The media's misunderstanding of Venezuela

Hugo Chavez is definitely going to lose, isn’t he?

In the run-up to this year’s Venezuelan election, one thing is clear. The incumbent, Hugo Chavez, may lose this time. Indeed he probably lost in 1998, 2000, 2005 and every election contested. At least that’s what we can judge from British news media coverage. Tales of a “shock victory” and of winning an “unexpected majority” will no doubt animate reporting after, as is almost certain, Chavez wins.

It is unsurprising that reporters in the UK remain confused after each election. After all, the business and private media elite take great pride in assuring the world that real Chavez supporters are few, and those that there are are largely brainwashed.

Indeed mention Hugo Chavez to a reasonably well-informed person in the UK and the response will probably be one of suspicion. The outspoken president of Venezuela does manage to get himself noticed, but rarely with a favourable reception in the British press. Often those who may otherwise support a left wing movement that has made significant advances in social welfare at a time when the West seems only capable of punishing the neediest know little of such progress but a good deal to be cautious of.

The challenge is to understand how the vague notions that there’s something perhaps illegitimate, undemocratic and maybe corrupt about the Venezuelan president emerge. To this end, it helps to look to the source of most people’s information on foreign affairs – corporate news.

Venezuela was hardly on the news radar in 1989, the year of the Tiananman Square massacre, when repression of protests in Caracas against IMF-imposed austerity led to a massacre of roughly as many as perished in China. However, when Hugo Chavez was first elected ten years later the press did take interest.

Chavez won a landslide victory in 1998, with 56 per cent of the vote. A new constitution was passed in 1999, supported by 72 per cent of the electorate, all parliamentary votes have been won by Chavez’s supporters since, and Chavez has been re-elected President with between 59.8 per cent and 62.8 per cent of the vote.

Despite this democratic mandate, as Chavez began to confront Venezuela’s internal elite and its allies in the US, reporting on Venezuela was found to be biased in a number of studies (1). One I've conducted examined 10 years of BBC online coverage. Within a year of Chavez’s election, the BBC reported that “Opposition leaders in Venezuela have appealed to the international community to intervene to protect democratic rule” (12 April 1999). Four months later it had reported that Venezuela was already a dictatorship.

Few reports referenced Chavez’s electoral legitimacy, and only a tiny percentage even mentioned the widespread social programmes implemented by the government.

At times the BBC’s reporting was beyond comprehension. A subheading in one article referred to the 2002 coup as “Restoring Democracy”. Despite the coup leader having assumed office by military force, the BBC reassured us that “In forming a transitional government, Venezuela has looked not to an existing politician, but to the head of the business leaders’ association”. What was meant by “Venezuela” was obvious yet unexplained.

There is much to be concerned about in Venezuela, as any honest supporter of the government will admit: corruption, crime, inadequate water supplies, repression of journalist by all sides, inadequate housing... the list goes on. Yet a dominant theme in BBC online news reports throughout the 2000s was the legitimacy of the president.

It should therefore be no surprise that a scoping survey I conducted this year (2) found that 20 per cent of respondents thought Venezuela was a dictatorship (only 46 per cent knew it was a democracy), and only 40 per cent thought Chavez was elected by a fair vote.

The same study of the UK press identifies interesting trends. Sixty percent of articles published by six major British newspapers between March 2011 and February 2012 characterised Chavez as “mismanaging”, “threatening”, “misguided or dishonest” etc. Only six per cent included positive characterisations. Much of the coverage of Venezuela’s foreign relations focussed on Iran and Libya, which, whilst problematic in the eyes of many, are not very dissimilar to Britain’s relations with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Again, many of the progressive policies introduced in this period were roundly ignored. There was apparently no room to mention the proposal to construct 1,200 public healthcare projects, the free treatment of 100,261 people for visual impairment, the Special Contribution Law for Oil to ensure that oil profits be shared among the Venezuelan people, or for news that the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean’s found poverty to have been halved in Venezuela between 2002-8 (in spite of the coup and the oil industry lockout). The introduction of a plan to assist up to one million poor children in leisure activities passed without mention, as did the launch of a mission to build two million houses. The sequestration of “idle land” belonging to collapsed banks passed without comment.

There was little or no reporting of USAID funding of “the opposition”, nor of opposition attacks on pro-government journalists. It was also unimportant that a Colombian senator accused Venezuelan Presidential candidate Capriles of having paramilitary ties in Colombia.

We did hear that the person the Express called “Venezuela's crackpot wannabe dictator” was, according to The Times and Telegraph, teetering near the edge, facing growing hostility from Venezuelans. It is indeed a long-established trend that before each election the number of stories predicting Chavez’s decline increases dramatically.

The concern of many in the Bolivarian movement is that such stories act as priming for the inevitable announcement from “the opposition” and perhaps from the odd US diplomat the elections were questionable or perhaps even invalid.

