AP’s One-Sided Venezuela Coverage
On Desk Reporters Who “Phone-in” the Spin
By Dan Feder
Special to the Narco News Bulletin
December 18, 2002
The statement seemed clear enough. After a total of 25 hours of negotiations that framed this past weekend, the Organization of American States – representing 34 governments – released a much-awaited declaration on the crisis in Venezuela. The OAS rejected any solution that is not consistent with the Venezuelan constitution – which went into law with the support of President Hugo Chávez in 1999 only after the entire nation approved the text in a referendum – and “fully support(s) the democratic and constitutional order of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, whose government is headed by Hugo Chávez Frías.”
But the Associated Press (AP)’s Nestor Ikeda, who until yesterday had not written on Venezuela since the coup last April, doesn’t seem to get it. And looking at the coverage AP has provided on Venezuela for the last two weeks, this is hardly surprising; the reports, especially those of a certain writer we will get to in a moment, have been a steady stream of dishonest spin.
Despite a short, uncomplicated, essentially unambiguous declaration (making it something of an anomaly in diplomatic literature), Ikeda apparently felt the need to bend over backwards trying to prove that the OAS had, in fact, “given no direct support to Chavez.” What could have been more direct than the above statement? A photo of the 34 ambassadors wearing red berets shouting “viva la revolución bolivariana?” An international force sent in to squash the opposition? How long can people like Ikeda deny that the opposition has lost the bulk of the international support that it once had?
Ikeda goes on to quote the US Ambassador to the OAS, Roger Noriega, who says “this resolution supports the secretary general’s efforts, unequivocally and energetically,” giving the impression that Noriega was quite pleased with the resolution. Here may lie the key to Ikeda’s bizarre slanting of this important story. Noriega recently served on the Senate Foreign Affairs committee. While in that post, he became notorious for his skill at manipulating reporters. Once, he was overheard bragging that New York Times’ Larry Rohter never made a move without consulting him. It seems that, rather than seek out independent analysis of the resolution, or do his own (did he even read it? one has to wonder), Ikeda has let a veteran Washington spin-doctor tell the story for him.
In fact, the actual text of the resolution is far less “energetic” about free-expression-suppressing Secretary General Cesar Gaviria, requesting
the OAS Secretary General to continue to report to the Permanent Council on his facilitation efforts concerning the situation in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and bearing in mind the existence of other mechanisms in the inter-American system, such as the Meeting of Consultation of Ministers of Foreign Affairs.
It appears, to me at least, that the OAS has used this language to distance itself from Gaviria, and to diminish his role in mediating the crisis. If they were so happy with the work, why would they ask him so publicly to bring in two outside parties – the Carter Center and the United Nations – to help?
Ikeda neglects to tell his readers that the same Roger Noriega spent last Friday at the OAS fighting for a very different resolution—one that would have called for “early elections.” In the two days of marathon and tense debate that followed, Noriega was forced to concede this major point to Venezuelan ambassador Jorge Valero, who had support from many Caribbean nations. The resulting language is much closer to the resolution Valero wanted than to language pursued by Noriega and the White House. Fortunately for Noriega, long a foe of Venezuelan democracy and one of the leading now-embarrassed US politicians who initially backed the April 11 coup, the AP is around to cover up his latest failure. In all likelihood, Noriega told Ikeda much more “off the record” to reshape the story into a victory for his camp. This sort of journalistic spinelessness is hardly limited to Washington; as we’ll see, it is typical of the AP’s correspondents in Latin America.
The problem with the Associated Press
Some of AP’s other reporters have been producing simply awful journalism since long before Ikeda joined this round of the Venezuelan tug-of-war. AP stories are picked up by thousands of newspapers large and small across the country every day, and are often read by newscasters on the radio and television. So the tone they set and messages they break to the public are no small matter; they lie at the heart of the media-created reality through which most United States citizens and many English-speaking people in other countries experience the larger world.
