In May 2008, Barack Obama gave a speech in Miami where he argued that President Bush’s flawed foreign policy in the Middle East had swerved our eyes off the Latin American prize, rendering the U.S. “incapable of advancing our interests in the region.”
He went on to say, “No wonder, then, that demagogues like Hugo Chavez have stepped into this vacuum. His predictable yet perilous mix of anti-American rhetoric, authoritarian government, and checkbook diplomacy offers the same false promise as the tried and failed ideologies of the past.”[i]
A few months later at the Republican National Convention, Mitt Romney railed from the rostrum that Republicans, “will strengthen our economy and keep us from being held hostage by [Vladimir] Putin, [Hugo] Chavez and [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad. And we will never allow America to retreat in the face of evil extremism!”[ii]
Such harsh assessments of Hugo Chavez—as a demagogue with a high dictator quotient, someone whose oil wealth allows him to interfere in the region and who’s mentioned in the same breath as supposed proponents of “evil extremism”—have become a common feature of U.S. political banter. Bashing Hugo Chavez, it seems, has become as bi-partisan as grandiloquent campaign promises to reform Washington.
But politicians will be politicians. The bigger-impact question is whether the mainstream press in the U.S. has adopted the same contemptuous mentality. As arbiters of reality, the media set the social goalposts for how we view the world and prioritize particular social issues over others. The way the media present news veers us toward perceiving certain issues as problems, certain activists as troublemakers, certain personalities as scalawags.
Mass-media scholars identify “frames,” or, persistent patterns of selection and emphasis that structure not only what becomes news, but also prime us for how to think about that news. By selecting particular features of the undulating political complex and deeming these features important, the media play a critical function in the ebb and flow of socio-political power.
Venezuela mavens have long suspected Chávez has been given the short end of the U.S. media stick. For instance, Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) wrote that the U.S. government has actively attempted “to demonize Chavez and de-legitimize the democratic government of Venezuela” and that “the U.S. and international media have enthusiastically embraced this agenda.”[iii] In a scholarly article I wrote—“Devil or Democrat?: Hugo Chávez and the U.S. Prestige Press”— that’s forthcoming in the peer-review journal New Political Science (March 2009), I systematically test Weisbrot’s hunch. In this analysis I found that the U.S. prestige press—meaning the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post—adopted four dominant frames when reporting on Chávez: the Dictator Frame, the Castro Disciple Frame, the Declining Economy Frame, and the Meddler-in-the-Region Frame. This study analyzed 979 articles that appeared in these publications during the ten-year time period between 1998, the year he was first elected president, and December 2007.
“Mr. Chávez’s jackboots”
Hugo Chávez has won three presidential elections (in 1998, 2000, 2006) and propelled a new constitution into being with the help of a Constituent Assembly (in 1999). Nevertheless, the U.S. press frequently portrayed him as a dictator or a demagogue with “authoritarian tendencies.”[iv] The Dictator Frame was the most predominant frame in both hard news and opinion pieces, with 53.4% of all articles framing Chávez as a dictator or demagogue. The Washington Post employed the frame the most, in almost three of every five articles it printed (59.8%) followed by the Wall Street Journal (52.4%) and the New York Times (50.5%).
Even before Chávez was elected president, the U.S. press was laying the groundwork for the Dictator Frame, allowing Chávez’s detractors to define him. In a Washington Post story from the campaign trail, the Chávez opposition was given space to trashtalk: “Branded by his detractors as a reckless dictator-in-waiting with leftist leanings, Chavez, 44, has created a sense of uneasiness with both his proposals and his defiant, high-voltage campaign style.” Such “high-voltage” campaigning was actually a vow to prevent voting corruption by securing election monitors who could ensure the integrity of the vote-counting.[v]Often journalists relied entirely on the claims of unidentified disgruntled members of the opposition. This “he said” construction (often without the “she said” in support of Chávez’s policies) frequently put unsubstantiated oppositional claims center stage.