The big news was Chavez’s cancer, the story of which read as an allegory for Venezuelan politics. The Sun told us that “medics claimed” and “sources said” “bungling surgeons” “botched” the operation on Chavez, leaving him just months to live.

It’s not difficult to see the links between the “botched” operation, Chavez’s health and the fate of Venezuela. In its article “World’s worst dictators”, the Times found Chavez’s cancer may lead to the fall of a “dictator”. One may assume that with the cancerous dictator gone, Venezuela would be healed.

In spite of this prospect, the Telegraph informed us that without an “authoritarian” to rule, colleagues in government would initiate a power struggle that would lead to crisis at “unprecedented levels”.

It also used the opportunity to remind us that “Critics accuse [Chavez] of authoritarian instincts, mismanaging the economy and squandering billions of dollars of oil revenues”. Given that his only well-wishers seemed to be Castro and Ahmadinejad, Chavez’s cancer was a good opportunity to note that “His stridently anti-Western foreign policy and vigorous promotion of his “socialist Bolivarian revolution" across Latin America has left him with few allies beside President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran”. Kirchner, Zayala, Rousseff, Correa, Ortega, Humala, Morales and Funes must have felt somewhat jilted.

The few times policies in Venezuela get mentioned, more often than not they act as vehicles for speculation on Chavez’s prospective threats to democracy.

The policy to repatriate Venezuelan gold reserves from the UK was designed provide for economic stability and further economic integration in Latin America. But we hear in the Times that “others suggested” Chavez’s  was motivated by his worry “about international sanctions in the case of violence during the presidential elections ... the transfers will allow him to keep control of the country if he refuses to accept defeat”. Presumably that’s why he “planned to siphon off Venezuela's gold wealth for personal gain.”

It is no surprise then that the British public’s perceptions of Venezuela, on the left as well as on the right, are largely of a dysfunctional state ruled a megalomaniacal tyrant.

Venezuelan politics can be difficult for British journalists to report outside liberal democratic and bureaucratic capitalist frameworks. It is true that there are genuine concerns about the political situation in the country. The concerted efforts to destabilise the government over the past 14 years have met with government responses that have restricted the freedom of some media outlets, and have not lessened the existing tension between social classes.

Vehemently anti-Chavez news reports are rare in the UK press, but this does not negate the softer power of anti –Chavez voices, whose claims often frame reporting.  These voices also often act as the originators of memes that spread around copy.

There was the odd expression of old-fashioned imperialism, as when the Telegraph told us Iran was “audacious” by launching a Spanish language Iranian television channel in “America’s backyard”, a month after the Times reported Ahmadinejad’s “tour of America’s backyard”, but in the main the memes of “opposition concerns”, political instability, and the threat of Chavez dominated.

Many of these memes arise from rumours and speculation that circulate in Latin American news and opinion programmes, and from discussions in well-to-do parts of Caracas (where most correspondents are based). One need spend only a few minutes in conversation in an Alta Mira cafe before one is struck by tales of government wrongdoing.

The selection of memes reflects the affinities between the dominant culture of UK journalism and preoccupations of Western states. Yet the need for information, and the rarely adhered to professional ethic of balance, provides some space for filler memes from the “other side”. For example there was an admission that Chavez has some support, but that was only in reproduced Reuters copy that reported he “appeared on the balcony of his presidential palace in front of thousands of supporters”.

There was also the odd reference to the 2002 coup. The same sentence, that Chavez was the target of a failed coup attempt that year and the claims of plots against him, was reproduced in four articles in different papers published in July 2011, seemingly pasted from agency copy. It’s probably worth noting that of those four mentions, one was in an piece titled "Chavez's absence makes rivals and older brother grow bolder" (Times), and one in a piece titled "Region in turmoil as Chavez reveals battle with cancer" (Times).

One of the biggest restrictions on accurate journalism has been one of resourcing. With foreign reporting budgets – especially covering Latin America – ever reduced in most news companies, the reliance on agency copy, stringers, and domestic media is increased. But when this is received with ideological suspicion of a government, the latter will always be at a communicative disadvantage. So too, the beneficiaries of government social policies are marginalised when they lack international communicative power.

In the meantime corporate media audiences remain largely uninformed should. They’ll know of this or that spat, of some concerns about democracy and a little about a president who seems rather like a tyrant. No doubt they will be surprised at the outcome of the election, and will take the opposition’s challenge to the legitimacy of the vote as necessary.