Associated Press is technically a “non-profit” corporation owned by a cooperative of for-profit United States newspapers and media companies, and governed by the AP Managing Editors Association. No radio news show or daily newspaper editor has the resources to send a reporter to every part of the world she or he wants. So editors use the AP to cut costs; why pay twenty-five different journalists to write on an issue when you can pool your resources and just pay one? According to their website,
the AP is the backbone of the world’s information system. In the United States alone, AP serves 5,000 radio and television stations and 1,700 newspapers. Add to that the 8,500 newspaper, radio and television subscribers in 121 countries overseas, and you’ll have some idea of AP’s reach.
This role obviously gives the AP an unbelievable amount of power over the discussion of global events, especially in the English-speaking world. Yet AP correspondents write under much lower standards and with much less supervision than their counterparts at specific media organizations. In other words, they are largely unaccountable to their editors. At the same time, at a corporate level, the AP is unaccountable to its millions of readers. Unlike many newspapers, there is no AP ombudsman who “speaks for the readers.” There is no letters page for the AP, and individual newspapers rarely print letters responding to wire stories.
The very structure of the AP —the impersonal bureaucracy through which this huge volume of information is filtered—encourages “desk reporting” from foreign correspondents. This means gleaning stories from the local commercial newspapers and taking phone calls from Embassy, political, and corporate spin-doctors rather than going outside and talking to the real people their stories concern. According to many familiar with the organization, AP correspondents are typically wined and dined by the English-speaking elites in the Third World outposts where they are assigned.
A perfect example of what this leads to is the case of Peter McFarren, AP’s 18 year bureau chief in Bolivia. McFarren was exposed by this publication as having moonlighted as a lobbyist for an $80 million dollar water pipeline project. After two weeks of stonewalling, AP finally announced McFarren’s resignation after Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) and Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz inquired about the conflict. By the time he resigned, McFarren had become a regular figure among elite circles of Bolivian politicians and businessmen, completely alienated from and hostile towards the masses of people he was responsible for reporting on.
In sum, the typical AP report on a major event in a foreign country is first filtered through a friendly English-speaking establishment spin-doctor before reaching the writer, then filtered through a giant bureaucracy of AP editors with no relationship to either the writer or the ultimate reader, and finally chosen, not chosen or tampered with by news editors at the commercial media outlets who buy the story. There are a few exceptions – such as AP’s Mexican and Caribbean correspondent Mark Stevenson. In Venezuela, Niko Price has occasionally reported outside of the box constructed by pro-coup elites that the rest of the reporter’s peers have fallen for hook, line and sinker – but still offers very little insight. Venezuela, a country with such a wide gap between a wealthy elite and a poor majority, seems tailor-made for the trap that most AP Latin American correspondents have fallen into: the administration, rather than the reporting, of the news.
Olson: A Journalist On Strike?
Take AP Venezuela correspondent Alexandra Olson for example: She has proven herself an expert over the past week in the use of AP-style writing to produce an illusion of objectivity in what actually turns out to be a very one-sided, dishonest story. Let’s try a little exercise in deconstruction here with what may have been the most read English-language print articles from Venezuela these last seven days.
In all but one of the eleven stories that Olson has written since Dec. 9th for the AP, the word “strike” appears in the first paragraph. Anyone who has been keeping track of the news from Venezuela via her stories, via whatever medium, has heard reference to a “strike” every single day before any other facts of the story are presented. In more than half of her stories, she also uses the full term “general strike” to describe the opposition, but without quote marks around either.
Is “strike” – or better yet, “general strike” – the best term to describe what is going on in Venezuela right now? As Narco News has consistently pointed since the latest incarnation of the anti-Chavez crowd started making its latest round of trouble in late November, some people may not be working but this campaign hardly resembles the conventional definition of a general strike.
A strike happens when workers refuse to work in order to pressure their employer to concede to some demand. A general strike happens when a united working class stops all work in a country to pressure – or remove from power – the owning class and the politicians with whom they’re in bed.
Rather than the heroic working-class resistance suggested by the term “general strike”—chosen no doubt to inspire sympathy from working people in Venezuela and around the world—it is Venezuela’s business class that has conspired to shut out its workers and close down its shops. And as a conspiracy, it’s failed miserably – most of the owners and white-collar workers who participated went back to work after only a few days. Only the participation of the oil industry gave the opposition the power to really threaten the government.