After Chávez’s ascendance to the presidency, the media kicked its use of the Dictator Frame into high gear. For instance, in article titled, “In Latin America, the Strongman Stirs in His Grave,” the New York Times wrote, “All across Latin America, presidents and party leaders are looking over their shoulders. With his landslide victory in Venezuela’s presidential election on Dec. 6, Hugo Chavez has revived an all-too-familiar specter that the region’s ruling elite thought they had safely interred: that of the populist demagogue, the authoritarian man on horseback known as the caudillo.”[vi] In the years that followed, Chávez was frequently dubbed a “strongman,” a label usually reserved for unelected dictators.
The opinion pages also rippled with the Dictator Frame, which was often established though a guilt-by-association logic. Mirroring Mitt Romney’s comments above, a Wall Street Journal editorial wrote, “Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez is an ally of the Iranian mullahs, a supporter of North Korea, a close friend of Fidel Castro and a good customer for Vladimir Putin’s weapon factories.”[vii] Mary Anastasia O’Grady of the Wall Street Journal penned numerous diatribes that dubbed Chávez a dictator, alleging gross “human-rights violations carried out by the Venezuelan military” and that “One is left to ponder why so many human-rights groups that have long monitored Latin American military abuses are now so passive toward Mr. Chavez’s jackboots.”[viii] She later pointed to Chávez’s “totalitarian aspirations” and argued his administration was “draining the last bit of freedom out of Venezuelan society.”[ix]
The New York Times followed suit in a 2005 editorial that highlighted the “dangerous concentration of power” under Chávez, “a quasi dictator” who is engaging in “petulant idiocy.” It concluded, “The United States should not further feed Mr. Chavez’s ego and give him more excuses for demagogy by treating him as clumsily as it has treated his hero and role model, Fidel Castro, for the past four and a half decades.”[x]
The Castro Connection
A second frame prestige-press journalists employed was the Castro Frame: linking Chávez to the iconic head of Cuba and to Cuba in general. Chávez was repeatedly depicted as Castro’s disciple, acolyte, apprentice, or protégé. On one hand, this is true—Chávez does have an amiable relationship with the Cuban leader. But the media frequently invoked Castro even when he had nothing to do with the topic of the article. To put this in comparative perspective, how often do the media introduce the president of the United States based on that president’s closest allies (say, Pervez Musharraf) when they’re discussing domestic issues (say, abortion)? This only happens when that international ally is relevant to the story. Highlighting this relationship with Castro also taps into long-lasting American prejudices, given that Castro has—since the early 1960s—been the bête noire of the U.S. government. In public opinion polls has long been viewed as “unfavorable,” as with a 2006 USA Today/Gallup poll that found 82% of those polled had an “unfavorable” opinion of the Cuban president.[xi] So, connecting Chávez to Castro and Cuba means slapping the “unfavorable” label on the Venezuelan president via guilt by association.
The Castro Disciple frame appeared in 31.4% of all articles, with the Washington Post using the frame most (40.6% of articles), followed by the Wall Street Journal (35.6%) and the New York Times (23.3%). Both hard-news articles and opinion pieces regularly portrayed Chávez and Castro as chummier than chummy.
For instance, covering Chávez’s inauguration, the New York Times reported, “President Castro took copious notes throughout Mr. Chavez’s speech. Afterward, the Cuban leader embraced Mr. Chavez in a bearhug at a street ceremony and directed a smart salute to the Venezuelan military high command, some of whom fought guerrillas financed and trained by Cuba 35 years ago.”[xii] The content of the speech wasn’t even discussed. Instead the Times opted to focus on the Castro connection. The “flirtation with Fidel Castro,” as the Times put it in an article called “Venezuela’s New Leader: Democrat or Dictator?,” picked up steam steam as the years went by.[xiii]
Even when Castro was irrelevant to the story, the media regularly referred to Chávez’s supposed desire to impose a “Cuban-style government” in Venezuela.[xiv] This accusation often emerged from anonymous opposition members without affording Chávez supporters the chance to comment on such claims. A front-page Wall Street Journal article called Chávez a “Fidel Castro wannabe,” asserting his “worst sin, some critics contend, is his close relationship with communist Cuba’s dictator Fidel Castro.”[xv].
