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US Media's Anti-Chavez Bias
Framing Venezuela
by JUSTIN DELACOUR

In analyzing U.S. press coverage of Venezuela, it is instructive to examine how U.S. news reports "frame" the political issues. Operating on the basic assumption that framing is a process of selecting certain fragments of a perceived reality and making them more prominent in a text, one can deduce that news frames are not necessarily neutral in a political or ideological sense. By emphasizing certain fragments of a perceived reality and omitting (or downplaying) others, U.S. media can promote their own political agendas.

A recent examination of reports about Venezuela in The Miami Herald, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Christian Science Monitor suggests not only that U.S. media frequently invoke biased news frames but also that their choices of which "independent" analysts to cite is strongly correlated with the level of bias.


Biased News Frames

To illustrate the meaning of frame bias, it is instructive to analyze one recent Miami Herald report, entitled "Chávez eyes idle lands, raising fears" (January 22, 2005). A cursory examination of the title reveals that the story is principally framed in "personalist" terms: Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez Frias, "eyes idle lands…" The personalist frame –a favorite of the Herald– immediately conjures up notions of the all-powerful leader, portraying the president as solely responsible for "stirring fears." The title fails to convey the larger social forces and the level of popular political support –institutionally mediated through repeated electoral processes– that sustain the policy in question.

In addition to invoking the personalist frame, the Herald employs the "property rights" frame to highlight the "fears" that have been stirred mostly among anti-government property holders. Buried deeper in the report, however, is an acknowledgement that the agrarian reform law "filled many landless peasants with hope." In other words, the Herald explicitly chooses to highlight –in the story’s title– the "fears" of large landowners while downplaying landless peasants’ support for agrarian reform.

Another framing device employed by the Herald involves the lessons that it chooses to draw from the history of Latin American land reforms. The Herald reports, "Land reform is dangerous territory, and history has not been kind to those who have walked Chávez’s path: Both Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954, and Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973 were ousted by U.S.-backed coups after confiscating idle lands." The assumption underlying the historical lesson that the Herald chooses to draw is that land reform represents no more than a provocation against the economic and political groups that oppose it. The onus of responsibility for political destabilization is thus placed on the governments that implement such reform. The report ignores that most contemporary scholars of modern Latin American history do not look kindly upon the right-wing military dictatorships of Guatemala and Chile that overthrew democratically-elected reformist governments and thwarted land reform (with the support of landed elites). Thus, an alternative lesson might be that, in the interest of democracy, economic elites should learn to live with agrarian reform, and the U.S. government should not support such elites when they attempt to overthrow left-populist governments.

U.S. correspondents often invoke variants of the "property rights" frame in slanting their coverage against Venezuela’s government. For example, an L.A. Times report (January 30, 2005) pays special attention to the complaints of Venezuela’s privately-owned media, casting a highly critical eye on the government’s new media law that restricts daytime broadcasting of sex, violence and profanity. The Times report –which is demonstrative of how U.S. media often fail to accurately contextualize the issues– neglects to point out that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) imposes similar restrictions on public broadcasting.

Surely Venezuela’s media law is partially designed to restrict the political manipulation of violent images, but only by reviewing the nature of the private media’s anti-government propaganda can we begin to understand why pro-government legislators would feel the need to regulate. The L.A. Times neglects to seriously consider the ways in which Venezuela’s private media have waged campaigns to politically and economically destabilize the country. As the political scientist Daniel Hellinger points out, Venezuela’s private media have been more than simply biased; "they actively organized efforts to oust Chávez via coup, work stoppages, and recall" (Latin American Perspectives; May 2005). The manipulation of violent images for partisan political purposes has been a trademark of Venezuela’s private channels.

Perhaps the most famous example is the private stations’ telecast –during the failed coup– of a video showing Chávez supporters firing handguns from a bridge near the presidential palace. According to the video’s voiceover, the gunmen were shooting at a peaceful opposition march below, but Eva Golinger points out in an article for the alternative news site Venezuelanalysis (September 25, 2004) that the video "manipulated the setting and failed to include the wider angle of the scene." Simultaneous video footage evidenced not protesters on the street below but rather police –under the command of an opposition mayor– "hiding behind vehicles and buildings, taking shots at the Chávez supporters on the bridge."

Despite the deceptions of Venezuela’s private media, the L.A. Times favorably describes the private all-news channel Globovisión as "a counterweight to the government mouthpiece Venezolana de Televisión." It might actually be more accurate to describe the state television station as the true "counterweight," given that private stations continue to dominate Venezuelan broadcasting. Moreover, the Times does not qualify its pejorative description of state television with any discussion of how Globovisión might also serve as a "mouthpiece" for its owners (and the political and economic groups with which they are allied).

News frames that cast a left-wing government’s regulatory policies as essentially authoritarian in nature have one basic feature in common: they leave out of the discussion the question of whether unfettered private economic power is compatible with democracy. In U.S. press reports about Venezuela, private actors that wield great economic power (i.e. media moguls, landowners, etc.) are often cast as mere victims of the government’s alleged abuse of power, with little consideration of the manner in which these private actors have exercised their own power and whether they have done so in a democratic fashion.


Skewed Independent Source Selection

The U.S. journalistic practice of emphasizing the allegedly arbitrary nature of state power (while avoiding meaningful discussion of the social and political ramifications of unfettered private power) is reinforced by the press’ biased selection of independent sources. My own preliminary findings suggest a strong correlation between biased news frames and the press’ choices of which independent analysts to cite. The analysis suggests that U.S. newspapers attempt to conceal their biases by choosing to cite particular independent analysts –whose political affiliations are not revealed– to support contentious claims against the Chávez government. Citations of selected independent analysts may also enable journalists and editors to cognitively rationalize biased reports, as if corroborating statements by independent analysts render such accounts "objective."

