<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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Same sources... same lack of disclosure...

Copy Cat Journalists Forero and Miller

NY Times and LA Times run identical stories on Venezuelan “strike”


By Dan Feder
Narco News Associate Publisher

December 12, 2002

Juan Forero’s extraordinary dispatch from Caracas for Tuesday’s New York Times is, at first glance, simply the standard parade of half-truths and distortions we’ve come to expect from this correspondent for the “paper of record” when he covers our América. “In Venezuela’s General Strike, the Pinch Becomes Pain” warns the ominous headline. We then meet our sympathetic cast of characters, the suffering but enduring “small business” owners of a town called El Hatillo.

We meet Javier Martín, who manages the quaint-sounding Hannsi folk art market. We meet Gloria Mugarra, who runs a furniture store in the area, and several others who are “on strike,” making the ultimate sacrifice—near to going out of business—to depose their hated poor people’s president. We also meet, briefly, several other small business owners who express similar sentiments. Pretty inspiring stuff, ¿no? And to add legitimacy to Forero’s brilliant conclusions – essentially, that Chavez faces a huge threat from the commitment and patience of the strikers and may be forced to give in – Forero turns to Ricardo Hausmann, “an economist at Harvard” – to give us the big picture.

Great job, Juan! A-plus!

Well, this heroic struggle is not what Forero’s language would make it seem, but we’ll get to that shortly. The truly remarkable thing about this story is nowhere to be found in Tuesday’s New York Times, but three thousand miles away, in the pages of Howell Raines’ bitter rival, the Los Angeles Times.

Opening Tuesday’s LA Times, one comes across the headline “Venezuelan Merchants Feeling Pain of Strike.” Sound familiar? (Forero’s NYT dispatch, again, was titled, “In Venezuela’s General Strike, the Pinch Becomes Pain.”) But this story is purportedly by T. Christian Miller, it must be different. One’s eyes move down to the dateline: “El Hatillo, Venezuela.” Must be a coincidence; keep reading. As the article – much shorter than its counterpart in the NY Times – continues, we are reacquainted with our old friends: furniture vendor Gloria Mugarra, Harvard economist Ricardo Hausmann, and art market manager Javier Martín (this time with no accent mark in his last name; I’ll give Forero the benefit of the doubt on the correct spelling), who all give more or less the same quotes.

What are we to make of this? Two reporters from rival papers file the same “human interest” story on Venezuela on the same day, with the same subjects and the same academic authority weighing in? There must be a logical explanation! I can think of a few:

1. Javier Martín and Gloria Murgarra are the only business owners in El Hatillo, and Hausmann is the only economist who knows anything about Venezuela?

2. T. Christian Miller IS Juan Forero, and Forero is trying to pull a fast one on his editors on both coasts, for a double paycheck?

3. Forero and Miller were feeling lazy and researched and wrote the story together, hoping their rival editors wouldn’t notice?

4. Someone from Venezuela’s ruling-class opposition took Forero and Martin on a pre-arranged tour of business owners known to be ready to give good anti-Chavez sound bytes. The journalists were then guided to a pre-arranged interview with an academic the opposition knew would give an ominous, wise-sounding word or two about how powerful the opposition is and difficult it will be for Chavez to get through this.

Somehow, I just don’t find #1 very plausible. And after reading Forero’s daily reports over the last week or so, I’m just not sure he’s smart enough to pull off #2. Numbers three and four, or some combination of the two, seem much more likely.

So, in all likelihood, this was a story manufactured by some element of the opposition for whom Forero and Miller turned their newspapers into willing pawns. If they were paraded around separately, but still ended up writing the same story, this represents a very clever little piece of PR executed by the pro-coup forces. In any case, both correspondents should have disclosed such details.

Miller’s piece, while shorter, includes many revealing details that Forero’s left out. As he describes the locked doors to the deserted market, Miller writes:

“As [Martin] opened them, to speak to journalists, two people passed by and asked whether he was open.”

