Sunday, April 20, 2014

Venezuela through the lens of the PBS Newshour

This report below from PBS Newshour on the situation on Venezuela is, at best, sloppy. My confidence in the Newshour's reporting has declined recently, not least thanks to reports like this, these two from The Young Turks.

PBS Has Some Explaining To Do 03/10/2014:

That report was based on Davied Sirota's article, After pledging transparency, PBS hides details of new deal with billionaire owner of NewsHour PandoDaily 03/07/2014.

More on the same theme from an earlier Young Turks report, PBS Gets On Its Knees For Billionaires/Integrity Is Dead 02/13/2014:

The PBS Newshour report is this, Socialism after Chavez: Political divisions deepen amid unrest in Venezuela, YouTube video title, Political divisions deepen amid unrest in Venezuela 04/18/2014:

We need realistic news reporting on Venezuela. This one falls short, for reasons I'm going to describe in some detail:

[Hugo Chávez'] handpicked successor, Nicolas Maduro, was elected president soon after [Chávez' death]. As Maduro marks the end of his first year in office tomorrow, divisions have deepened in a country that has become violent in recent months.
Given how little even the average PBS Newshour presumably knows about Venezuelan politics, it might have been appropriate to mention here that while Maduro was Chavez' preferred successor, he won the President's office a year ago in a competitive election. Competitive enough that Maduro won by less than a couple of percentage points.

Late last week, after more than three months of sometimes deadly street protests throughout Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro met with his political opposition.

The six-hour televised session brokered by the Vatican and three South American foreign ministers attracted record ratings on Venezuelan TV, reflecting the nation's anxiety at the street violence that has killed more than 40 and posed the biggest challenge to the government in more than a decade. [my emphasis]
After all the reports we've seen about how Maduro's government is suppressing the press, it's worth noting that these talks with the opposition "attracted record ratings on Venezuelan TV." They were also reported in other media in Venezuela, as well. They featured a number of opposition leaders from the umbrella opposition alliance, Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD). Including Henrique Capriles who was the MUD candidate who came close to defeating Maduro in last year's Presidential election.

When I saw the title of the YouTube video, "Political divisions deepen amid unrest in Venezuela," I expected a big part of the report to deal with the major divisions among the opposition. Capriles and his electoral alliance initially refused to accept the result of the Presidential election a year ago and engaged in street demonstrations that resembled the present militant dissent.

But in the current disruptions, a far-right faction of the MUD lead by Leopoldo López and María Corina Machado. This faction is explicitly about pursuing a goal of immediate "regime change," as Machado has explicitly said. They call their current goal La Salida, the exit, meaning immediate change of government without waiting for elections. Capriles has kept his distance from that strategy, sticking with a goal of seeking a change of government through the established constitutional, parliamentary institutions. That hasn't stopped him from being bitterly critical of the Maduro government and putting the blame for violence and misconduct during the protests onto the government.

State and municipal governments have elected governments in Venezuela, with some mayors and governors from the chavista party and others from the MUD coalition. In municipal elections in December, the national ruling chavista party gained notably in its vote percentage compared to last April's elections. Yet Moisés Naím, a former Venezuelan Development Minister aqnd syndicated columnist, appears in the segment saying, "And even the election results show that about half the country is against the government." About half: apparently meaning less than half and not enough to win a larger majority than Maduro's party! Later, they quote an anti-Maduro engineer saying, "We are talking for the other half of Venezuela, and the president is ignoring us." I guess the President appearing on live television for six hours with major opposition leaders, an event that "attracted record ratings on Venezuelan TV," doesn't count.

If the Newshour was going include comments like Maim's and the engineer's, they should have inserted some solid information about, you know, the actual elections over the last year. They also include a comment from the same engineer, "He always spent money before elections. That is why he won." Gee, a government spends public funds to do things that benefit ordinary people and then they vote for him! Oh, the horror, the horror!

Michael Stifter, president of a group called the Inter-American Dialogue, is one of the experts interviewed by Margaret Warner for the segment. He strikes a seemingly moderate tone in the parts of the interview aired, but his framing is clearly sympathetic to the opposition. He allows that Hugo Chávez "put his finger on a legitimate grievance in Venezuela." (Only one?!) But Warner's segment lets this statement of his pass without challenge or correction: "The problem is, this is a model that has obviously failed and obviously is unable to deliver basic goods to people, a reasonable economic environment with security protections." It's certainly relevant here that a majority of Venezuela's voters haven't yet decided its' "obvious" that the chavista model is a failed one.

And what does it mean when Stifter says the current government and chavista economic model is "unable to deliver basic goods to people"? There are shortages in some grocery items. But one could easily draw the conclusion from Stifter's comment that some major portion of the people are on the verge of starvation, which is not the case. In fact, the rates of poverty and extreme poverty have fallen dramatically in Venezuela during the chavista period.

I'll give the Newshour credit for not throwing out a few of common points that one sees about Venezuela: that the government is a dictatorship; and, the idea that the government party monopolizes the news media, which is far from the case.

They do mention inflation, which scares average Americans more than it seems to scare Venezuelan voters.

But they work the groceries business, and do so in a way that would seem disturbing to the average American news consumer. It's one thing not to be able to get adequate food. It's quite a different thing not to be able to find your favorite brand in every grocery store.

The Newshour segment quotes a woman from the state of San Cristobal, without noting that its the state where the current round of protests began in early February.

