Controlling what we think is not solely about controlling what we know – it is also about controlling who we respect and who we find ridiculous.
Thus we find that Western leaders are typically reported without adjectives preceding their names. George Bush is simply "US president George Bush". Condoleeza Rice is "the American secretary of state Condoleeza Rice". Tony Blair is just "the British prime minister".
The leader of Venezuela, by contrast, is "controversial left-wing president Hugo Chavez" for the main BBC TV news. (12:00, May 14, 2006). He is as an "extreme left-winger," while Bolivian president Evo Morales is "a radical socialist", according to Jonathan Charles on BBC Radio 4. (6 O’Clock News, May 12, 2006)
Imagine the BBC introducing the US leader as "controversial right-wing president George Bush", or as an "extreme right-winger". Is Bush – the man who illegally invaded Iraq on utterly fraudulent pretexts – +less+ controversial than Chavez? Is Bush less far to the right of the political spectrum than Chavez is to the left?
For the Independent on Sunday, Chavez is "Venezuela’s outspoken President". (Stephen Castle and Raymond Whitaker, ‘Heralding the end of US imperialism,’ May 14, 2006) For the Mirror, he is a "controversial leader" called "’the Crackers from Caracas’ by his own supporters". (Rosa Prince, ‘He calls Bush "Hitler" and Blair "the pawn",’ May 16, 2006) He is an "aggressively populist left-wing leader", the Times writes. (Richard Owen, ‘Pope tells Chavez to mend his ways,’ May 12, 2006) He is a "left-wing firebrand," the Independent reports. (Guy Adams, ‘Pandora: ‘Chavez stirs up a degree of controversy at Oxford,’ May 15, 2006) He is a "Left wing firebrand" according to the Evening Standard. (Pippa Crerar, ‘Chavez to meet the Mayor,’ May 12, 2006) He is an "international revolutionary firebrand", according to the Observer. (Peter Beaumont, ‘The new kid in the barrio,’ May 7, 2006)
A Guardian news report describes Chavez as nothing less than "the scourge of the United States". (Duncan Campbell and Jonathan Steele,’ The Guardian, May 15, 2006) Although this was a news report, not a comment piece, the title featured the required tone of mockery: "Revolution in the Camden air as Chavez – with amigo Ken – gets a hero’s welcome".
An Independent report declared of Chavez:
"He has been described as a fearless champion of the oppressed poor against the corrupt rich and their American sponsors. But also as a dangerous demagogue subsidising totalitarian regimes with his country’s oil wells." (Kim Sengupta, ‘Britain’s left-wing "aristocracy" greet their hero Chavez,’ The Independent, May 15, 2006)
Imagine an Independent news report providing a similarly ‘balanced’ description of Bush or Blair using language of the kind employed in the second sentence. Again, mockery was a central theme: "And yesterday in the People’s Republic of Camden the villains remained very much President George W Bush, his acolyte Tony Blair, big business and the forces of reaction."
Younger readers may have missed the BBC’s prime time TV series Citizen Smith (1977-80), which lampooned a fictional organisation called The Tooting Popular Front, consisting of six die-hard Marxist losers, and its deluded dreams of achieving radical change. This is a favourite media theme – pouring scorn on popular movements is an absolute must for mainstream journalism. Thus Richard Beeston reported in The Times this week:
"Hugo Chavez’s Latin American bandwagon descended on London yesterday, briefly enlivening a dull Sunday in Camden with the sound of drums, the cries of revolution and the waving of banners.
"At the start of his controversial two-day visit to London, the Venezuelan President succeeded in attracting an eclectic group of supporters ranging from elderly CND activists to young anti-globalisation campaigners, members of the Socialist Workers’ Party and even the odd Palestinian protester." (Beeston, ‘Chavez fails to paint the town red in Camden,’ The Times, May 15, 2006)
This recalled the Observer’s September 2002 account of what, at the time, had been London’s greatest anti-war march in a generation. Euan Ferguson wrote:
"It was back to the old days, too, in terms of types. All the oldies and goodies were there. The Socialist Workers’ Party, leafleting outside Temple Tube station by 11 am. (‘In this edition: Noam Chomsky in Socialist Worker!’);. CND, and ex-Services CND. The Scottish Socialist Party. ‘Scarborough Against War and Globalisation’, which has a lovely ring of optimism to it, recalling the famous Irish provincial leader column in 1939: ‘Let Herr Hitler be warned, the eyes of the Skibereen Eagle are upon him.’ Many, many Muslim groups, and most containing women and children, although some uneasy thoughts pass through your mind when you see a line of pretty six-year-old black-clad Muslim toddlers walking ahead of the megaphone chanting ‘George Bush, we know you/Daddy was a killer too,’ and singing about Sharon and Hitler." (Ferguson, ‘A big day out in Leftistan,’ The Observer, September 29, 2002)
The emphasis, again, was on the absurdity of a ragtag army of Citizen Smith-style oddballs who imagined they could somehow make a difference to a real world run by ‘serious’ people. The idea is that the public should roll their eyes and shake their heads in embarrassment at such delusions – and turn away.
