December 9, 2002

Lies, damn lies, and channel 8

Turn on the television in Venezuela, any channel, any time, and you're in the thick of it. Every day, on every station, all you see is news. No more cheesy American sitcoms, no more soaps, no more game shows, not even baseball. It's gotten to the point where they don't even show commercials anymore, just running commentary on the political crisis every minute of every day. (Well, except for the folks at Channel 5, who, God bless them, stick doggedly by their animal documentaries.)

The media overload goes a long ways towards explaining the pervasive climate of tension here. But it's more troubling than that, because the media have abandoned any semblance of fair reporting, any pretense of balance. You have six channels. The five private networks show non-stop antigovernment propaganda, some of it more shrill, some of it less so, some of it better grounded in reality, some of it frankly fantastic, but all of it opposition minded. And then you have Channel 8, the state run channel ("The channel of All Venezuelans" as the slogan goes) which shows a never ending stream of chavista pap, almost all of it blatantly, aggressively false.

Now, professional journalistic ethics have been tossed overboard on both sides, it's true. While I’m obviously an opposition journalist, I'm sane enough to realize that much of what the private media peddles is pretty thin gruel. But while there are exaggerations and distortions, certainly, and an appalling absence of balance, I know for a fact that most opposition journalists are trying to get at the truth most of the time. (It just happens that the truth is most often terribly inconvenient to this government.)

In that respect, there's a fundamental difference with Channel 8, which resembles nothing more than your standard issue totalitarian dictatorship propaganda organ. There's a willfullness to the disinformation on Channel 8, a shamelessness to it, a kind of aggressive aversion to telling the truth that the private media very rarely stoops to. There are taylor made agitprop videos, endlessly repeated, peddling aggressively distorted versions of reality on issues ranging from the April 11th massacre to supposed opposition coup plots. The private channels distort and exaggerate, slant and stretch, but they rarely go out of the way to lie the way Channel 8 does. Aggressively. Willfully. All the time.

It creates a strange kind of dual reality. Switching from a private channel to channel 8 and then back again it's scarcely believable they're both reporting the news out of the same country. It scares the hell out of me to realize that there are millions of people, millions of chavistas in this country who rely exclusively on channel 8 for their news, who eat that crap up with mustard. I understand the rage this causes in opposition circles, I understand the need opposition journalists feel to counteract the unending barrage of government lies. I share their frustration at the fact that almost every government spokesperson you interview lies to you openly, to your face, with no compunction at all. I don’t think it does the cause of objectivity any good at all to report, with a straight face, President Chávez’ earnest report that he has followers who are in touch with extraterrestrial civilizations, and that they support him all the way, just to pick an especially weird example. But I'm also well aware that the opposition media have created their own oddly warped reality, a reality that's much closer to the real reality than channel 8's reality, for sure, but which is still fundamentally distorted.

For the private media, chavismo is a weird sect followed only by a tiny fringe of far left drunkards, rabble rousers and violent, trigger-happy thugs - the lumpenproletariat. As far as the private channels are concerned, Hugo Chávez is basically Fidel Castro waiting to happen - it makes little difference to them that Chávez has never shut down an opposition TV station or newspaper, imprisoned an opponent or that he was democratically elected. He is a communist dictator, period. As far as the private media are concerned, there were no social divisions in this country before Chávez, no class tensions at all. Income inequality was politically meaningless. And Chávez created all of these problems singlehandedly, out of thin air, through his rhetoric.

Now, all of these are serious distortions of the nation's reality, there's no doubt about that. But they are Pulitzer-worthy examples of objectivity compared to the alternate universe on display at Channel 8. For the state-run media, the opposition is basically a satanist neonazi conspiracy. Literally. For a while the state media showed an agitprop video "demonstrating" that the opposition was secretly led by members of a neonazi satanist cult called TFP. Channel 8 is committed to the notion that there is no such thing as a mass opposition movement, that it's all a giant media lie, a conspiracy to magnify the view of a tiny cabal of obsenely rich conspirators bent on screwing over the poor. The PDVSA managers, in fact, everyone in the opposition, are not merely political opponents but enemies, terrorists, coup mongers. The public line about demanding elections is a hoax, a cover for a reactionary plot. Nothing that Chávez has ever said or done has ever been wrong. And the opposition isn't merely wrong, but actually evil.

Both media visions are out of line, but they're out of line in fundamentally different ways. The private media's version is based on a solid foundation of facts, facts that are often taken too far. Channel 8, on the other hand, is psychotically detatched from reality.

Channel 8's version of the world reflects nothing so much as the government's own ongoing difficulties with reality. The private media massively overindulge their propensity for wishful thinking, but the public station, much like Chávez himself, is locked in a reality all its own, built on a foundation of pure lies.

Which doesn't excuse the private media's bias. But it does, to a certain degree, explain it. It hardly seems sensible to give equal time to an opposition that, while flawed, is essentially sane alongside a government that, deep down, really is crazy. Do you really serve the interests of truth and objectivity when you adopt a he-said-she-said approach even while you know that one side, for all its faults, is basically trying to get at the truth while the other side is blatantly and systematically lying? And doesn't the overwhelming human duty to resist a government that's founded on a bedrock of deception overwhelm the dictates of standard journalistic ethics, dictates designed for reporting on situations where all sides act, more or less, in good faith?

I don't know the answers to these questions. I do know that even for someone who strongly opposes the government, as I do, the private media is going too far. It's one thing to ignore government spokesmen when they make absurd claims, like saying that Joao Gouveia is on a CIA payroll, but it's quite another to simply blackout any coverage of chavista marches that turn out 100,000+ marchers. Maybe I'm naïve to think there's still room for some sort of middle ground given the incredibly accute political strife we're going through here, but I sure wish I had some source of news willing to tell me the truth even if when it doesn't happen to be convenient to its side of the divide.