In an op-ed Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post concurred: “In his ever-closer bonding with Havana’s security and intelligence apparatus, his aggressive encouragement of the insurgencies in Bolivia and elsewhere, and his constant stoking of Latin anti-Americanism, the elected but increasingly authoritarian Venezuelan is emerging as the natural successor to a fading Fidel Castro – only Chavez is neither broke nor bound to an outdated Soviet ideology.”[xvi]
“Economists blame Mr. Chávez”: The Declining Economy Frame
When Chávez took the presidential helm in 1999, the Venezuelan economy was distressed. The oil industry had recently been de-nationalized in neoliberal fashion, and by the end of 1998, the poverty rate had risen above 50%, with more than one in five Venezuelans living in extreme poverty.[xvii] Along with privatization, the Venezuelan government had internationalized the tentacles of the state oil company—Petroleo de Venezuela, or PDVSA—acquiring oil refineries in Europe and the United States. This shifted hundreds of millions of dollars to foreign subsidiaries. In Changing Venezuela by Taking Power, Gregory Wilpert argues this resulted in “tremendous PDVSA costs that were incurred outside Venezuela” and “‘imported’ to the national branch of PDVSA, thus lowering the overall profits and transfers to the government.”[xviii] The fact that Venezuela’s state-run oil company was relatively inefficient didn’t help matters. In combination, these problems decreased the government’s ability to offer its population social services and educational benefits.
After Chávez took office, Venezuela was burdened by political instability—including the coup in April 2002 and a devastating oil strike from December 2002 to February 2003—that translated into an economic nightmare. By the end of 2002, poverty rates had climbed to more than 55% while extreme poverty had reached 25% of the population.[xix] But after enduring the oil strike, Chávez has overseen a steadily improving economy, boosted in part by a sharp boost in oil prices. According to Mark Weisbrot and Luis Sandoval of CEPR, “Since the first quarter of 2003, the economy has grown by a remarkable 87.3 percent.”[xx] At the same time, the Chávez government has jumpstarted social spending on education and literacy programs as well as health care, housing, and food subsidies for the poor, from 8.2% of GDP in 1998 to 13.6% in 2006.[xxi]
Yet, this economic progress is virtually ignored by the U.S. prestige press, which often alleges that Venezuela’s economy is sharply decline because of the policies and personality of Chávez. The Declining Economy Frame appeared in nearly a third of all articles (32.0%). The Wall Street Journal used the frame at the highest rate (43.8%), which shouldn’t come as a surprise since the Journal’s central focus is the economy. The New York Times employed the frame 28.5% of the time followed by the Washington Post at 24.1%. As time went by, use of the frame tapered off after oil strike was resolved in early 2003 and oil production resumed full-bore. The skyrocketing price of oil also contributed to the gradually diminishing use of this frame.
A Declining Economy Frame shouldn’t be surprising since, at least through the oil strike and its aftershocks, the economy was hurting. Yet, too often the newspapers flattened the complex situation into a blame-game where Chávez was the sole cause of the economic malaise. To do this, the prestige press often made use of anonymous economists. For instance, during the oil strike, the Wall Street Journal reported, “Economists blame Mr. Chavez—who has a penchant for heated revolutionary rhetoric and revels in his friendships with Fidel Castro and Moammar Gadhafi—for the political turmoil that has engulfed the world’s fifth-largest oil exporter and brought the economy to a near halt. Economists say Venezuela’s economic situation will continue to worsen as long as Mr. Chavez rejects demands by a large chunk of Venezuelan society for a recall vote on his leadership, either through a referendum or an early election.”[xxii]
