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Fox News and Venezuela

Thousands of Venezuelan students have been in the streets of major cities protesting the Chavez governments’ actions against RCTV, the country’s oldest and most popular TV station, and what they perceive to be an assault on freedom of speech in general. Perhaps ironically FOX News should be applauded for giving so much coverage to Venezuela – not necessarily a “popular” story. But unfortunately the highest-rated network so thoroughly butchered the truth, that it is not surprising that many Chavez supporters are becoming conspiracy theorists vis-à-vis the US media. In segment after segment, FOX News anchors, along with its main correspondent Adam Housley, told falsehood after falsehood. The issue here has nothing to do with condemning or supporting Hugo Chavez, nor his actions regarding RCTV . This is about how FOX News spread demonstrably false information on several occasions over the course of a week. The manipulation of fact was so extreme, that one has to wonder if it was deliberate.

FOX News viewers, who are not ordinarily connected to Venezuelan news, would likely believe that there is no longer any “opposition” media in that country – or at the most, perhaps one “small cable network” called Globovision. They would think this because FOX’s correspondent in Caracas told them this falsehood over and over again. On May 28th, during “Your World” with host David Asman, Adam Housley said that Chavez was “taking over just about every [media outlet] in Venezuela” and added that RCTV was just “the latest.” In fact, RCTV is the only media outlet that can arguably said to have been “taken over.” The other stations – Televen, Venevision, and Globovision – continue to be privately owned and broadcast opposition voices (though the first two regularly balance them with government spokesmen as well). But this reality didn’t stop Housley from saying on the next day’s program that RCTV was “the last private and large television station here in the country thatwas critical of the Chavez administration.” If Housely would have just turned on the other stations in the morning (or Globovision at any time of the day) he would have seen opposition members criticizing the Chavez administration. Housley went on to repeat this false characterization of the Venezuelan media landscape on Neil Cavuto’s show as well as “Hannity and Colmes.”

Perhaps Housely will protest that the other private stations don’t qualify as “large” or “national.” While it is true that RCTV had the best frequency reach of all of them, only an obsessively literal-minded lawyer could claim that Venevision and Televen are not “national stations.” In fact, according to figures published in the opposition daily El Nacional, the two stations account for a 30-35% share of the Venezuelan audience. Globovision, the 24-hour station that can nearly be described as “all opposition – all of the time” was described by Housely on “Hannity and Colmes” as a “small cable network” that only reaches “a few” places in the country. Perhaps by “few,” Housley meant the three largest cities and surrounding areas where a significant percentage of Venezuelans live [1]. Furthermore, Globovision has agreements with several smaller market stations that carry its programs. Add to this the fact that Globovision is not just a cable station, but is carried on public airwaves and one has to conclude that it is essentially a “national” station as well. [2]

In a very frustrating exchange on the June 1st broadcast of “Your World” with Neil Cavuto, Charles Barron, a councilman from New York City tried to explain some of these facts, but was rudely told by Housley that he was “full of baloney.” After being introduced by Cavuto as “someone who is right there,” – thus giving the correspondent undeserved credibility – Housley addressed Barron’s contentions: “[Barron] says that there are three private television stations in this country that currently operate. He is absolutely wrong.” Well, Barron was absolutely right, and it only takes about thirty seconds of internet research to confirm this (go to www.globovision.com, www.televen.com, and www.venevision.net). Housley then went on to say that Chavez “has shut down the media all across the country.” He didn’t give any specific examples, probably because to my knowledge, there aren’t any.

But the Barron exchange didn’t end there. Housley went on to interview “the daughter of a political prisoner” who criticized Chavez. The fact that he never put a name to this supposed “political prisoner” who was jailed solely for “having political opinions that were opposed to President Chavez” is suspicious in and of itself (and yet another example of poor journalism). But Barron was more interested in the lack of balance since the young blonde-haired, English-speaking woman was the only Venezuelan interviewed for the segment. Housley fired back at Barron calling him a “son of a bitch” and claiming that in fact he had been reporting from Opposition and Chavista rallies alike. Barron was eventually gracious in accepting Housely at his word. But the real issue isn’t whether Housley was “at both rallies.” The real issue is whether that coverage was making it on to Fox’s programs in a balanced way. It wasn’t. Barron was right to criticize the lack of balance not only on that particular segment, but on FOX’s coverage in general. And what was Barron’s reward for telling the truth about private Venezuelan media and making a fair criticism about unbalanced coverage? Well the next day on “Fox and Friends” the hosts revisited the segment and called Barron “a bit of a Wacko” and “a guy who frequently does not understand what he’s talking about.” Another host made the highly dubious claim that Housley had been broadcasting balanced coverage all week and then recommended that Barron “shut up.”

