Big Media Get Big Things Wrong on Venezuela

Big media have got some big things wrong on Venezuela. Who can forget CNN’s May 5 claim that “pressure is mounting on Maduro to step down, following elections in January in which voters chose opposition leader Juan Guaidó over him for president”?

As Dave Lindorff noted for, six reporters were credited for the story that contained this line.  And none of them, or their editors, evidently knew that Guaidó was not a candidate in presidential elections, which took place in May 2018, not January 2019; and which Nicolás Maduro won with 68 percent of the vote—an observer-endorsed, and credible, total, given the opposition’s boycott of the balloting.

Guaidó was a member of the National Assembly—which has been suspended by the Venezuelan Supreme Court—and he was chosen as president by himself, and ultimately by the Trump administration. As for “pressure…mounting on Maduro,” Lindorff called that a “dubious reading of the post-coup attempt political terrain”—a view borne out by events.

A fortiori, elite media’s fervent transmission of the dramatic story that Maduro was heartlessly blocking a bridge to turn away truckloads of much-needed foreign aid. “Humanitarian Aid Arrives for Venezuela—But Maduro Blocks It,” was NPR’s tagline; NPR was far from alone in not telling listeners that the bridge (with Colombia) described as blocked had never been open; that the Red Cross and UN, among others, had explicitly asked the US not to engage in these types of PR stunts; and that the Venezuelan government has a very rational reason to suspect the US would use humanitarian aid as a cover to smuggle in weapons to foment armed conflict, which is that the person running quarterback for Trump on the current Venezuela operation, Elliott Abrams, literally did just that 30 years ago.

Venezuela coverage suggests journalistic rigor is taking a backseat to whatever alchemy of profit protection and state fealty motivates elite media and, with valuable exceptions, shapes their presentation of events. But not just in these big, overt screwups, but in the drip drip drip of everyday coverage, the constructions used in ostensibly neutral accounts.

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FAIR contributor Joe Emersberger recently engaged with Reuters about a May 22 article, “Venezuela Turns to Russia, Cuba, China in Health Crisis,” which included the statement, about shortages of medicine and medical equipment, that:

the opposition blames that on economic incompetence and corruption by the leftist movement in power for two decades, but  Maduro says US economic sanctions are the cause.

Emersberger asked the reporter, Stephanie Nebehay, why the piece made no mention of a study released a month ago by economists Mark Weisbrot and Jeffrey Sachs, which directly linked US sanctions to 40,000 deaths in Venezuela since August of 2017. She said she wasn’t aware of the study—which is unsurprising, if she relied on her own outlet. As Emersberger pointed out, the news agency hadn’t mentioned the study since it was released, despite the fact that it had been intensely debated in public by Venezuelan opposition economists—in other words, the kind of people Reuters and other Western media actually pay attention to on Venezuela.

Reuters did finally mention the study, in a June 9 piece by Nebehay. But the very next day, and since then, they and other outlets have continued, with occasional (and, again, valuable) exceptions, to portray the severe impact of US sanctions as an allegation, and one that only Maduro and other (presumably self-interested) Venezuelan officials have made.

The cynicism of that formulation is clear enough, but corporate media also report widely on Sen. Marco Rubio, who gleefully tweeted on May 16 that Maduro “can’t access funds to rebuild electric grid.”

Rubio didn’t pretend he was referring to an imaginary electric grid used exclusively by Maduro.  Reuters has itself referred to Rubio as the “leading voice in the crafting of President Donald Trump’s Venezuela policy.” But as Emersberger notes, that lengthy piece about US sanctions said absolutely nothing about their impact on the general population—with  statements like “being blacklisted also crimps the lifestyle of Venezuelan officials’ families” implying throughout that sanctions only affect the powerful. All the more reason, were it needed, to remember that when you’re reading about official enemies, sometimes you may be getting less than half the story.

Janine Jackson is FAIR’s program director and and producer/co-host of FAIR’s syndicated radio show CounterSpin. She contributes frequently to FAIR’s magazine, Extra! and co-edited The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the ’90s (Westview Press).

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