Media Distortions of Latin America
As shown in “South of the Border”, since Latin America started electing left and center-left governments, beginning with the election of Hugo Chávez in 1998 in Venezuela, major U.S. media outlets have often provided distorted and biased coverage of the region. This coverage has routinely portrayed Latin America’s wave of progressive governments as a destabilizing and undemocratic force for the region and a threat to American national security.
One common theme divides Latin America’s progressive leaders into a “good left” and a “bad left.” This distinction was first popularized by Jorge Castañeda back in 2006, and it is still widely in use. Of course, the “bad left” most often includes Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina, and Ecuador, while the “good left” includes Brazil, Uruguay and Chile. The “good left” is supposedly modern, market-friendly and democratic, while the “bad left” is backward-looking, populist and undemocratic.
Related to this framing, commentators and pundits have depicted Venezuela as a rogue state increasingly isolated from the rest of the region. Through mischaracterizations, insinuations, and factual inaccuracies, reporters and commentators have suggested that Latin American governments do not recognize the legitimacy of the Venezuelan government and generally reject its policy stances.
The reality is quite different. Venezuela is generally treated as a respected equal in a variety of economic, business, and political partnerships by its neighbors, and is a welcomed member of various regional economic and political groupings, such as the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Bank of the South. Far from being isolated, Venezuela’s president Hugo Chávez and his government’s policies have been defended on numerous occasions by the governments of countries as diverse as Brazil and Chile. “I would not want us to return to the Cold War era where we ‘demonize’ one country or another. What we have witnessed in these countries (Bolivia and Venezuela) is that they are looking for governments and leaders that will work to eradicate poverty and eliminate inequality,” then-Chilean President Michelle Bachelet said in May 2006.
Moreover, the governments of “good left” Brazil and “bad left” Venezuela are closely aligned on most major foreign policy issues, including opposition to the coup d’etat in Honduras, Iran’s right to have a nuclear energy program, and the need to break with neoliberal “Washington Consensus” economic policies. Brazilian president Lula da Silva’s remarks on these topics has sometimes been as forceful as Chávez’s. In October 2007, for example, Lula said, “Developing nations must create their own mechanisms of finance instead of suffering under those of the IMF and the World Bank, which are institutions of rich nations . . . it is time to wake up.”
Major media coverage has also consistently claimed that Latin America’s progressive governments are mismanaging their countries’ economies, which are portrayed as always on the verge of economic collapse. When Brazilian president Lula was first elected, international commentators predicted the imeminent demise of Brazil’s economy. And yet, since 2004, Brazil’s per capita GDP has grown 19 percent and the country has emerged as a major world economic player. Similarly, when Bolivian president Evo Morales was elected and announced plans to nationalize the country’s natural gas and oil industries, critics warned that this move would alienate foreign investors and severely hurt the economy. And yet, contrary to these gloomy predictions, Bolivia posted the second-highest economic growth in South America last year, an impressive 3.36 percent at a time when the rest of the world was still in the middle of a severe recession.
The economic doom and gloom stories are often the worst regarding Venezuela, which according to many media reports has been on the verge of economic collapse ever since Chávez assumed power in 1999—for a whopping eleven years. Contrary to media claims, Venezuela’s real (adjusted for inflation) gross domestic product (GDP) nearly doubled, growing 13.5 percent annually between 2003, when the government gained control over the country’s oil revenues, and 2008.
Many media reports criticize Latin America’s progressive governments seemingly for no matter what policies they adopt. Bolivia, for example, is often criticized for not doing enough to combat the illegal drug trade, and yet when authorities seize large shipments or arrest drug cartels, it often receives little media attention. Similarly, Venezuela’s generous program to provide millions of dollars of subsidized heating oil to poor families in the Bronx and other poor neighborhoods in the US has been portrayed as a propaganda effort. Yet, when it appeared as though this program might have to be scaled back with the onset of the global recession, the government of Venezuela was criticized for this too; “Venezuelan Strongman Cuts Off Heating Oil to Mass. Poor” was the headline on a Washington Post blog post.
