The Anti-Chavez Echo Chamber

More than a year ago, I received an angry message from an opponent of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez regarding an article that I wrote for Narco News criticizing the political partiality and methodological problems of Venezuela’s two most cited pollsters (“Can You Believe Venezuela’s Pollsters?”, January 22, 2003). A number of anti-Chavez critiques of my article, including one by Francisco Toro, were pasted below the message.

For those who are not familiar with Toro, he is a well-known anti-Chavez activist based in Caracas whom the New York Times once hired as a reporter, in violation of the Times’ own claims to objective and disinterested reporting. Toro runs an anti-Chavez weblog called the Caracas Chronicles.

At the time that I received this angry message, I was preoccupied with other issues, so, if I recall correctly, I did not read the critique by Toro that followed the message. However, the recent agreement in Venezuela to move ahead with a recall referendum on Chavez’s government, as well as the Venezuelan President’s recent citations of my article on Radio Nacional de Venezuela, have re-sparked interest in the topic of the pollsters. Thus, I have decided to revisit one of Toro’s criticisms in order to show just how vacuous the Venezuelan opposition’s defense of their pollsters is. I will address Toro’s other “main” criticisms in future entries.

Toro writes:

The main reply to the writer… is that he’s arguing by innuendo. These guys [the pollsters] are personally anti-Chavez (indubitable) therefore they’re cheating on their polls (highly questionable). He never argues the link between the two, other than to suggest that anyone who is anti-Chavez is by definition such a nasty rat that he can’t possibly be honest in reporting poll results.

Actually, I never once put forth an argument that, since Venezuelan pollsters Alfredo Keller and Jose Antonio Gil Yepes were “personally anti-Chavez,” they must have therefore been “cheating on their polls.” First of all, Keller and Gil Yepes are not just “personally anti-Chavez”; they are publicly anti-Chavez, and virulently so, to the point that one was even quoted by the L.A. Times as calling for Chavez’s assassination, while the other sanctified the April 11 coup –on Peruvian radio– as a “de facto referendum.” I made it abundantly clear in my original report that the pollsters had increasingly become identified publicly with the opposition and that they had made little effort to avoid this public perception. If it were only a matter of the pollsters’ “personal” beliefs –not one of public declarations– it would not be an issue. However, once the public comes to associate a pollster with a political side, the pollster’s public associations become problematic in and of themselves because they are likely to bias the responses of the population sample being polled.

All of this was made perfectly clear in my original report, but, since Toro seems to have overlooked this, allow me to refresh his memory with a passage from my article:

…even if we were to assume that Keller and Gil Yepes are not loading their questions, the poll respondents’ simple awareness of the pollsters’ political partisanship is likely to skew the polls in favor of the opposition.

We asked Matthew Mendelsohn, a Canadian political scientist and specialist on polling methodology, whether or not the pollsters’ well-known political partisanship –independent of all other factors– could bias polling results. Although Mendelsohn told us that he lacked knowledge about polling in Latin America, he responded as follows:

“Any perception on the part of the respondent that the questioner is partisan can influence results. You see this with interviewer effects all the time — male and female, black and white, etc. interviewers get different results. And certainly if the respondent knows that you’re a representative from a particular party or group, this biases results.”

Contrary to the argument put forth by Toro, I never once suggested that “anyone who is anti-Chavez is by definition such a nasty rat that he can’t possibly be honest in reporting poll results.” Once a pollster becomes publicly associated with a political side –either pro or anti-Chavez, in this case– the problem is not necessarily that he or she is incapable of honestly reporting poll results but rather that the results themselves are likely to be biased.
Given that all of this was made readily clear in the original report, I would like to discuss the issues of why Toro seems so incapable of addressing my actual points and why, instead, he is only able to address his own false caricatures of the arguments put forth in the article.

The Anti-Chavez Echo Chamber

Imagine a society where almost all private media, in accordance with the interests of the dominant class that owns and controls them, have made a conscious decision to subordinate their advertising, political “reporting” and publication of “polls” to the goal of overthrowing a democratically elected government. Venezuelans have no difficulty imagining this; the country’s private media are completely devoted to the overthrow of a government that they consider insufficiently subservient to their interests. In fact, in his own infantile sort of way, even Toro comprehends this, although his understanding is naturally devoid of any meaningful class analysis. On January 25, 2003, Toro wrote the following in his weblog: “Venezuela’s private media decided that political activism is much more fun than, y’know, actually reporting. Of course, I also decided that too.”

The absence of politically pluralistic private media should not be very difficult for U.S. citizens to imagine either, since –to the extent that private U.S. media cover Venezuela– they too are largely united in their hostility toward the Chavez government, for much the same reasons that private Venezuelan media are. The interests of the powerful demand that political debate exist only within narrow bounds. Thus, to move outside those bounds –in other words, to actually challenge powerful economic interests and to question the imperialist behavior upon which those interests depend– is generally not considered acceptable “journalistic” behavior.