But does Olson interview a single blue-collar worker from the oil company, or any other “striking” company for that matter, for her string of reports? Of course not: Why interview actual workers who are “on strike” when you can repeat sound bytes from the managers who ordered them to stop working?
What Olson has done is give the opposition leaders the power to set the terms of the conflict. If they say it’s a general strike, then it must be a general strike.
Additionally, Olson has not followed up the results of various “escalations” of the strike she has reported. She tells the reader that stores close, but never reports when, days later, they re-open. She tells the reader that each opposition march is larger than the next, when they’ve been essentially conducted by the same size and sector of Venezuelan upper-class society as has occurred all year long.
The constant “ratcheting up” of the conflict – the “strike” is always portrayed as bigger, better, growing, escalating, getting more tense, etcetera – is a tired technique of yellow journalism, and has historic motives in the goal of selling newspapers. But specific to the Venezuela conflict, this spin has a dangerous echo in the remarks of one side of the conflict: the Venezuelan opposition, United States officials, and “mediator” Cesar Gaviria, who also keep shouting that the situation is “escalating” when the only thing that escalates about these “strikers” is their own rhetoric.
Announcements that the opposition is “growing” – whether made by its own leaders or foreign interests, usually correspond to increasing desperation among the leaders rather than any increase in public support for the strike: While the opposition movement doubles in size and strength every day in the fantasy world created for AP correspondents, in the real world stores are now open again, the government has removed the disruptive management of the state oil company, and other Latin American nations have now put the brakes on U.S. efforts to make the Organization of American States the mechanism for foreign intervention.
Compare this to how Olson discusses Chávez. In an article on the opposition’s highway blockage – forcing regular people commuting to work to “strike” whether they want to or not – Olson says of Chávez:
Late Sunday, his leftist government sent thousands of “Chavistas” – fervent believers in his “social revolution”- in a horn-honking parade of cars and trucks that clogged the capital’s streets.
Again and again, Olson puts the terms of Chavez and his camp in quote marks, to distance herself from them. This is a standard tactic by journalists to separate themselves from rhetorical labels given by institutions, but in Olson’s case it’s been strictly one-sided. The opposition’s economic sabotage is no more objectively a genuine “general strike” than Chavez’s democratic institutions and programs objectively represent a “social revolution.” So why are repetitions of the rhetoric of the Chavez administration placed in quotes while opposition rhetoric is repeated as if it were undeniable?
Prose like this reveals a contempt for the lower classes, who Olson seems to think are incapable of independent thought or action. In her version of the events, demonstrators from the other side are “sent” by the “leftist government” to “clog” streets with a car and truck parade. Obviously, she seems to think, any “leftist” poor person must be a government peon – only the rich demonstrators count.
In just one article out of eleven does she acknowledge that Chavez has questioned the legitimacy of the strike, referring to “the strike that Chavez says doesn’t exist.” She feels no need to go further than this, no need to cite even one of the well-documented reasons to suspect the rhetoric of the “strike.”
Olson has in fact never presented the “Chavista” side seriously, and speaks often speaks quite condescendingly about it. In one of her Dec. 16th stories, Olson almost looks like she’s going to acknowledge the lack of public support for the work stoppage. “Some Venezuelans were tiring of the strike,” she writes, towards the end of the article. And why is that? The only reason Olson gives is that a strike through the holidays would mess up the baseball season. Apparently, the hundreds of thousands who demonstrate against the strike every weekend (they don’t have time to play revolution every day of the week like the rich strikers who suddenly find themselves on vacation) aren’t really against a ruling-class coup, they’re just baseball fanatics!
Throughout her articles, Olson’s only quotes from the hundreds of thousands in Caracas and around the country resisting the opposition have been the slogans shouted at rallies, which naturally come off as simplistic and just a bit silly. Often, she repeats the same quotes from a rally days before in article after article. At the same time, she presents the well-crafted statements of opposition leaders each day.
Again and again, she repeats that opposition leaders accuse Chavez of “driving the country toward communism” without explaining what that means.
Again and again, she talks about the strike “gathering force” when in fact every day more people have been going back to work. The only thing that has worked more and more in the opposition’s favor over the past week has been the further impoverishment of the economy by the shutdown of oil exports. Real general strikes are measured in numbers and in the resolve of the strikers, not just in how much damage a smaller but more powerful group of strikers can force on the rest of the country.