The real story that major media outlets have often failed to report on is the growing isolation of the United States in the region. Increasingly, U.S. policy has been at odds with the agenda of the majority of the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. Recent examples include the coup in Honduras – where the U.S. clashed with the majority of other countries over its support for elections held under a coup regime – and a controversial new military agreement between the U.S. and Colombia that met with strong opposition from most of the governments of South America. As a result of these and other strong differences between the U.S. and the rest of the region, Latin American governments have been developing new multilateral venues that don’t include the U.S. (or Canada), such as UNASUR. In February of 2010, Mexico convened all of the governments of the region, with the exception of the U.S., Canada and Honduras (whose government still hasn’t been recognized by many Latin American countries) and the participants decided unanimously to establish a permanent group to work together on a broad common agenda.
“Media clamp down”
Latin America’s left and center-left governments are constantly portrayed as a threat to the freedom of the press. A new Argentine media reform, for example, would overturn dictatorship-era media laws and require that a certain portion of public airwaves be allotted for public and community use. U.S. media outlets and commentators have criticized the law as clamping down on press freedoms. “Argentina Moves to Rein In Media,” was the Wall Street Journal headline after the bill passed Argentina’s lower house of congress, accompanied by a report that gave lopsided attention to critics’ claims, who were quoted as saying, “The sitting government will try to control content.” No members of the media or independent voices were cited in support of the bill.
Bolivia’s government was criticized for allegedly curbing press freedoms in the very same year – 2006 — that the country received Reporters Without Borders’ highest rating for the freedom of the press in the Western Hemisphere. “[Chávez’s] disrespect for pro-perty, the rule of law and press freedom is now threatening to infect Bolivia,” The Times of London wrote in a May 16, 2006 editorial, just months before the Reporters Without Borders rankings were released, putting press freedom in Bolivia at number 16 in the world overall.
The supposed deterioration of freedom of the press under the Chávez government is a favorite theme of U.S. media coverage of Venezuela, and it is regarding this topic that the gap between reality and media claims is usually at its widest. Anyone who travels to Venezuela will easily find numerous front-page criticisms and broadcast denunciations of the Chávez government that go well beyond the sort of attacks on Obama that appear in the U.S. press. Yet that Chávez is attempting to “eliminate independent media” by “muzzling the press” are favorite themes for U.S. editorial pages, with news articles chiming in that “Chavez’s administration is moving to tighten its grip over Venezuela’s media industry.” U.S. media coverage has often also distorted the facts regarding the Venezuelan government’s conflicts with opposition media outlets, some of which have openly supported undemocratic and extra-constitutional means to undermine or even overthrow the government.
Claims that Chávez is an enemy of press freedom reached a peak in 2007 when the Venezuelan government chose not to renew the broadcast license of opposition TV station RCTV. U.S. media and commentators claimed that RCTV was being “censored” and “shut down”, but in reality, RCTV continued to broadcast via cable and Internet with large audience numbers, and maintaining its anti-Chávez line. While opponents of the government criticized the decision to allow RCTV’s license to expire, it is important to note that a TV station that had done even some of the things that RCTV had done would never obtain a broadcast license in the United States or any European democracy. Most importantly – as was admitted in news articles on the controversy, RCTV openly supported the 2002 coup against Chávez by encouraging people to participate in opposition protests, by reporting the false information that Chávez had resigned, and then, when Chávez returned to power, by airing Disney cartoons rather than report this news. RCTV head Marcel Granier met with coup president Pedro Carmona during the coup, as Carmona enlisted the media’s help in attempting to ensure the coup’s success. RCTV also actively promoted the oil strike (2002-2003) that attempted to topple the government, and other, legal political and electoral campaigns.
Even some observers who harshly criticized the government’s decision on RCTV admitted that the issue was much more complicated, and that RCTV was not automatically entitled to its license. “Broadcasting companies in any country in the world, especially in democratic countries, are not entitled to renewal of their licenses,” José Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch explained. “The lack of renewal of the contract, per se, is not a free speech issue. Just per se.”