Perhaps the FOX show with the worst record of “balance” and misinformation in regards to the RCTV issue was “Hannity and Colmes.” In four consecutive segments on Venezuela over the course of a week, the guest “experts” were Maria Conchita Alonso, Otto Reich, Roger Noriega, and Alonso again [3]. Alonso is an actress and anti-Chavez activist who admitted on the first segment that she doesn’t even follow politics. Otto Reich is a strident anti-Castro and anti-Chavez former member of the Reagan and Bush II administrations. Roger Noriega was recently Bush II’s Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. Only the liberal Colmes offered any sort of counterpoint, but even he said right from the start that he could no longer defend Chavez for what he described as shutting down the media. In segments that were extraordinary in their removal from reality, Reich claimed that Chavez would likely order the military to kill the protestors, as Reich claimed he has done in the past, and Noriega explained to Hannity that the media is so controlled by Hugo Chavez that Venezuelans can’t even see images of the protests. Alonso went on a rant about how defeated presidential candidate Manuel Rosales was in cahoots with Chavez. She also claimed that Venezuela is cursed with racial animosity that would confuse anyone who actually lives in the largely mestizo country, and went on to say that Chavez owns 65% of the media to which Hannity falsely added “Now he owns it all” [4]. Only the first of these statements has any remote basis in fact, and that is only if you accept a declaration of martial law as being equal to an order to kill protestors [5].

One could practically right a book documenting all the misinformation on FOX News covering just this one issue in less than a week’s time. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect to this story is realizing that FOX is the most highly rated news station, and yet its hosts and reporters seem unable to do the most basic research. Many of the hosts and correspondents of FOX repeated ad nauseum that Chavez is a “dictator” (Hannity prefers the phrase “brutal dictator”) even though he was democratically elected in December by 63% of the people in an election certified by international observers, including the European Union and the Organization of American States [6]. Claims by some prominent members of the Opposition that there was indeed fraud should be respected and reported, but until the claim is backed up with demonstrable evidence, Fox News shouldn’t be treating this as the accepted truth. The hosts also constantly asserted that there is hardly any media left in Venezuela that is critical of Chavez, when the reality is that one can turn on the television every day to at least three different stations on the public airwaves and find dissent. Furthermore, most of the major dailies take a strong anti-Chavez editorial line. And you don’t even have to be in Venezuela to confirm this. Just go to the websites of El Universal and El Nacional. One has to wonder why Fox correspondent Adam Housely couldn’t go to a kiosk in Caracas and buy a newspaper or simply turn on the television in his hotel room.

The frightening answer to that question may be that he can do those things and he did do those things, but what he discovered did not fit the story that FOX News wanted to tell.

SCOTT LIEBERTZ is a high school teacher living and working in Venezuela.

Note on sources:

Video clips on which this analysis is based can be found at www.newshounds.org, www.youtube.com, and www.foxnews.com

1. Using population statistics provided by the CIA World Factbook, and the World Gazetteer, over 7 million people (out of a total population of 26 million) live in the three largest cities of Venezuela and their surrounding areas.

2. Wilpert, Gregory. “RCTV and Freedom of Speech in Venezuela” Venezuelanalysis.com. June 2, 2007; accessed June 17, 2007

3. These were segments broadcast on “Hannity and Colmes” the week of May 28th to June 1st. Unfortunately, no transcripts of the first three seem to be on the website anymore (as of June 17, 2007).

4. “Chaos in Caracas! Actress Maria Conchita Alonso Reacts to Protests in Venezuela” Foxnews.com. June 4, 2007. accessed June 17, 2007.

5. Reich was most likely referring to “Plan Avila” which Chavez ordered on April 11, 2002, after protests had turned violent and deadly. The plan calls on the military to take over control, and several tanks were moved into Caracas. The Opposition has frequently used this fact to claim that Chavez ordered protestors to be killed, confusing a number of concurrent events – such as the presence of snipers that killed both opponents and supporters of Chavez, as well as a gun battle between Chavistas and the Metropolitan Police. For more information, see El Acertijo de Abril by Sandra La Fuente and Alfredo Meza and Las Balas de Abril by Francisco Olivares. See also “The 47 Hour Coup That Changed Everything” by Gregory Wilpert.

6. “Chavez Wins Venezuela Re-election” BBC News. Dec. 4, 2006. accessed June 17, 2007.

 

 

 

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