Testing the Propaganda Model

[A summary of the following article recently appeared in NACLA Report on the Americas as part of the magazine's Media Accuracy on Latin America project]

"In short, Mr. Chávez’s ‘21st-century socialism’ looks depressingly like the 20th-century version: a bloated, repressive state headed by a hectoring strongman."
                                    —Editorial in the Washington Post, 17 August 2007 [1]

"In dictatorships we are more fortunate than you in the West in one respect. We believe nothing of what we read in the newspapers and nothing of what we watch on television, because we know it’s propaganda and lies. Unlike you in the West, we’ve learned to look behind the propaganda and to read between the lines, and unlike you, we know that the real truth is always subversive."
—Czechoslovakian novelist and Soviet-era dissident Zdener Urbanek [2]
Although the New York Times, Washington Post, and most other news outlets claim their reportage and analysis to be "objective," the content of their pages is never neutral; it inevitably supports or undermines the goals of government policy. Because newspapers like the Times and Post constitute a principle source of information about the outside world for so much of the US population, they have the obligation to promote the development of an informed citizenry capable of critically assessing issues of international relevance. Therefore what these papers report, how they do so, and what they omit are questions of fundamental importance for understanding the public response (or lack thereof) to US actions abroad. 
These questions become especially important when considering countries like Venezuela where the US government has, or seeks to have, a strong influence upon political and economic development. Since the 1998 election of President Hugo Chávez, Washington has grown increasingly hostile toward the Venezuelan government, supporting a failed military coup against Chávez in 2002 and channeling millions of dollars to Venezuelan opposition groups since then [3]. Media coverage of Venezuela has generally been quite hostile as well, as many independent analyses have pointed out [4].
This article expands upon earlier critiques of media coverage of Venezuela by comparing media coverage of Venezuela with that of a key US ally in the region, Colombia. I argue that the major liberal newspapers’ coverage of these two countries conforms closely to Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s "propaganda model," which predicts that corporate media will demonstrate a consistent bias toward official enemies of the US and, conversely, a consistent leniency or good will toward official friends [5]. Here I focus on coverage in the nation’s two leading "liberal" newspapers, the New York Times and Washington Post, arguing that these two papers’ coverage of Venezuela and Colombia consistently omits and distorts crucial information that is necessary for readers to gain an understanding of events in these countries. The final section of the article locates the last decade’s coverage of Venezuela in the long-term history of US relations with Latin America, underscoring the importance of cultural and political discourses to US power in the region [6].
Basic Predictions of the Propaganda Model
The propaganda model predicts that the mass media’s coverage of news will tend to reflect domestic power interests. Despite some variation, the mass media help "to inculcate and defend the economic, social, and political agenda of privileged groups that dominate the domestic society and the state" [7]. When covering US foreign policy, media outlets will present information and analysis that supports the prerogatives of powerful elite groups in the US, which usually means supporting official government goals abroad. As a result, official friends are treated very differently from official enemies. Achievements and violations in the fields of human rights, democracy, and social justice are alternately emphasized, invented, downplayed, or ignored depending on the parties involved and their official standing in Washington [8].
Colombia and Venezuela, an official friend and an official enemy, offer a concrete opportunity to test the usefulness of the propaganda model for coverage of Latin America. If the model applies, US print media will show contrasting tendencies of favorable coverage toward Álvaro Uribe’s government in Colombia and negative coverage of the Chávez government in Venezuela. The Uribe government will be portrayed in a way that makes it look relatively democratic, progressive, and peaceful, while the Chávez government will be depicted as authoritarian, oppressive, and militaristic.
To test this prediction, I will evaluate media coverage of two sets of analogous events which have occurred recently in both these countries, and which have involved issues and events which are at least roughly parallel to one another. Both sets of events have involved government policies which might be seen as attenuating democratic freedoms and increasing government power over opponents:
1.      Freedom of speech and the press. In October 2004 the Uribe government closed down a private TV station, Inravisión, whose employee union had opposed certain Uribe policies. In May 2007 the Chávez government revoked the public broadcasting license of RCTV, a private TV station that had supported an abortive military coup against him five years earlier.
2.      Presidential term limits. In October 2005 President Uribe won a court case enabling him to amend Colombia‘s Constitution to seek the presidency for an additional term. Two years later President Chávez proposed a similar measure that was narrowly defeated in a popular referendum.
Though the circumstances of each government action differed between the two countries, each pair of events is similar enough to allow for a controlled comparison of their respective coverage in the US press. If the propaganda model holds, newspaper reports and editorials will show outrage over Chávez’s actions while ignoring or downplaying the corresponding events in Colombia.
Test Case 1: Closing Down Opposition Media
On 27 May 2007 RCTV’s public broadcasting license expired and the station went off the air, six months after Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s announcement that the station’s license would not be renewed. RCTV had lent vocal support to a military coup that briefly overthrew Chávez in April 2002, had supported an oil strike designed to bring down the government later that year, and had committed a range of lesser legal infractions of broadcast regulations over the past quarter-century [9]. The station was allowed to continue broadcasting on satellite and cable television, but was effectively excluded from public airwaves.