In the years since the RCTV decision, instead of correcting its hyperbolic claims of Venezuelan censorship, U.S. media outlets have continued the theme. The new focus is on broadcaster Globovisión, routinely described as “Venezuela’s only remaining opposition TV television station on the open airwaves.” This characterization is simply false, as numerous local TV stations in Venezuela have an opposition political line (and national broadcasters such as Televen continue to run programs with a strong opposition slant). The great majority of Venezuelan media continues to be privately owned, and the opposition dominates the newspaper industry as well. As Human Rights Watch – a frequent critic of freedom of the press in Venezuela – noted in a 2008 report, “the balance of forces in the print media has not changed significantly”, with the majority of Venezuelan newspapers continuing to be privately-owned and two of the three top newspapers maintaining an opposition political line (the third is neutral).
U.S. press reports also frequently describe a shift among some opposition media, such as TV station Venevisión, towards being less critical of the government. While U.S. media often suggests that this could be out of fear of “censorship,” Venezuela-analyst Greg Wilpert offers another theory: “I think some of the TV stations have slightly moderated [their opposition to the government] not because of intimidation, but because they were losing audience share. Over half of the population is supportive of Chávez. They’ve reduced the number of anti-Chávez programs that they used to have. But those that continue to exist are just as anti-Chávez as they were before.”
Did He Really Say That?
Another frequent problem with U.S. media coverage – which is mostly in English – in covering Latin American leaders, who usually speak in Spanish, is mis-interpretation of what they say. Recently, for example, numerous stories online ran with headlines like “Evo Morales: ‘Chicken causes baldness and homosexuality’” regarding remarks the Bolivian president made at a summit on climate change in Cochabamba. Yet Morales actually made no reference to homosexuality. An Associated Press report stuck closer to Morales’ actual words, and noted – unlike numerous other articles and op-eds – the accepted science behind Morales’ point, noting that hormones have been banned in poultry in the U.S. and European countries “for decades.”
Reporters and commentators were also quick to jump to conclusions regarding a speech Hugo Chávez made on Christmas Eve, 2005, in which he said, “the world has wealth for all, but some minorities, the descendants of the same people that crucified Christ, have taken over all the wealth of the world.” Media outlets including Voice of America, The Weekly Standard, The New York Daily News, and The Los Angeles Times quickly proclaimed that the comments were “anti-semitic.” Yet in their full context, it appears that Chávez was railing against a favorite target: imperialists, who, unlike the Jews, “expelled [Venezuelan liberator Simón] Bolívar”:
The world has an offer for everybody but it turned out that a few minorities — the descendants of those who crucified Christ, the descendants of those who expelled Bolivar from here and also those who in a certain way crucified him in Santa Marta, there in Colombia–they took possession of the riches of the world, a minority took possession of the planets gold, the silver, the minerals, the water, the good lands, the oil, and they have concentrated all the riches in the hands of a few; less than 10 percent of the world population owns more than half of the riches of the world.
As Rabbi Arthur Waskow explained, it was an Empire, “the Roman Empire, and Roman soldiers, who crucified Jesus.”
In August 2009, a group of expert scholars on Latin America became so frustrated with the Associated Press’ inaction over continued false comments its reporters had attributed to Chávez that they took out a full-page ad in the Columbia Journalism Review questioning AP’s “journalistic principles” in reporting on Venezuela.
Factors Behind Why the Media Acts the Way it Does
Why is so much U.S. media coverage of Latin America so distorted? Several aspects of the media industry could be responsible. In their landmark book, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, scholars Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman describe a “propaganda model” to explain the behavior of the U.S. mass media. This model posits that limits on critiques of the status quo and stark inequality in control over resources lead to a scenario in which “money and power are able to filter out the news fit to print, marginalize dissent, and allow the government and dominant private interests to get their messages across to the public.” The five major components of the model are:
1) the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth, and profit orientation of the dominant mass-media firms; (2) advertising as the primary income source of the mass media; (3) the reliance of the media on information provided by government, business, and “experts” funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power; (4) “flak” as a means of disciplining the media; and (5) “anticommunism” as a national religion and control mechanism.
Each of these “interact with and reinforce one another.” The filters can determine what investigations and reports get assigned in the first place, and then can significantly change the content of the story during the editing process. It is easy to imagine how these filters affect current coverage of Latin America.