MARGARET WARNER: To test the public’s view of all this, a NewsHour crew went to San Cristobal far from the capital, near the Colombian border, to meet up with architecture student Geraldine Colmenares. She’s finding life untenable right now:

GERALDINE COLMENARES, (through interpreter): I cannot go out on the streets and get what I want to feed my child, always having to stand in line, looking from supermarket to supermarket and thinking if I’m going to get back home alive.

MARGARET WARNER: She doesn’t stay long at her neighborhood’s barricades. She’s afraid to take her young son, but she helps by supplying protesters with food and water. She too has no confidence in Maduro.

GERALDINE COLMENARES (through interpreter): Maduro wants to do the same as Chavez, but he can’t. He wants to be like Chavez, but he is not like Chavez. [my emphasis]
She can't get "what I want to feed my child" - starving children! - but she "helps by supplying protesters with food"? Say what?

The report alludes to the problem of violence there and elsewhere without ever distinguishing criminal violence from violence directly associated with the political protests, thus inviting the viewer to conflate the two. There is a real and serious problem of criminal violence in Venezuela. I posted about it in January before the current round of protest began, Venezuelan actress Mónica Spear's murder becomes a national political shock. Also see below.

One thing that sticks out heavily, and that makes this piece look to me more than a little influenced by animus against the Venezuelan government, is the segment just after 5:10, featuring the one straight-up Maduro supporter interview in the segment, Marlin Marchand. Who happens to be the only person focused on in the segment who is very dark-skinned, the only one an American audience would immediately code as black. The other two person-on-the-street style interviews are a light-skinned male student and the light-skinned and middle-class-looking San Cristobal lady. How would a typical American Republican viewer understand the following:

MARGARET WARNER: There are still plenty of fervent Chavistas who are sticking with Maduro, like Marlin Marchand, who lives with her mother in Caracas, and depends on Chavez era government programs, like the subsidized food stores.

MARLIN MARCHAND, Maduro Supporter (through interpreter): This merkal is a basic grocery, but with very low prices. A pack of flour cost two bolivars. On the open market, it’s 35 or 50. Why? Because capitalism is structured in a way that we, the poor, can’t buy what we need.

MARGARET WARNER: She says her faith in Chavez and Maduro endures.

MARLIN MARCHAND (through interpreter): Chavez was a leader. He built schools for people who did not know how to read, and now many more people know how to read. This is socialism, and Chavez transmitted this to President Maduro. Maduro’s made mistakes. Nobody's perfect, but he's trying to lead things in a positive direction.
She's black, she supports "socialism," she criticizes capitalism explicitly and, as Warner helpfully explains to the viewers, "depends on Chavez era government programs, like the subsidized food stores." Food stamps! Socialism! A Taker not a Maker! Taking tax money from the Job Creators! They show empty shelves in a grocery store earlier in the segment when they are talking about shortages. But while the Socialist Taker is speaking, they show stuffed shelves in that communist food market with the food stamp subsidies.

Good grief! It's hard to imagine that report accidentally came out with a framing that a Venezuelan opposition political consultant could have happily suggested. If they didn't get some kind of payoff for this from a political consultant or the CIA or some neocon "democracy promotion" outfit wanting to overthrown Maduro's government, they were leaving easy money on the table!

And given the other problems with the report, it's pretty painfully noticeable that the two of the three anti-Maduro reg'lar folks they show interviewed as well as Shifter make statements that claim or could be easily interpreted as sympathetic to Chávez but critical of Maduro. They didn't leave the chavista party, the chavista party left them! The Newshour really should have taken the opposition cash.

It's interesting to note that one of their expert sources in the interview is Moisés Naím, the one-time Venezuelan Cabinet minbister, also recently wrote the following blatantly misleading - I'm being generous here - description of his country:

Venezuela is now the world champion of inflation, homicide, insecurity, and shortages of essential goods—from milk for children to insulin for diabetics and all kinds of indispensable products. All this despite having the greatest oil reserves in the world and a government with absolute control of all state institutions and levers of power. [my emphasis]
It might be useful if someone at the Newshour or The Atlantic or one of his colleagues at the Carnegie Endowment to ask him to defend those claims in light of competitive elections, opposition officeholders and aggressively critical private media companies.

The Real News has been providing far more informative and reality-based mreports on Venezuela in a nine-segment series of which three more segments are available on YouTube since I posted earlier ones.

The Modern History of Venezuela: The Bolivarian Revolution - Edgardo Lander on RAI (5/9) 04/16/2014:

Edgar Lander in that video talks about some of the challenges presented by Venezuela's dependence of the oil business to the professed aims of the Bolivarian Revolution there. he also talks about the countries agricultural challenges. "Agricultural culture in Venezuela was destroyed by oil," Lander says.

The Modern History of Venezuela and the Need for a Post-Oil Economy - Edgardo Lander on RAI (6/9) 04/17/2014:

Lander in that segment discusses with a more reality-based approached the segment that the Newshour quotes Moisés Naím presenting, a version that perhaps coincidentally is likely to appeal to conservative sentiments in the US: "Lack of investment in the oil industry — again, the Chavez model is not a model of investment. It’s not a model of boosting productivity. It’s a model of spending."

The Modern History of Venezuela, Why Still So Much Crime? - Edgardo Lander on RAI (7/9) 04/18/2014:

Lander in that video addresses the real problem of criminal violence in Venezuela and Caracas in particular and how the current justice and penal system do a badly inadequate job in dealing with it. This is a substantive criticism of the chavista governments of both Maduro and Chávez.

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