Another common theme that emerged was the media’s propensity to discipline Chávez for not following lockstep with the principles and practices of neoliberal capitalism. Even in the run-up to the 1998 presidential election, reporters were questioning his economics. The New York Times reported, “To business leaders and international investors, Mr. Chavez is the red menace resurrected.” The Times also reported that the possibility of non-neoliberal economic plans—in combinbation with his “vitriolic oratory and his support for Cuba”— has “terrified upper-class Venezuelans, who have been sending their money and other assets out of the country for fear of a Chavez victory.” The Times then turned to unsourced critics who “also fear that he will raise protectionist barriers and – in the worst case – institute exchange and price controls.”[xxiii] Once Chávez moved into Miraflores Palace (the president’s official residence), and began to institute his economic program, which did not take privatization as a given, real questions began to emerge about his leadership. In the wake of a devastating natural disaster in 2000, the Washington Post reported, “Troubling signs…are emerging about the long-term viability of Chavez’s agenda.” The article referred to Jose Errada, a church official, who gandered, “It is possible that all Chavez is going to do is create communities where people will go from poor to poorer over time.”[xxiv] Soon enough, the Wall Street Journal was regularly referring to his “constant government meddling in the economy”[xxv]
As watchdogs of the neoliberalism, the Journal experienced cognitive dissonance when Chávez’s swerved from “free-market” doctrines. In an op-ed Mary Anastasia O’Grady railed, “Statist economic policies have a sorry productivity record and in this case that record is highly unlikely to be improved. The big trouble is that Chavez has put Venezuela on a centrally planned economic path not much different from the failed experiments of the 20th century.”[xxvi] This tendency was magnified in January 2005 when Chávez announced plans for what he called “21st century socialism.” The prestige press pounced, using “mainstream economists”—i.e. proponents of neoliberal capitalism—to attack his economic programs and policies. The New York Times reported, “political analysts and mainstream economists warn of recession and dourly note that foreign investment is about a third of what it was five years ago. They say that Venezuela’s vast oil profits give the illusion of prosperity—the economy’s growth rate is 9.3 percent—but that if prices fall, or Venezuela’s growing spending catches up, the economy could founder.”
Accuracy was also sacrificed in numerous articles that alleged poverty was increasing in Venezuela, which is flat-out incorrect. O’Grady was guilty of this inaccuracy more than once, writing in November 2005 that “Venezuelan poverty [is] growing”[xxvii] and in January 2006 that “After six years of Chavez, Venezuelans, once ecstatic about their Bolivarian Revolution, are sinking deeper into poverty.”[xxviii] The Wall Street Journal’s hard-news accounts also asserted “Venezuela has seen little progress on issues such as reducing poverty”[xxix] when in fact it had reduced its poverty rate from 62% in 2003 to 33% in 2007.[xxx]
There’s a Meddler in the Region…
The fourth and final frame the media used to cover Chávez was the Meddler-in-the-Region Frame. This took three main forms: (1) Chávez as economic counterweight to supra-national organizations like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, (2) Chávez as meddler in internal Colombian affairs through support of leftist guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and (3) Chávez as noncompliant in the “War on Drugs.” Instead of depicting Chávez’s efforts to integrate Latin America—e.g. through the Bank of the South—as a plan resembling European integration along the lines of the European Union, the prestige press tended to criticize, either explicitly or tacitly, his attempts. Combining all three newspapers, almost one in three articles (31.3%) featured a variation of this Meddler-in-the-Region Frame, with the Washington Post using it most often (35.3%), followed by the Wall Street Journal (30.5%) and the New York Times (29.5%). The frame was much more prevalent between 2003 and 2007.
In the summer of 2005, the New York Times wrote, “The Venezuelan government’s commitment to stopping drugs has appeared to flag.”[xxxi] Why is it that when a Latin American country publicly challenges the United States they are, in a diplomatic tit-for-tat dubbed uncooperative in the “War on Drugs”?
Chávez’s efforts to foment a counterweight to the power of the U.S. was depicted as cunning, conniving calculation and that none of his foreign assistance—whether it be reduced oil prices or loans—came out of other, more altruistic, concerns. This is odd since Chávez has emphasized he’s trying to carry out a Bolivarian project—named after South American leader Simón Bolívar—that improves the economic integration and geopolitical friendliness of Latin America. Chávez even went as far as moving to change the name of the country in its 1999 Constitution, from the Republic of Venezuela to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. He created numerous initiatives that eschewed the standard-issue profit-maximization impulse in favor of promoting Latin American solidarity, preferring cooperation rather than competition.