Recent business and political developments may be further intensifying the effect of these filters. Concentration of media ownership continues to increase on an unprecedented scale; currently the great majority of U.S. media – broadcast, print, Internet, and other – is owned by just six corporations. The ongoing decline of the newspaper industry has led to a drastic reduction in the number of U.S. media outlets with bureaus and correspondents in Latin America and elsewhere overseas, leading many outlets to reprint articles from the New York Times, Washington Post, or newswires where before they generated their own reports. And as new Left-leaning governments have been elected, and as existing governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and elsewhere stand up to the U.S. government and multinational corporations, the number of lobbyists and PR professionals hired to counter these governments grows. All of these could have a considerable impact on how Latin America is covered in the U.S. media.
Latin America News Round-up, from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (a daily compilation of English-language news coverage of Latin America and the Caribbean)
Jonathan Cook, “Media Assault on Latin America.” The Nation. April 13, 2006.
Steve Rendall, Daniel Ward and Tess Hall, “FAIR Study: Human Rights Coverage Serving Washington’s Needs: FAIR finds editors downplaying Colombia’s abuses, amplifying Venezuela’s” . Extra!, February 2009
Pablo Navarrete, “Venezuela deserves a fair hearing.” The Guardian, April 11, 2010.
Jules Boykoff, “Devil or Democrat? Hugo Chávez and the US Prestige Press.” New Political Science, Volume 31, Issue 1 March 2009 , pages 3 – 26.
Lee Salter, “A Decade of Propaganda? The BBC’s Reporting of Venezuela.” Venezuelanalysis.com, December 14th 2009
Dan Beeton, “The Fun House Mirror: Distortions and Omissions in the News on Bolivia.” NACLA Report on the Americas. May/June 2009.
Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media.
By Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky. Pantheon Books: 2002.
 Jorge G. Castañeda, “Latin America’s Left Turn.” Foreign Affairs. May/June 2006. [http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/61702/jorge-g-castaneda/latin-americas-left-turn] Accessed April 27, 2010.
 See, e.g., Moisés Naím, “The ‘Axis of Lula’ vs. the ‘Axis of Hugo’.” Foreign Policy. March 26, 2009.
[http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2009/03/25/the_axis_of_lula_vs_the_axis_of_hugo_0] Accessed April 27, 2010; Patrick J. McDonnell, “Lula seeks to restore Brazil’s regional sway.” The Los Angeles Times. April 27, 2007. [http://articles.latimes.com/2007/apr/27/world/fg-lula27] Accessed April 27, 2010; Simon Romero and Alexei Barrionuevo, “Quietly, Brazil Eclipses an Ally.” The New York Times. July 7, 2008. [http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/07/world/americas/07brazil.html?_r=2] Accessed April 27, 2010.
 Reuters, “Brazil’s Lula defends Chavez as referendum nears.” November 25, 2007. [http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSN2536376520071125] Accessed April 24, 2010.
 Mercopress, “Bachelet defends Morales and Chavez, indirectly mocks Bush.” May 12, 2006. [http://en.mercopress.com/2006/05/12/bachelet-defends-morales-and-chavez-indirectly-mocks-bush] Accessed April 24, 2010.
 Dariush Sokolov, “Rebels with a bank.” Emerging Markets, April 7, 2008. [http://www.emergingmarkets.org/article.asp?ArticleID=1902620&CategoryID=191&PageMove=13] Accessed April 24, 2010.
 Antonio Regalado, “Bolivia Plants Coca, and Cocaine Follows.” The Wall Street Journal. August 18, 2009. [http://online.wsj.com/article/SB125055680375738823.html?mod=fox_Australian] Accessed April 24, 2010.
 Harry Maurer, “Chávez’ Propaganda Coup.” Business Week, December 5, 2005. [http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/05_49/c3962050.htm#ZZZ7UK1ADGE] Accessed April 24, 2010.
 Frank Ahrens, “Venezuelan Strongman Cuts Off Heating Oil to Mass. Poor.” Economy Watch (Blog), washingtonpost.com, January 5, 2009. [http://voices.washingtonpost.com/economy-watch/2009/01/venezuelan_dictator_cuts_off_h.html] Accessed April 24, 2010.
 Matt Moffett, “Argentina Moves to Rein In Media.” The Wall Street Journal. September 18, 2009
[http://online.wsj.com/article/SB125323982977921963.html] Accessed April 26, 2010.
 The Times (London), “Chav politics.” May 16, 2006.