Coverage of Government Closure of TV Stations in Venezuela and Colombia
in the New York Times and Washington Post*
Number of Articles
Mentioning the Closure
Number of Editorials Condemning the Closure
Percentage of Total
*Coverage analyzed includes the two-month period starting several weeks prior to the key government action (1 May to 1 July 2007 for Venezuela; 15 September to 15 November 2004 for Colombia). Tallies do not include articles and editorials that alluded to a lack of free speech in either country but which did not explicitly mention the television station closure. "Editorials" includes Op-Ed pieces.
In May and June of 2007 the New York Times and Washington Post featured a total of nineteen articles that dealt with the non-renewal of RCTV’s license, in addition to two editorial columns strongly condemning the Venezuelan government’s decision (see Table 1). The number of articles alone reflected the outrage at both newspapers over the incident; in addition, all nineteen news articles cast the government’s actions in a negative light.
The principal Times correspondent for Venezuela and the surrounding region is Simon Romero. Immediately following the expiration of RCTV’s license, the Times published articles by Romero on May 27, May 28, May 29, and June 1 (along with a spate of additional articles in the following weeks), all of which painted a picture of a despotic strongman cracking down on dissenters. Romero’s May 27 report described the decisive "shift in media" under Chávez, saying that as a result of this decision and others "a new media elite is emerging," one composed "of ideological devotees to Mr. Chavez [sic]" [10]. Romero obliquely admits that "most news organizations in Venezuela remain in private hands," but dismisses that fact by implying that Chávez is bullying all private news outlets into toeing the Party line [11]. The next day Romero reported that "thousands of protesters" filled the streets of the capital Caracas before "the police dispersed [them] by firing tear gas into [the] demonstrations." The report also quoted a Venezuelan soap-opera star who called Chávez’s government "a dictatorship" [12]. On June 1 Romero concluded that after unleashing "chilling threats of retribution, Mr. Chavez seems prepared to harden his treatment of both the protesters and any media organizations that oppose him" [13]. Romero’s reports on RCTV are consistent with his other recent reportage on Venezuela, and with other news reports in the Times from the same time period [14].
The only Times editorial or op-ed focusing on the RCTV affair came on June 6. In a piece titled "Silence = Despotism," former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo angrily condemned the government’s decision and located his criticisms within a broader indictment of Chávez. Toledo argued that "President Chavez has become a destabilizing figure throughout the hemisphere" because he "silence[s] anyone with opposing thoughts"—a trend which could spread to other countries if citizens and their governments are not careful. He then implicitly equated Chávez’s government with past Latin American dictatorships, urging that "[t]hose of us who confronted authoritarianism in the past must again stand up for continent-wide solidarity" [15].
The Post‘s coverage was similar. The paper’s primary correspondent in the region, Juan Forero, authored a handful of reports about the RCTV affair. In an article published twice on two consecutive days, once on the front page, Forero wrote that "[o]utlets, particularly television stations, that were once aggressively anti-government have grown docile under threat of sanctions," and cited his source as "press freedom and human rights groups" [16]. In another report later that week Forero matter-of-factly concluded that "Venezuela‘s government seems intent on taking harsh action against its critics" [17]. During the two-week stretch immediately before and after RCTV went off the airwaves, the Post also featured six "World in Brief" updates that all cast Chávez in a decidedly autocratic light. Several of the updates also portrayed government forces as violently repressive of the protests in Caracas. The May 29 update reported that "[p]olice fired tear gas and plastic bullets into a crowd of about 5,000 people protesting a decision by President Hugo Chávez that forced a television station critical of his government off the air." The report did not mention that many of the protesters had committed acts of violence, although one later update noted that the protests were "sometimes violent" and another said that "[a]t least 30 [protesters] were charged with violent acts" [18].
Even more so than the Times‘, the Post‘s coverage tended to glorify the protesters as heroic freedom-fighters who bravely confronted the tyranny and repression of the Chávez government. The May 27 briefing reported that "Tens of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets chanting ‘Freedom, freedom!’ to protest President Hugo Chávez’s decision." The figure "tens of thousands" not only conjures the image of massive, overwhelming popular opposition to the government, but is also a bit suspect in itself given the figure of 5,000 cited for the May 28 protest. A June 16 news report by Pamela Constable likewise cast government opponents in a heroic light:
It was a tiny gesture of protest: a dozen college students flagging down cars for an hour on Embassy Row this month, wearing symbolic white gags across their mouths and holding up posters that quoted Albert Camus and Walt Whitman on the importance of free speech.
But the anger of these Venezuela-born young people—furious at the shutdown of a popular private TV channel in Caracas—reflected the fast-rising political fervor that is gripping Venezuelan immigrants in the United States after years of private frustration over the tightening revolutionary grip of President Hugo Chavez. [19]
Constable’s description is highly reminiscent of reports on Eastern-bloc protesters leading up to the fall of the Soviet Union. Through this veiled comparison to the USSR the Venezuelan protesters are lionized into virtuous freedom-fighters standing up to a brutal and ossified regime.