Hidden far out of sight are the life and death issues motivating such protests – in 2002 the marchers were, after all, attempting to prevent a war that has since killed and mutilated hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians. It is not inconceivable that if British and American journalists like Ferguson had emphasised the desperate importance and urgency of the anti-war protests, rather than sneering at them, those civilians might still be alive today.
Similarly, the press has barely hinted at the unimaginable horror and desperate hopes buried beneath the mocking of Chavez – namely, the suffering of Latin American people under very real Western economic and military violence. The Independent on Sunday managed this vague mention:
"Mr Morales was, the Venezuelan President said, a direct descendant of an indigenous Latin American people, adding: ‘These are oppressed people who are rising. They are rising with peace, not weapons. Europe should listen to that.’" (Stephen Castle and Raymond Whitaker, ‘Chavez on tour,’ Independent on Sunday, May 14, 2006)
The tragedy out of which these people are arising, and how their hopes of a better life have been systematically crushed by Western force in the past, was of course not explored. The Guardian also managed a tiny reference to the reality:
"His [Chavez's] unabashed opposition to US foreign policy, and the pressure it has produced from Washington, tap into the deep vein of suspicion and resentment that two centuries of US invasions, coups, and economic domination have aroused in Latin America and the Caribbean." (Jonathan Steele and Duncan Campbell, ‘The world according to Chavez,’ The Guardian, May 16, 2006)
But that was it. As the Guardian writers know full well, these comments appear in a context of almost complete public ignorance of just what the United States has done to Latin America – a subject to which we will return in Part 2.
In 2004, the American media watch site, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) reported that a search of major US newspapers turned up the phrase "death squad" just five times in connection with former US president Ronald Reagan in the days following his death in June 2004 – twice in commentaries and twice in letters to the editor. Remarkably, only one news article mentioned death squads as part of Reagan’s legacy. (Media Advisory: ‘Reagan: Media Myth and Reality,’ June 9, 2004, www.fair.org) As we have discussed elsewhere, US-backed death squads brought hell to Latin America under Reagan. (see our Media Alerts: ‘Reagan – Visions Of The Damned’: http://www.medialens.org/alerts/04/040610_Reagan_Visions_1.HTM and http://www.medialens.org/alerts/04/040615_Reagan_Visions_2.HTM.)
Quite simply the British and American press do not cover the West’s mass killing of Latin Americans.
Radical, Maverick, Firebrands – The Subliminal Smears
A Daily Telegraph comment piece continued the pan-media smearing of Chavez:
"Now the anticipation is over, and today, flush with six trillion dollars worth of oil reserves, Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, flies in to fill the despot-of-the-month slot at London mayor Ken Livingstone’s lunch table." (William Langley, ‘Welcome to the El Presidente show,’ The Daily Telegraph, May 14, 2006)
The Independent on Sunday (IoS) wrote:
"An icon of the anti-globalisation movement, Mr Chavez’s brand of aggressive socialism is taken seriously because of his country’s vast oil resources." (Stephen Castle and Raymond Whitaker, ‘Chavez on tour,’ Independent on Sunday, May 14, 2006)
We wait in vain for an IoS news report referring to Bush and Blair’s "brand" of "aggressive" and in fact "militant" capitalism – this would be biased news reporting, after all. Likewise, the suggestion that Bush and Blair’s aggressive support for "democracy" is taken seriously only because of their economic and military power.
The Observer noted that Chavez has a "growing regional profile", which is "built on a mix of populist rhetoric and his country’s oil wealth". The report added that Chavez "has been publicly feuding with Bush, whom he has likened to Adolf Hitler – with Tony Blair dismissed as ‘the main ally of Hitler.’" (‘Chavez offers oil to Europe’s poor,’ The Observer, May 14, 2006)
In responding to similar comments in the Times, Julia Buxton of the University of Bradford has been all but alone in providing some background:
"To place this statement in context, Chavez was compared to Adolf Hitler by the US Secretary of State for Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, during a visit to Paraguay. President Chavez rejected the comparison and countered that if any individual were comparable to Hitler, it would be President Bush." (See Buxton’s excellent analysis here: http://www.vicuk.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=85&Itemid=29)
The Times’ ‘Pandora’ diary column wrote:
"Ken Livingstone has invited the Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, to lunch at City Hall. Even by the London Mayor’s standards, it’s a provocative gesture – Chavez has a controversial record on human rights – and several guests have refused to attend." (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,6-2171200,00.html)
Channel 4 News asked of Chavez: "Is he a hero of the left or a villain in disguise?"