Looking at reports about Venezuela in five major U.S. dailies (The Miami Herald, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune) over a two-and-a-half-year period (April 12, 2002 – March 12, 2004), I find that each of the four most oft-cited independent analysts is an opponent of the Chávez government.

The most frequently quoted independent source, Michael Shifter, is an analyst at the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue (IAD). A recent article by Christopher Clement in the scholarly journal Latin American Perspectives (May 2005) points out that the IAD has received numerous grants from the U.S. congressionally-funded National Endowment for Democracy, which has also contributed heavily to Venezuela’s political opposition. A 2003 IAD policy report expresses concern that Latin America’s citizens and governments are "losing confidence" in U.S.-sponsored economic and political reforms.

In illustration of how an independent source can be used to buttress an imbalanced journalistic account, a March 29 Christian Science Monitor report follows up its reference to the "authoritarian leanings" of Venezuela’s president with a quote by Shifter suggesting that Chávez’s newfound popularity in Latin America threatens democracy, individual freedom and the rule of law.

The second most oft-cited independent source, the Venezuelan historian Alberto Garrido, is also an outspoken critic of the Venezuelan government. In a December 6, 2004 Miami Herald report, tendenciously titled "New hire by mayor of Caracas stirs fears," Garrido is quoted as claiming that a left-wing Venezuelan "paramilitary group" has "become the political arm of the Chávez movement." In another report (New York Times; November 20, 2004), Garrido is quoted as stating that "the opposition has, in effect, been criminalized."

The third most frequently cited independent source, Venezuelan newspaper editor Teodoro Petkoff, is another vociferous critic of the Chávez government. Citations of Petkoff are also frequently employed as a means of affirming biased narratives. For example, a New York Times report (December 8, 2004) claims that Venezuela’s new media law would allow the government to "censor" news reports. The reporter’s assertion is then followed up with a quote attributed to Petkoff that the media law is "sufficiently vague, sufficiently broad, so that anything fits in there."

The fourth most oft-cited independent source, Venezuelan pollster Luis Vicente León, is also an opponent of the government, although he has in recent years become more circumspect in expressing his criticisms due to his role as a pollster. León’s political leanings became apparent in a Los Angeles Times report (November 20, 2004), in which he is quoted as saying that the government might "further clamp down on the opposition" in response to the assassination of a prominent Venezuelan state prosecutor.

Only the fifth most oft-cited analyst, Larry Birns of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, could be described as somewhat sympathetic to Venezuela’s government. In a recent U.S. radio show (Democracy Now!, January 19, 2005), Birns states the following:

"The fact is that President Chavez, no matter how noisy and ravish he might be, has pretty much been a constitutional president. There have been minor human rights violations, if you take the opposition’s charges seriously. But they’re minor. He has respected free press, freedom of opinion."


Non-Quoted Independent Analysts

It should be stressed that numerous experts on Venezuelan politics share Birns’ basic assessment and would most likely dispute claims that a Venezuelan "paramilitary group" has become "the political arm of the Chávez movement"; that recent legislation permits the government to "censor" media; or that the Venezuelan government "clamps down on" and criminalizes the political opposition. However, press citations of analysts who share Birns’ perspective are few and far between.

For example, Julia Buxton, a British scholar who recently disputed Shifter’s comparison of the Chávez government to the former military dictatorships of the Southern Cone, is never quoted in U.S. press reports. Buxton wrote the following rebuttal to Shifter in a recent commentary for Venezuelanalysis (April 25, 2004):

"It is mistaken to argue that Chávez does not come from a tradition of fighting for democracy. On the contrary, the Chavista movement is a product of the lack of democracy in Venezuela between 1958 and 1998, a product of the social, economic and political exclusion that prevailed throughout that time and a product of massive disaffection with corrupt and politicized state institutions. We may not be enthralled by the type of democracy Chávez is seeking to build, or the manner in which he has chosen to do this, but it is important to note that the Chávez government has brought marginalized and excluded people into the political process and democratized power."

The March 2005 issue of Latin American Perspectives features articles about Venezuela written by eight scholars who generally share Buxton’s view of the Chávez government (Steve Ellner, Miguel Tinker Salas, Edgardo Lander, Dick Parker, Jesus Maria Herrera Salas, Margarita López Maya, Luis Lander, and Maria Pilar Garcia-Guadilla). My own research indicates that, among these eight experts, not one has been quoted in The Miami Herald, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, or Chicago Tribune over the last three years.


Summing Up

The U.S. press’ clearly biased selection of independent analysts is disabling U.S. readers from considering alternative perspectives so as to form their own informed opinions about Venezuela. By relying overwhelmingly on independent analysts who oppose Venezuela’s government, U.S. newspapers are subjectively propagating particular political opinions while disarticulating those of others. Given that independent analysts of Venezuelan politics are rarely impartial, a truly balanced journalistic approach would require that correspondents compensate for their quotations of anti-government analysts with a roughly equivalent number of citations of independent analysts who sympathize with the government. In the absence of balanced sourcing, U.S. newspapers are essentially violating the code of ethics of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, which clearly states that "sound practice…demands a clear distinction for the reader between news reports and opinion."

JUSTIN DELACOUR is a freelance writer and a doctoral student of political science at the University of New Mexico. He receives email at jdelac@unm.edu