California.
But readers of the U.S. and international press would not know this. And few would know that the members of Venezuela's National Electoral Commission -- which is supervising the election -- was appointed by the Supreme Court, with opposition leaders applauding the appointments. 
Even worse than most news stories on Venezuela are the editorials of major newspapers, where factual errors have become commonplace. The Washington Post has accused Chavez of holding political prisoners and having "muzzled the press,"  All of these allegations are incontestably false. and referred to the Electoral Commission as "Mr. Chavez' appointees."
According to the U.S. State Department, "There [are] no reports of political prisoners in Venezuela."  And far from being "muzzled," the press in Venezuela is one of the most furiously partisan anti-government medias in the entire world. Two months ago one of Venezuela's most influential newspapers actually used a doctored version of a New York Times' article to allege that the Chavez government was implicated in the Madrid terrorist bombing!  But the media has never been censored by the Chavez government. 
To be sure, President Chavez has made himself an easy target by slinging a lot of fiery rhetoric and accusations at President Bush and Washington. But even these diplomatic blunders could use some context: the Bush Administration did, after all, endorse a military coup against Chavez two years ago.  And the US continues to fund his political opponents, including leaders of the failed coup and organizers of the recall effort.  Imagine what Mr. Bush might say about the French President and government if they did those things to him.
Of course Venezuela has rarely been front page news, unlike Iraq. But our government's involvement there has already caused considerable damage and could well push the country to civil war -- especially if our media continues to go along for the ride.
Mark Weisbrot is co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, DC (www.cepr.net).
1 CNE Circular Number 16, dated 25 November 2003:
"In the case that the signer is illiterate, blind, or of very advanced age, the signature collection agent should write the first and last names of the signer, their identification number and date of birth in the corresponding spaces of each of them, and have the signer stamp their fingerprint in the space provided, and note proof of the condition in the space provided."
The fact that the signer was otherwise required to fill out his/her own information was well known to the parties and publicized in advance, with TV commercials, and that forms filled out by people other than the signers were invalid was also confirmed by Fernando Jaramillo, Chief of Staff of the Organization of American States and Head of OAS Mission to Venezuela, in an interview on April 21, 2004.
2 "The five new members of the council represent a cross-section of Venezuela's political landscape, allaying concerns on both sides that the deck would be stacked as the country readies for a recall vote . . . Henry Romas Allup, a prominent opposition voice from the Democratic Action party, said the Supreme Court's decision represents a "final blow to the government." (Pals, Dow Jones Newswire, 27/9/03)
After the Council made decisions unfavorable to the opposition, some U.S. newspapers began referring to it as "government-controlled." (See, e.g., Miami Herald, "Chavez's rivals need one thing: a viable leader," February 17, 2004)
3 "Eyes on Mr. Chávez," editorial, Washington Post, December 13, 2003.
4 "Mr. Chavez's Claim," Editorial, Washington Post, May 26, 2004.
5 U.S. Department of State, "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 2003: Venezuela," Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, February 25, 2004, http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2003/27923.htm
6 For the original article, see Tim Golden and Don Van Natta Jr., "Bombings in Madrid: The Suspects; Carnage Yields Conflicting Clues As Officials Search for Culprits," The New York Times, March 12, 2004. For the altered version, see Marianella Salazar, " Política: Artillería de Oficio," El Nacional (Venezuela) March 24, 2004.
7 "There are few obvious limits on free expression in Venezuela. The country's print and audiovisual media operate without restrictions. Most are strongly opposed to President Chávez and express their criticism in unequivocal and often strident terms." Human Rights Watch, "Venezuela: Caught in the Crossfire: Freedom of Expression in Venezuela," May 2003.
8 Peter Slevin, "Chavez Provoked His Removal, U.S. Officials Say;
Administration Expresses Guarded Optimism About Interim Regime, Calls for Quick Elections," Washington Post, April 13, 2002.
9 See Bart Jones, "Tension in Venezuela; Activist eyes groups' funding; Brooklyn lawyer says U.S. government funds are aiding those trying to overthrow president," Newsday, April 4, 2004
The FOIA documents are posted at http://www.venezuelafoia.info/
Several leaders of organizations that received funds from the U.S. Congressionally-financed National Endowment for Democracy (NED) actually signed the decree that established the coup government in April 2002, and abolished Venezuela's General Assembly, Supreme Court, Constitution, and other democratic institutions. Some are still receiving funds from NED.