 Reporters Without Borders, “Press Freedom Index 2006.” October 24, 2006. [http://en.rsf.org/spip.php?page=classement&id_rubrique=35] Accessed April 26, 2010.
 The Washington Post, “Meddle With Mr. Chavez.” (Editorial) March 1, 2003. [http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&node=&contentId=A18965-2003Feb28¬Found=true] Accessed April 27, 2010.
 The Los Angeles Times, “Hugo Chavez flexes his muzzle.” (Editorial) January 26, 2010. [http://articles.latimes.com/2010/jan/26/opinion/la-ed-rctv26-2010jan26] Accessed April 27, 2010.
 Darcy Crowe, “Venezuela’s Chavez Moves to Tighten Control Over Private Media.” The Wall Street Journal. July 9, 2009 [http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124717745352519889.html] Accessed April 27, 2010.
 Miguel Perez, “Muzzling the news media broadcasts a loss of Venezuela democracy.” Chicago Sun-Times. January 9, 2007. Reposted at http://www.creators.com/opinion/miguel-perez/say-adios-to-venezuelan-democracy.html . Accessed April 27, 2010.
 Andres Oppenheimer, “OAS silence on Venezuela censorship scary.” The Miami Herald. June 7, 2007.
Reposted at http://www.hacer.org/current/Vene145.php. Accessed April 27, 2010.
 Simon Romero, “Nonrenewal of TV License Stokes Debate in Venezuela.” New York Times, January 1, 2007. [http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/01/world/americas/01venez.html?_r=1] Accessed April 26, 2010.
 Carlos Chirinos, “Venezuela investiga el “Carmonazo”.” BBC Mundo, October 5, 2004. [http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/spanish/latin_america/newsid_3718000/3718810.stm] Accessed April 27, 2010.
 David Adams and Phil Gunson, “Media accused in failed coup.” St. Petersburg Times, April 18, 2002. [http://www.stpetersburgtimes.com/2002/04/18/Worldandnation/Media_accused_in_fail.shtml] Accessed April 27, 2010.
 On the Media (NPR), “Pulling the Plug.” May 18, 2007. [http://www.onthemedia.org/transcripts/2007/05/18/05] Accessed April 27, 2010.
 Patrick McElwee, “Is Free Speech Really at Stake? Venezuela and RCTV.” VenezuelaAnalysis.com. May 23rd 2007. [http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/2398] Accessed April 26, 2010.
 Christopher Toothaker, “Last Anti-Chavez TV Station Faces Probe, Shutdown.” Associated Press. May 16, 2009. [http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory?id=7604504] Accessed April 27, 2010.
 Human Rights Watch, “A Decade Under Chávez: Political Intolerance and Lost Opportunities for Advancing Human Rights in Venezuela.” September 18, 2008 . (footnote 184, p.74; footnote 181, p.73) [http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/venezuela0908web.pdf] Accessed April 27, 2010.
 Simon Romero, “Chávez Looks at His Critics in the Media and Sees the Enemy.” The New York Times. June 1, 2007. [http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/01/world/americas/01venez.html] Accessed April 27, 2010.
 Daniel Hernandez, “Evo Morales: ‘Chicken causes baldness and homosexuality’”. La Plaza (LATimes.com Blog). April 23, 2010 [http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/laplaza/2010/04/bolivia-president.html] Accessed April 28, 2010.
 Associated Press, “Evo Morales Warns Chicken Can Ruin Hair, Virility.” April 20, 2010. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/04/21/evo-morales-warns-chicken_n_545184.html
 See Steve Rendall and Jim Naureckas, “Misquoting Chavez to Make Him Anti-Semitic.” Minuteman Media. March 15, 2006. Reposted at http://www.commondreams.org/views06/0315-28.htm. Accessed April 28, 2010; Evan Derkacz, “Chavez’s Alleged Anti-Semitism.” AlterNet. March 15, 2006. [http://www.alternet.org/story/31797/] Accessed April 28, 2010.
 FAIR Blog, “AP Reports ‘Breached Basic Journalistic Principles’”. August 9, 2009. [http://www.fair.org/blog/tag/borev-net/] Accessed April 28, 2010.
 Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. Pantheon Books: 2002. Page 2.