Obviously, Miller was not the only journalist there to ask questions. Was he with Forero? Other journalists? What was this, a press conference? If so, are we supposed to believe that it was all organized by Martin, and the same for Murraga? If not, than who organized it? Who brought them there? Who was listening as the interviews took place?

While Miller at least hints at the simulation going on in this bicoastal report, Forero gives the reader nothing to suggest that this wasn’t a private interview he arranged via his own investigative prowess. Of course, failing to disclose the context and circumstances of his interviews is hardly a new tactic for Forero. As uncovered by this publication last year, Forero committed a similar but much more serious journalistic sin when he interviewed private mercenary pilots in Colombia. What Forero’s readers around the world did not know was that a US embassy official was monitoring all the interviews, virtually ensuring that the pilots could not speak freely.

The reader will find another subtle disclosure in the Miller article, this time regarding the articles’ requisite academic bigwig (Forero’s piece contains an essentially identical sentence):

“You don’t get businesses at Christmastime willing to forgo sales for ideological reasons,” said Ricardo Hausmann, an economist at Harvard and former Venezuelan planning minister.

Really, boys? A former Venezuelan planning minister? As in, a member of the governmental elite that was run out of town after a popular rejection of the establishment parties and the landslide victory of Hugo Chavez and the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) party? Is that your idea of an independent analysis? A man who has not just an ideological axe but also a personal axe to grind with the current government?

Like so many reports on the current, complicated struggle going on in Venezuela now, these stories are dishonest in what they don’t say. For instance, Javier Martín is obviously an enthusiastic supporter-cum-symbol of the “strike” (also referred to occasionally as the economic sabotage of democracy by the ruling class). But what do his employees think of this strike forced on them by their boss? Is it possible to write about a strike without speaking to workers?

Martín is apparently wealthy enough, according to both writers, to pay his 40 employees their full salaries for up to two and a half weeks with no revenue coming in. But would they be working if they had the choice? Are they getting their Christmas bonuses this year? Will Martín close up shop to retire or open a smaller store with his savings once times get better, leaving them to join the huge majority already living in poverty? If the business elite is determined to drive the country deeper into poverty for their own political ends, would the workers who pay the real price with lost jobs or slashed incomes rather be poor under Chavez or whatever neoliberal hack is installed to replace him?

Which leads us to perhaps absurd omission from these two specimens: what is this El Hatillo place anyway? Cues from the writers lead us to picture a depressed urban area with sprawling markets and an angry population ready for resistance. But anyone who has been to El Hatillo would burst out laughing at these articles. (I’m not one of these people, so I’m not currently laughing. But it’s the truth.)

El Hatillo, a 45-minute drive from central Caracas, has been the hermetically sealed enclave of the super-rich since colonial times. These are shops that cater to Venezuela’s top 5% and no one else. Interesting, that they had to go all the way to El Hatillo to find evidence of a “strike.” Reporting an alleged strike from El Hatillo is basically equivalent to reporting the LA riots from the Gucci and Armani shops on Rodeo Drive.

Meanwhile, as two of the most influential gringo journalists were being wined and dined by a business class with too much time on its hands, back in the cities around the country thousands from the poor and working classes were surrounding the commercial TV stations—apparently unorganized by the government. They demanded and end to dishonest reporting just like this, and this far more interesting story was left unreported.

Did opposition leaders bring Forero and Miller as far as possible from this scene of much more genuine popular revolt specifically to stop those demonstrations from being reported? Or are these two simply uninterested in reporting anything that casts doubt on the “official” narrative on Venezuela they have spent the last few years developing?

I’m not sure which is worse – two journalists so easily tricked or two journalists so maliciously distorting the truth. In terms of the real effect on the media landscape and public consciousness, it doesn’t really matter. Whether they serve the anti-democracy coup forces intentionally or simply through their incompetence, the Big Lie lives another day.

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America