January 7, 2003

Dark hours for journalism

It’s tough being a journalist in this country, especially if, like me, you’re trying to juggle roles as a critic in the local press and a beat reporter for a U.S. newspaper. Trying to play both roles – and trying to mediate between the sides – takes its toll. It’s the reason, in any event, for the new and regrettable need to password-protect this blog: one of my US editors was very uncomfortable with having one of his reporters taking such openly political stances on a public website.

The Venezuelan media and the foreign press corps are caught in a spiral of mutual misunderstanding and mistrust. The foreign press is horrified by the openly partisan nature of almost all reporting here, where the private press spends 95% of its time ruthlessly attacking the government and the public media spends 100% of its time defending it. Venezuelan reporters (well, opposition reporters) are just as appalled at the foreign papers’ insistence on treating Chávez as a more-or-less normal president, entitled to a fair hearing and to having the things he says reported at face value, as though they have any sort of connection with reality. Each is convinced the other is presenting a massively distorted story here to its audience. It’s not easy at all to juggle the two roles.

Fact is, neither the Venezuelans nor the gringos are giving their readers what they need to form an accurate picture of reality. Venezuelan readers have been exposed to four years of presidential lunacy; the last thing they need is yet another rant vilifying Chávez. What they could really use, though, is some dispassionately reported information to help them make sense of an increasingly volatile and dangerous situation, and they’re not getting it.

But U.S. readers, most of whom probably couldn’t pick Venezuela apart from Namibia on a map, are not well-served by “neutral” reporting that takes a he-said/she-said approach to covering the government’s disputes with the opposition. U.S. readers don’t have the background knowledge that they need to tell truth apart from falsehood here, and U.S. papers too often report giant, stinking, howling chavista lies without giving their readers the guidance they would need to recognize them as giant, stinking, howling chavista lies.

In general, U.S. papers have two ways of dealing with information from abroad. Normal countries with sane rulers are covered one way, abnormal countries with pathological rulers are treated in another way. Nobody would accuse the U.S. press of bias for basically dismissing statements from a Mohammar Khadafi, or a Robert Mugabe or an Slobodan Milosevic. These people have clearly crossed all sorts of red lines that put them well beyond the pale, so U.S. papers don’t feel the need to observe basic standards of journalistic politesse towards them.

At this point, Chávez is clearly getting sane-ruler treatment in the U.S. press, and that’s driving opposition-minded Venezuelans half mad. The Venezuelan press, including the magazine I write for, long ago decided that Chávez had screwed up so much that they’re allowed to play rough with him. For better or for worse, they’ve concluded that this government is incompatible with ongoing democracy, and that the imperative to fight the enemies of democracy overrides the standard dictates of journalistic ethics. So the private media here barely pay lip service to notions like journalistic balance anymore. Their raison d’etre is to undermine the government. To the extent that informing the public fits in with that, they’ll inform the public. But in cases where it doesn’t, they won’t.

The resulting stream of viscerally antichavista pap on the TV and in the newspapers is far from the kind of journalism I want to practice…even if, substantively, I agree with many of the criticisms levelled. The problem is that what the local press is producing is not really journalism at all, it’s propaganda disguised as journalism. Who knows? Maybe they’re right to act that way. Maybe when faced with a government as dangerous to democracy as this one, one’s duty as a citizen overwhelms one’s duty as a journalist. That’s a philosophical question; I’m not sure what the answer is. Clearly, TV stations are private businesses, and if their owners want to use them as propaganda mills that’s their prerogative.

What bugs me, though, and what I don’t accept, is the way the propaganda-making mascarades as something it’s not, how it uses journalists and the stylistic conventions of journalism to try to lay claim to journalism’s aura of credibility. If Channels 2, 4, 10 and 33 have decided that their sacred duty is to attack a dangerous government rather than to practice journalism, they should take the newscast logos off the screens, send their journalists on vacation and put opposition politicians in front of the cameras 24 hours a day (sad fact is, the content wouldn’t change much.)