Nevertheless, Chávez’s Bolivarian agenda was often disparaged in the prestige press. In the New York Times, Juan Forero described Chávez’s internationalism as “spending billions of dollars of his country’s oil windfall on pet projects abroad.”[xxxii]The Wall Street Journal interpreted Chávez’s cooperative efforts as cagey attempts to buy himself geopolitical buddies: “Mr. Chavez is using his oil billions to buy friends and influence nations, from the Caribbean basin to Patagonia. In the past year, Venezuela has emerged as a tropical version of the International Monetary Fund, offering cut-rate oil-supply deals and buying hundreds of millions of dollars of bonds from financially distressed countries such as Argentina and Ecuador.[xxxiii]
The opinion pages flaunted the frame more directly. Writing in the New York Times, Moises Naim, a former Venezuelan trade minister and current Chávez critic wrote, “Venezuela is no longer boring. It has become a nightmare for its people and a threat not just to its neighbors but to the United States and even Europe.”[xxxiv] The Washington Post editorial board wrote that Chávez was “meddling in the affairs of his neighbors and spawning anti-democratic movements.”[xxxv]
Undoubtedly one of those “anti-democratic movements” the Post was referring to wasthe about-to-be-democratically-elected president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, who ended up winning the December 2005 election. The prestige press was highly critical of Morales’s rise to power and this had a lot to do with his high-profile connections to Chávez. For instance, in early 2006, the Wall Street Journal wrote, “Since Evo Morales took office as president here in January, the coca grower turned socialist politician has aligned his country so closely with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez that it is sometimes difficult to tell where one government begins and the other ends.”[xxxvi]
The Next Demon du Jour?
In a 2005 Washington Post op-ed Jackson Diehl packed a powerful, four-frame punch: “In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez has responded to his victory in a controversial recall referendum by aggressively moving to eliminate the independence of the media and judiciary, criminalize opposition, and establish state control over the economy. He is also using his country’s surging oil revenue to prop up the once-beleaguered Cuban dictatorship of Fidel Castro, sponsor anti-democratic movements in other Latin countries and buy influence around the region. Last week he literally declared war against privately owned farms, sending troops to occupy one of the country’s largest cattle ranches.”[xxxvii] Such media framing is anything but anomalous. And when news doesn’t conform to the four dominant frames, journalists either revert to their go-to frames or simply ignore the information.
All this negative coverage of Chávez is reflected in public opinion polling in the United States. In 2007, the Pew Research Center released its 47-Nation Pew Global Attitudes Survey, which found that 55% of those polled in the U.S. have little (17%) or no confidence (38%) in Chávez as a leader. Meanwhile only 18% reported having either some or a lot of confidence in him and 27% said they didn’t know.[xxxviii] After a close look at U.S. media coverage of the Venezuelan president, these numbers should come as no surprise.
One-sided coverage that sandblasts away the edges of geopolitical complexity does not serve readers well. It leaves us vulnerable to dubious claims about the next demon du jour whose supposedly threatening actions “necessitate” U.S. military invasion in order to keep the world “safe for democracy.”
[iii] Mark Weisbrot, “Progressive Change in Venezuela and Latin America,” The Nation online, 6 December 2007, http://www.thenation.com/doc/20071224/weisbrot
[iv] Marc Lifsher, “Venezuela Wants Trading Company To Sell Oil in U.S. — Deal Involving Jack Kemp And the Strategic Reserve Worries Some in Industry,” Wall Street Journal, 2 June 2003, A13.
[v]Serge F. Kovaleski, “Former Coup Leader Leads Race for President of Venezuela,” Washington Post, 20 September 1998, A27.
[vi] Larry Rohter, “In Latin America, the Strongman Stirs in His Grave,” New York Times, 20 December 1998, p.4.
[vii] “Dial Joe-4-Chavez,” Wall Street Journal, 28 November 2006, p.A14.
[viii]Mary Anastasia O’Grady, “Chavez’s Law: The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves,” Wall Street Journal, 24 January 2003, p.A13.
[ix] Mary Anastasia O’Grady, “Read the Fine Print on the Chavez Charm Offensive,” Wall Street Journal, 23 May 2003, p.A11.
[x] “Hugo Chavez and His Helpers,” New York Times, 10 December 2005, p.A14.