(1) Castillo, A. (2003) ‘Breaking Democracy: Venezuela's Media Coup’ Media International Australia #118 pp145-156; Abalo, E (2012) ‘First hegemony, then democracy: On ideology and the media discourse on the coup against Hugo Chávez’ Observatorio Journal, vol.6 - nº3 (2012), 105-128; Gill et al (2006) ‘Covering Chavez in U.S. media: How the elite newspaper reports a controversial international figure. Investigación y Desarollo 14(2), 240–267; Salter, L. and Weltman, D (2012) ‘Class, Nationalism and News: the BBC’s reporting of Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution’, The International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics 7(3)

(2) A random selection of 84 people

Dr Lee Salter is a Senior Lecturer in Journalism at the University of the West of England

A supporter of Chavez wears a homemade mask of him as during his campaign closing rally in Caracas. Photograph: Getty Images
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Fake news sells because people want it to be true

The rise of bullshit, from George Orwell to Donald Trump.

When is a lie not a lie? Recently, the Daily Telegraph reported that university students had demanded that “philosophers such as Plato and Kant” be “removed from [the] syllabus because they are white”. Other outlets followed suit, wringing their hands over the censoriousness of today’s uninquiring young minds. The article generated an extraordinary amount of consternation click bait. Angry responses were written and hot takes were quick-fried and served up by outlets anxious  to join the dinner rush of  ad-friendly disapproval.

It’s a story that could have been designed to press every outrage button of the political-correctness-gone-mad brigade. It has students trying to ban things, an apparent lack of respect for independent thought and reverse racism. It seemed too good to be true.

And it was. In reality, what happened was far less interesting: the student union of the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) at the University of London had proposed that “the majority of philosophers on our courses” be from Asia and Africa, and that the Western greats be approached from a “critical standpoint”. Some might consider this a reasonable request, given that critical analysis is a component of most philosophy courses, and Soas has a long tradition of promoting the study of the global South. Yet a story about students declaring Kant irrelevant allows the Telegraph to despair for the youth of today and permits advertisers to profit from that despair.

People didn’t start pumping out this stuff because they decided to abandon journalistic ethics. They did so because such principles are hugely expensive and a hard sell. Even those of us who create and consume news can forget that the news is a commodity – a commodity with a business model behind it, subsidised by advertising. Rigorous, investigative, nuanced content, the sort that pays attention to objective facts and fosters serious public debate, is expensive to create. Talk, however, is cheap.

Fake news sells because fake news is what people want to be true. Fake news generates clicks because people click on things that they want to believe. Clicks lead to ad revenue, and ad revenue is currently all that is sustaining a media industry in crisis. Journalism is casting about for new funding models as if for handholds on a sheer cliff. This explains a great deal about the position in which we find ourselves as citizens in this toxic public sphere.

What has this got to do with Donald Trump? A great deal. This sticky, addictive spread of fake news has fostered a climate of furious, fact-free reaction.

Press outlets give millions of dollars of free coverage to Trump without him having to send out a single press release. The reality TV star is the small-fingered god of good copy. The stories write themselves. Now, the stories are about the threat to the future of journalism from the man who has just entered the Oval Office.

Trump’s first press conference in six months, held at Trump Tower in New York on 11 January, was – by any measure – extraordinary. He did not merely refuse to answer questions about unverified allegations that he had been “cultivated” by Russia. He lost his temper spectacularly with the assembled press, declaring: “You’re fake news! And you’re fake news!”

Trump did not mean that the journalists were lying. His attitude to the press is straight from the Kremlin’s playbook: rather than refute individual accusations, he attempts to discredit the notion of truth in journalism. The free press is a check on power, and Trump likes his power unchecked.

Writing in the Guardian in 2015, Peter Pomarantsev noted of Putin’s propaganda strategy that “these efforts constitute a kind of linguistic sabotage of the infrastructure of reason: if the very possibility of rational argument is submerged in a fog of uncertainty, there are no grounds for debate – and the public can be expected to decide that there is no point in trying to decide the winner, or even bothering to listen.”

If people lose trust in the media’s capacity to report facts, they begin to rely on what “feels” true, and the influence rests with whomever can capitalise on those feelings. Donald Trump and his team know this. Trump doesn’t tell it like it is. Instead, he tells it like it feels, and that’s far more effective.

Fake news – or “bullshit”, as the American philosopher Harry G Frankfurt termed it in a 2005 essay – has never been weaponised to this extent, but it is nothing new. George Orwell anticipated the trend in the 1930s, looking back on the Spanish Civil War. “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world,” he wrote. “Lies will pass into history . . . In Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie . . . In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable.”

This is the real danger of fake news, and it is compounded by a lingering assumption of good faith on the part of those who believe in journalistic principle. After all, it’s impossible to prove that a person intended to deceive, and that they didn’t believe at the time that what they said was true. Trump may believe in whatever “facts” he has decided are convenient that day. When he insists that he never mocked a disabled reporter, whatever video evidence may exist to the contrary, he may believe it. Is it, then, a lie?

Of course it’s a lie. People who have no respect for the concept of truth are still capable of lies. However, they are also capable of bullshit – bullshit being a register that rubbishes the entire notion of objective reality by deeming it irrelevant. The only possible response is to insist, and keep insisting, that the truth still means something.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era