The most insidious aspect of media bias in Venezuela is not how much the private broadcasters and newspapers attack the government. No, the real scandal is how much they suck up to the opposition. The constant Chávez-bashing is somewhat over the top, for sure, but it’s hard to condemn it too strenuously. The president goes so far out of his way to say and do crazy things all the time that whatever criticism he gets, he had it coming. The real bias, what’s really warping the national debate, is the sniveling, acritical support the papers give to an opposition leadership that doesn’t know it’s ass from its backside.
It’s not subtle. Back in December, when the opposition launched the general strike, every paper in town ran screaming six column headlines about it. Last week, when that paro was called off, it was reported in a box on page 17.
It doesn’t take a genius to realize the paro was a near-total fiasco – wrecking the oil industry, destroying thousands of jobs, bankrupting any number of companies and doing little, precious little to bring real pressure to bear on the government. In the end, the strategy amounted to mass-scale masochism, an action of the middle class that hurt no one so much as the middle class. Did it achieve anything? Well, I suppose now there's a group of "Friends of Venezuela" that sends its deputy foreign ministers for a nice stay at the Meliá once a month...that's an accomplishment. Was it worth the tens or hundreds of thousands of lost jobs and ruined lives it cost? Well, you be the judge.
By day 45, it was clear that the paro was a failure, a calamity for tens of thousands of families, a political disaster that was only strengthening Chávez politically while chipping away at the opposition’s ability to resist his disastrous misgovernment. Yet, even then, the paro dragged on for another 17 long days. Why?
Part of the reason, a worryingly large part of the reason, is that the people who designed and implemented the debacle never faced public scrutiny for it. The Venezuelan press operates under a self-imposed gag rule against criticizing them. Even when they screw up big time, they're beyond reproach. Criticizing them, the thinking seems to go, might give “the enemy” some sort of tactical advantage, and you certainly wouldn’t want to do that. So the papers won't print it. The newscasts won’t put it on the air. It’s banned, basically.
This is not a matter of conjecture, I’ve heard reporters at some of the country’s main papers describe the mechanism. Stories that are even mildly critical of key opposition leaders don’t make it past the editorial filter…they’re either cut or killed outright. Journalists who write too many of those soon find themselves getting less and less attractive assignments. Some have even been known to end up in the dreaded sports page. The message is straightforward.
The result is equally clear. The opposition's leadership always gets away with it, no matter how catastrophically irresponsibile, shortsighted, and just plain stupid their tactics are. They never face hostile questioning from reporters, never face critical scrutiny. In a sense, they’re locked in a little bubble just like the one the state media have created around Chávez. They never meet dissent face-to-face, it’s little wonder they’ve barely noticed how badly they're screwing things up.
You can’t say it in print, so I might as well say it here. The opposition’s umbrella group, the Coordinadora Democrática, is a total mess – a forum for the pettiest of politicking, backstabing, meaningless squabbling, dirty tricks, end-runs against pluralistic decision-making mechanisms...a litany of the worst old-regime politics has to offer. The group is top-heavy with old style politicos who learned exactly nothing from the huge groundswell of disgust against them that first propelled Chávez to power. Cynical, self-serving machine politicians who simply don’t understand why the country once came to hate them, and still haven’t figured out that even people who hate Chávez are terrified at the prospect of putting them back in power.
The true democrats and idealists – and they’re in there too – often appear politically outgunned by the dinosaurs, and plainly don’t control the group. But more and more, disparate groups within the Coordinadora make decisions on their own, without consulting anyone, and then pass them off as Coordinadora decisions. In short, the CoordinadoraDemocratica is not democratic, and it doesn’t coordinate anything.
But unless you read Teodoro Petkoff’s editorials in Tal Cual or Ibsen Martínez’s columns in El Nacional, you wouldn’t hear that from the Venezuelan press – that beacon of freedom and objectivity, that bulwark against autocracy. It’s pretty sick.
None of this makes Chávez's government any less awful. What's unacceptable is the way the opposition’s leaders have gotten into the habit of using Chávez’s awfulness as a shield to exempt themselves from any criticism. Go to a press conference and ask an opposition leader a hard question and he’s liable to frown at you and dismiss you saying, “damn it, who let this frikkin' chavista in here?” There’s just no space for any critical discourse on the opposition’s failings, which are many and serious.
It’s all very unfortunate, because the opposition’s supporters are, by and large, really cool: energetic, devoted, idealistic, and democratically minded. They deserve far better leadership than the parade of no-hopers they’re getting. They’ve marched their hearts out, again and again and again, sometimes at the risk of their lives. Literally. They’ve thumbed their noses at serious intimidation to go out and sign petitions against the government in chavista areas, they’ve banged their pots all out of shape, they’ve held prayer meetings, citizens’ assemblies, they’ve camped out, sang, danced on the streets, they’ve done everything they’ve been asked to do, willingly, with a smile and a sense of real, no-bullshit patriotism. Again and again their energy has bailed out their leaders, most recently last Sunday when they saved the Coordinadora from the awful embarrassment of admitting the paro had been a colossal fiasco by pouring out on the streets to sign en masse. They deserve better leaders than this, and they deserve much better newspapers they’re getting…newspapers willing to tell them, in plain language, that they have the right to demand better leaders than this.