[xii] Clifford Krauss, “New Chief to Battle Venezuela’s ‘Cancer’,” New York Times, 3 February 1999, p.A8.
[xiii] Larry Rohter, “Venezuela’s New Leader: Democrat or Dictator?” New York Times, 10 April 1999, p.A3.
[xiv] See Ginger Thompson, “Gunfire Kills 2 in Venezuela as March Turns Into Street Fight,” New York Times, 4 January 2003, p.A3.
[xv]Marc Lifsher, “As Nation Wobbles, Venezuelan Leader Tightens His Grip – Hugo Chavez Rules by Decree, Liberal Use of Television,” Wall Street Journal, 12 June 2003, p.A1.
[xvi]Jackson Diehl, “The Façade of Latin American Democracy,” Washington Post, 6 June 2005, p.A19.
[xvii] Mark Weisbrot and Luis Sandoval, “Update: the Venezuelan Economy in the Chavez Years,” Center for Economic and Policy Research, February 2008, http://www.cepr.net/documents/publications/venezuela_update_2008_02.pdf, p.13.
[xviii] Wilpert, Changing Venezuela By Taking Power, p.91.
[xix] Weisbrot and Sandoval, “Update,” p.13.
[xx] Weisbrot and Sandoval, “Update,” p.5.
[xxi] Weisbrot and Sandoval, “Update,” p.12.
[xxii]Jose de Cordoba and Alexei Barrionuevo, "Venezuela Puts a Halt to Currency Trading – Capital Controls Will Follow The Five-Day Suspension; Court Rejects Feb. 2 Vote," Wall Street Journal, 23 January 2003, p.A12.
[xxiii] Diana Jean Schemo, “Renegade Officer Favored in Venezuelan Election Today,” New York Times, 6 December 1998, p.3.
[xxiv] Serge F. Kovaleski, “After the Storm, Venezuelans Turn Inland,” Washington Post, 24 February 2000, p.A13.
[xxv] Raul Gallegos, “Chavez’s Agenda Takes Shape; ‘Co-Management’ Helps to Advance Socialism in Venezuela,”Wall Street Journal, 27 December 2005, p.A12.
[xxvi]Mary Anastasia O’Grady, “Oil Wells Refuse to Obey Chavez Commands,” Wall Street Journal, 20 May 2005, p.A15.
[xxvii] Mary Anastasia O’Grady, “Why Fox’s Outrage? Chavez’s Meddling in Mexico,” p.A17.
[xxviii] Mary Anastasia, O’Grady, “Axis of Evo,” Wall Street Journal, 27 January 2006, p.A9.
[xxix] David Luhnow, Bill Spindle, and Guy Chazan,“Could Weak Oil Cost Venezuela, Iran Clout?,” Wall Street Journal,29 January 2007, p.A2.
[xxx] Weisbrot and Luis Sandoval, “Update,” p.13.
[xxxi]Juan Forero, “U.S. Revokes Visas for 3 Top-Ranking Venezuelan Officers Suspected of Drug Trafficking,” New York Times, 13 August 2005, p.A6.
[xxxii] Juan Forero, “Chavez Uses Aid To Win Support In the Americas,” New York Times, 4 April 2006, p.A1.
[xxxiii]David Luhnow and Jose de Cordoba, “With Oil, Chavez Plays It Safe; Venezuela’s President Pushes Foreign Companies Only So Far,” Wall Street Journal, 29 August 2005, p.A7.
[xxxiv] Naim, “Hugo Chavez and the Limits of Democracy,” p.A23.
[xxxv] “Pat Robertson’s Gift,” Washington Post, 25 August 2005, p.A18.
[xxxvi] Jose de Cordoba and David Luhnow, “Left Face: New President Has Bolivia Marching To Chavez’s Beat; Venezuelan Populist Pushes Anti-U.S. Latin Alliance; Has He Gone Too Far?; Cuban Doctors in the House,” Wall Street Journal, 25 March 2006, p.A1.
[xxxvii] Jackson Diehl, “Trouble In Our Back Yard: In Latin America, Democracy Is Faltering,” Washington Post 17 January 2005, p.A17.