AP Losing Credibility Daily in Venezuela
Several other AP reporters should be taken to task for their distortions of the last two weeks. Here is a short list of important developments in Venezuela over the last few weeks that have been nowhere to be found in any AP report:
- the discovery by a former “dissident” army officer that opposition forces had weapons hidden in the buildings around their former stronghold of Plaza Altamira
- the leaked email in which opposition members declare they have no intention of following the law or the constitution.
- virtually any relevant details about Joao Gouveia, the Portugese man who seems to have been the gunman that killed three people in Plaza Altamira: the evidence that he arrived in the country just twenty-four hours before the shootings, the credible theory that the opposition had something to do with it, and how the opposition certainly tried to cynically capitalize on the tragedy, or the similarity between this event and the opposition-triggered gun battle last April which provided the pretext for a coup.
- witness reports that there were no Chavistas at the vandalized Zulia TV station, supporting Chavista claims that this was actually the work of the opposition.
- the constant harassment of the public television station and the independent Community Media, which has continued since April (despite plentiful coverage of Dec. 7 Chavista/Bolivarian protests outside commercial TV stations and the accompanying dishonest statements by “press freedom” groups).
- “mediator” Cesar Gaviria’s disturbing call for Chávez to suppress peaceful demonstration outside commercial media outlets.
James Anderson has filed six AP stories from Caracas since the “strike” began. In his first, filed Dec. 2, the day the strike began, (with the requisite unchallenged reference to a “general strike” in paragraph 1) he reports of one of the “strike leaders:”
Ortega on Monday denounced anonymous threats against strike leaders and the arrests of a handful of strike activists. He demanded immediate elections and a demilitarization of Caracas’ police department.
Anderson’s is one of several AP articles to making a passing reference to the “military takeover” of the Metropolitan Police (PM). AP’s Bill Cormier, on Dec. 13th, explores the issue for a full article and deplores the allegedly dangerous situation Chavez has left the city in with no real police force. What’s more, reports Cormier,
Armed “Chavista” radicals, responsible for past attacks on police and demonstrators, have yet to take advantage of the situation. But opponents say no one is in the streets to stop them if they do so.
Throwaway sentences like this do a great service to the opposition but represent no real reporting. The implicit assumption here, with language like “take advantage,” indicate that the Chavistas would naturally attack anything that moved, that the only reason they don’t go on murderous rampages is the presence of the PM. What does “attacks on police and demonstrators” mean? That’s a pretty important charge; one would think it deserved at least one specific example. Does Cormier mean April 11, when Chavistas fired back after opposition thugs shot at pro-democracy counter-demonstrators?
As this publication reported when the military takeover of the PM first happened in November, that department was partly responsible for the vastly under-reported murders of 50 Bolivarian activists immediately following the coup. Their reign of terror continued, and the harassment, beating and often murder of pro-Chavez activists in Caracas’s poor neighborhoods became common. Olson and others repeat incessantly the (justified) horror over the three suspicious deaths at Plaza Altamira, and disgraced OAS chief Cesar Gaviria’s whining that he feared escalating violence.
After 16 days of repeating its tired claims, the reader of AP Venezuela coverage has no better understanding of the conflict than she or he had prior to December. The screaming lack of context for any discussion of violence in Venezuela, as always, serves the Big Lie of a principled, noble strike and an irrational, “authoritarian” government. The AP has produced a flood of stories since the latest opposition push broke out, all of which run the spectrum from forgettable to outright coup propaganda. The reporters at the AP need to take a step back and look at the side missing from their stories, to serve their enormous audience with something much more closely resembling the truth. If genuine reporting from their stories is being filtered out by editors in favor of PR sound bytes – unlikely but not impossible – they need to find a way to force the truth into the end product.
More importantly, the AP Managing Editors Association must, to regain lost credibility, reform the way foreign news is “reported” – with a particular eye on Latin America – with a series of checks and balances that provide greater accountability, a mechanism to receive and act on complaints by readers and subjects alike, and an insistence that AP correspondents get up from their desks and interview real people to counter the triumph of the spin-doctors over AP’s foreign bureaus.
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