Venezuela’s private media have essentially become a vast echo chamber, where debate is limited to tactical questions of how best to extinguish the threat to dominant class interests. Unfortunately, the de-pluralization of political discourse within private media tends to have highly degenerative effects on the rational faculties of those sectors of society that either belong to the economic elite or come under the mesmerizing influence of its propaganda apparatus. As one can easily see, the de-pluralization of discourse leads to increasing intolerance of dissenting views, thereby exacerbating authoritarian tendencies among both elites and the technocratic sectors to which they are aligned. This is especially the case during historical junctures when dissenting views come to hold greater sway among the general population and thus directly compromise dominant class interests.

Delusions of the Propaganda Apparatus

Within this context, the technocratic and educated sectors that fulfill the elite’s propaganda function come to develop strange delusions about themselves. They begin to confuse their technocratic capacities with the supposed legitimacy and coherence of their ideas. Forgetting that their influential roles are based entirely on their subservience to dominant class interests, they come to adopt a circular logic, whereby their power to disseminate their message confers legitimacy on the message itself. Thus, subconsciously, the privately-controlled propaganda apparatus comes to equate its subservience to economic power with the legitimacy of its ideas.
This logic was readily apparent in Venezuelan pollster Alfredo Keller’s comments about my article. At the top of Keller’s list of reasons why he chose not to respond to the article, he writes:

It occurred to me to look into Narco News to understand the context within which the article appeared. We’re talking about a digital newspaper that clearly backs all these leftist movements that are invading Latin America (Lula, Gutierrez, the Sandinistas, the FMLN, Elisa Carrió, Evo Morales, etc.) and that praises Chavez, Fidel, the Andean coca-growers’ movements and other such wonderful company.

(“Invading” Latin America? Just where are these “leftist” movements “invading” from, Alfredo?).

So, in other words, Narco News doesn’t bow down before the economically powerful, as this discredited Venezuelan pollster does. In a nutshell, Keller argues that the source of the article is illegitimate on account of its lack of subservience to economic power.

Keller does not attempt to refute the arguments put forth in the article because, well, there isn’t much that he can refute, a fact that he tacitly and begrudgingly acknowledges in the following quote:

The article, besides being written with great ability, comes out in defense of Chavez, so I ask myself, how much could it have cost?

I must admit how flattered I am by the suggestion that I may have been contracted by the Venezuelan government to write the article. Perhaps Alfredo will be disappointed to learn that I was never contacted by the Venezuelan government, nor did I receive a penny for writing the report, nor did I ever request payment. In case Alfredo wasn’t aware, his virulently anti-Chavez ruminations had been blared all over the internet long before I wrote the report, so my research tasks weren’t exactly daunting.

In consultation with Narco News editor Al Giordano, I decided to investigate Venezuela’s major pollsters and publish my findings for one simple reason: the story was highly newsworthy. Even in the United States, where the private media are almost invariably subservient to corporate interests, journalists generally do not cite polls by pollsters who have publicly partisan connections. Given these well-known standards, it is simply mind-boggling to witness the amateurism of English-language correspondents in Venezuela, who have routinely cited polls by Keller and Gil Yepes without mentioning that the two pollsters are virulently and publicly anti-Chavez.

How, after all, could Keller or Gil Yepes honestly deny the uncontestable fact that their open partisanship compromises the professionalism of their operations? Not surprisingly, Keller avoids the subject altogether, hoping perhaps that, as long as Venezuela’s private media remain one vast anti-Chavez echo chamber –and that, at least with regard to Venezuela, private U.S. media remain essentially the same– the facts will not receive much exposure. As the old riddle goes, “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around, does it still make a sound?”

This brings me back to my original point about Toro’s inability to address my actual arguments. While the private propaganda apparatus and its ruling class overlords pay ample lip service to the virtues of competition in the marketplace, they are quite unwilling to submit themselves to competition in the realm of ideas. As they vigilantly bar their ideological competitors from their vast echo chamber, their capacity to rationally engage their political foes begins to atrophy. Their growing intolerance of dissenting views –combined with their delusions that their influential roles are somehow based on the merits of their ideas rather than on their subservience to economic power– leads them to become intellectually lazy.

Thus, instead of honestly trying to interpret the arguments of an ideological foe, it suffices for Toro to erect crude caricatures of those arguments –caricatures that have no resemblance to the arguments that I actually made– and then to respond to the caricatures.

In Toro’s concluding remarks about my article –directed at someone else in the opposition who was apparently concerned about the article’s possible effects– he states the following:

Thankfully, the 20,000 people who read ZMag [note: the article also ran on the progressive U.S. webzine ZNet, at http://www.zmag.org/] are all equally blinded by ideology and unreasonable, and such writing is most unlikely to reach or influence people who matter, who know anything at all, or who have anything like an open mind. So I really wouldn’t worry about it.

Sound familiar?

Yeah, well, there’s nothing like an echo chamber to feed an “open mind.”

JUSTIN DELACOUR is a freelance writer and recent graduate of the Masters program in Latin American Studies at the University of New Mexico. He has written for Latin America Data Base (http://ladb.unm.edu/), a University of New Mexico-based news service. He receives email at jdelac@unm.edu

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