For the media, of course, a "hero of the left" +is+ a "villian in disguise", so viewers were in effect being asked if Chavez was a villain or a villain. Like many other media, Channel 4 patronised the Venezuelan president as "a global poster boy for the left". The same programme later asked if he was "a hero of the left or a scoundrel of all democrats?"
In similar vein, Daniel Howden observed in the Independent:
"Not surprisingly for a man who divides the world, Hugo Chavez is greeted as a saviour or a saboteur wherever he goes. The Venezuelan President seems immune to nuance and perfectly able to reduce the world to Chavistas or to Descualdos, the ‘squalid ones’ as his supporters dismiss those who try to depose him." (Dowden, ‘Hugo Chavez: Venezualean [sic] leader divides world opinion. But who is he, and what is he up to in Britain?’ The Independent, May 13, 2006)
The reference to a lack of "nuance" is a coded smear with which regular readers will be familiar. Chavez is in good company. Steve Crawshaw wrote in the Independent: "Chomsky knows so much… but seems impervious to any idea of nuance." (Crawshaw, ‘Furious ideas with no room for nuance,’ The Independent, February 21, 2001)
The BBC’s former director of news, Richard Sambrook, told the Hutton inquiry that BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan had failed to appreciate the "nuances and subtleties" of broadcast journalism. (Matt Wells, Richard Norton-Taylor and Vikram Dodd, ‘Gilligan left out in cold by BBC,’ The Guardian, September 18, 2003)
Channel 4 news presenter Jon Snow wrote in the Guardian of John Pilger: "Some argue the ends justify [Pilger's] means, others that the world is a more subtle place than he allows." (Snow, ‘Still angry after all these years,’ The Guardian, February 25, 2001)
In 2002, Bill Hayton, a BBC World Service editor, advised us at Media Lens: "If your language was more nuanced it would get a better reception." (Email to Editors, November 16, 2002)
The Channel 4 programme cited above went on to describe the Iraqi cleric Moqtadr al Sadr by his official media title: "the radical cleric Moqtadr al Sadr". Likewise, the media invariably refer to "the militant group Hamas". The media would of course never dream of referring to "radical prime minister Tony Blair" or to "the militant Israeli Defence Force".
The reason was unconsciously expressed by Channel 4 news presenter Alex Thomson in response to a Media Lens reader who had suggested, reasonably, that "a terrorist is one who brings terror to another person". Thomson responded:
"Your definition of a terrorist as one bringing terror is nonsensical as it would encompass all military outfits from al Qaeda to the Royal Fusilliers." (Forwarded to Media Lens, February 25, 2005)
It is inconceivable to the mainstream media that Western armies could be responsible for terrorism, no matter how much terror they actually create. Likewise, it is inconceivable that Western leaders could be described as "militant" or "fundamentalist". This indicates that these adjectives are smear words – they mean, approximately, ‘bad’. More specifically, they mean ‘a threat to Western interests,’ which is why, by definition, they cannot be used to refer +to+ the West.
The use and non-use of these words shepherd viewers and readers towards the idea that leaders like Bush and Blair are reasonable, rational, respectable figures who must be described with colourless, neutral language.
The deeper implication – all the more powerful because it is unstated, almost subliminal – is that figures like Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales do not merit balanced ‘professional’ media treatment – the rules do not apply to them because they are beyond the pale.
Because almost all journalists repeat this bias – and because the public imagine journalists are simply well-informed, independent observers who just happen to reach the same conclusions on who is worthy of respect – the impression given is that the media consensus is the only sane view in town.
Before we know it, we find ourselves accepting the corporate media view as our own. If we see enough journalists smearing "maverick", "controversial", "left-wing", "Gorgeous George" Galloway, we will likely find ourselves responding: ‘I can’t stand that guy!’ But how many of us will really know why, beyond feeling that there is ‘something about him I don’t like’? And how many of us will have reflected that, of all MPs, Galloway has at least been uniquely honest in his opposition to the Iraq war?
As for that other "maverick Chavez" (Sunday Times, February 19, 2006), the Financial Times noted that he was invited to London by Ken Livingstone: "London’s maverick mayor." (David Lehmann, ‘Why we should bother about Chavez and his politics,’ May 15, 2006)
In Part 2 we will examine the realities of Western political, economic and military violence in Latin America – realities that are consistently ignored by the corporate media.