Most antichavistas I say that to look at me like I’m smoking crack. They've gotten used to living in an atmosphered suffused with partisan propagandizing and they're seething with visceral (if well-deserved) anger at the government. They can’t for the life of them understand why the foreign press insists on covering the differences between chavistas and antichavistas more or less the way they might cover the differences between Tony Blair and the British Tories. They tend to assume that the foreigners must just be ignorant, that if they really knew what the government gets up to, they’d cover the news differently.

As a result, foreign correspondents here are constantly getting backed into these long, tediously didactic rants by opposition activists. Sometimes they’re not much more than cathartic gripe sessions where chavista outrages are piled one on top of the other for hours on end. Too often, though, they’re models of condescension, treating these fancy WashPost or L.A. Times journalists like they’re more or less mentally retarded. It’s painful to watch.

But, of course, the strategy is silly because, appalling as these journalists might find Chávez’s antics, they don’t rise anywhere near the threshold needed for a good old fashioned campaign of international villification. This is really, really hard for opposition-minded Venezuelans to understand, much less accept. But Milosevic had to start three separate wars before he got the full baddie treatment from the foreign press. Mugabe didn’t get it until he explicitly shifted the entire rationale of his government to racial hatred. Saddam Hussein had to start two wars and nerve gas his own civilians before the western press decided he’d forefeited his claim to journalistic politesse. The rap on Chávez, on the other hand, is that he appointed a bunch of cronies as Attorney General and Supreme Courth magistrates and such, and that there’s a lot of circumstantial evidence to suggest that he probably had something to do with the deaths of 19 people in April. It’s not that those are nice things to do – these are horrible things to do – it’s just that from a foreign editor’s point of view, they doen’t even come close as a rationale for demonizing him.

The problem is that the Chávez experiment amounts to a weird hybrid, a half-authoritarianism. Normally when someone describes a leader as authoritarian, s/he means that he’s both autocratic and repressive. Autocratic meaning that he intends to make every decision by himself, allowing no other person, institution or publication to have any effective say over how the country is governed, and trying to extend his control to every institution in the country, even nominally independent ones like Supreme Courts and labor unions and so on. Repressive meaning that he intends to use however much violence it takes to suppress any person, institution or publication that tries to get in his way.

Your average despot intuitively understands that these things go together, that to govern like an autocrat you need to be ruthless in repressing your critics. But Chávez doesn’t seem to get it. While he’s clearly an autocrat, his attempts at “repression” have been a wet firecracker, a series of half-baked attempts at intimidation that have intimidated no one. There’s so much evidence that the government’s repressive streak is a dud it barely seems worth it to elaborate. Think of the giant marches against the government several times a week in Caracas think of the hours and hours Napoleón Bravo gets to rant on national television every day.

That doesn’t mean that Chávez doesn’t intend to rule as an autocrat: he does. But he’s not willing to use violence on the scale he would have to use it in order to gain total control of the nation’s institutions. What small-scale, circulo bolivariano-led violence he is willing to deploy is pointless, or worse, counterproducting - earning him constant angry denunciations in the press without in any way silencing his critics or demobilizing his opponents. It's the worst of both worlds: the appearance of repression without any of the substantive "benefits" of repression. And it explains why the nation is as unstable as it is. Normally, authoritarian regimes have many, many problems, but stability is not one of them. But half-authoritarianism seems to me like a formula for systematic instability.

Not surprisingly, the foreign papers don’t quite know how to deal with this complex reality…they’re like the first guy who ever tried to eat a lobster, they just have no idea how to go at it. And while it’s probably naïve to expect them to give Chávez the full Mugabe treatment, he’s obviously getting off way too easy at present. Your average International Herald Tribune reader probably thinks Chávez is a pretty clumsy and slightly weird politician, or a fairly exotic species from the exhuberant political zoo that is Latin America, or maybe just a leftist with a taste for overstatement cursed with a particularly stubborn opposition…but no more than that. I don’t think s/he’s been told enough to really understand how serious the threat to democracy has become in Venezuela. And I think the tone of US reporters’ coverage of the crisis is to blame for that.

What’s for sure is that truth is a slippery notion in Venezuela these days, that questions of journalistic ethics that would seem fairly obscure or pedantic in a normal situation acquire particular urgency here, and that it’s very, very hard to find the right balance given the supercharged polarization here.