Perhaps more important than hyperbolic rhetoric and crude comparisons to former dictatorships, though, were the many factual details routinely omitted from news coverage of the RCTV situation. Of all the omissions that characterized most Times and Post coverage, one stands above the rest: the well-documented fact that RCTV had lent vocal support to a 2002 coup against a democratically-elected government. RCTV was frequently described as a "dissident network" or an "opposition TV station" without any mention of its support for the coup [20]. When news reports and opinion pieces did mention this fact, they usually qualified it by saying that Chávez claimed that RCTV had supported the coup. A typical example in the Post reported that "[a]uthorities here say that RCTV supported a coup that dislodged Chávez for two days in 2002" [21]. By framing RCTV’s support for the coup as an allegation of the Venezuelan government—which, by definition, has little credibility—press coverage implied that the charge against RCTV can be dismissed as the demagogical ranting of an unscrupulous ruler.

The omission of important details was in part the result of the sources consulted. Each of the reporters and columnists who wrote on Venezuela showed a strong anti-Chávez bias, and usually gave preference to anti-Chávez "experts." The few sources with alternative views on RCTV were consistently marginalized or implicitly identified as too close to Chávez to offer an accurate portrait of events. Among those sources sympathetic to Chávez (or who at least raise some of the inconvenient facts), almost all were members of the Venezuelan government, with Chávez himself often the only one quoted. On May 21 the Post published a short (286-word) response from the Director of Venezuelan National Radio, Helena Salcedo, who pointed out that
the overwhelming majority of the media remain in private hands. Of the 81 television stations, 709 radio broadcasters and 118 newspapers throughout Venezuela, 79, 706 and 118, respectively, are privately owned and operated…
[I]n 2002 [RCTV's] owner, Marcel Granier, actively supported a coup against the democratically elected government of President Hugo Chávez. In no country would such conduct be permitted by a media outlet; in fact, U.S. broadcasters have faced fines or license revocations for lesser offenses. [22]
Salcedo raises two important points: that most media in Venezuela is still privately-owned, and that the level of press freedom there is at least as great as in the US. But her credibility is automatically suspect because she is affiliated with the Chávez government, which only gives political power and media access to its "ideological devotees."
Salcedo had written to the Post in response to an op-ed piece by Jackson Diehl from May 14 in which Diehl characterized Chávez as a "dictator." Diehl implied that Chávez had ordered violent attacks on dissidents and that his "problem with Granier and RCTV is political," downplaying the magnitude of RCTV’s offense (supporting the military overthrow of a democratically-elected government). Diehl’s invective is filled with other distortions and unsubstantiated claims as well: he implies that Chávez enjoys an unfettered "power to rule by decree," that RCTV’s license was cancelled "on Chávez’s personal order" (in reality, the Supreme Court was also involved), and that "neither domestic nor international institutions matter in a regime that is becoming increasingly personal." In general, the picture is one of a dictatorial tyrant unbound by Constitutional laws or international conventions [23]. Diehl does not comment on the level of respect for domestic and international institutions among those who plotted or supported the 2002 military coup.
Diehl is given regular access to the Post op-ed page, whereas well-respected scholars and journalists with alternative views on Venezuela are not. This differential of access is symptomatic of a much broader phenomenon: the consistent preference of the Times and Post for reporters, columnists, and commentators who oppose the Chávez government. Respected scholars and journalists with alternative views on the RCTV incident were not hard to find, but were seldom quoted in the Times and Post. Among this group was journalist Gregory Wilpert, who noted that
[i]t is generally taken for granted that any silencing of opposition voices is anti-freedom of speech. But is an opposition voice really being silenced? Is this the correct metaphor? Is the director of RCTV, Marcel Granier, actually being silenced? No, a better metaphor is that the megaphone that Granier (and others) used for the exercise of his free speech is being returned to its actual owners—a megaphone that he had borrowed, but never owned. Not only that, he is still allowed to use a smaller megaphone (cable & satellite). [24]
Like Helena Salcedo, Wilpert offers an alternative, fact-based perspective at least as valid as any presented in the Times or Post. But like a long list of independent journalists and scholars with heretical views on the RCTV situation, Wilpert was not featured in these two papers [25]. The exclusion of such alternative viewpoints along with the absence of important factual and contextual details reflects a consistent trend in press coverage of Venezuela in the past decade.
A comparative look at coverage of Colombia at the time of President Uribe’s closing of Inravisión is not possible, since not a single mention of that closing appeared in either of the two newspapers (Table 1). While I have not intended to justify the Venezuelan’s government decision regarding RCTV, or to claim that it was popular among Venezuelans (some polls suggest it was not, in part because the channel had featured popular soap operas), the dramatic difference between the papers’ outrage over RCTV and their complete lack of attention to Inravisión reveals an unmistakable bias on their part. If anything, fair press coverage should have showed more outrage over the Uribe government’s closure of Inravisión, which had done nothing illegal [26]. The fact that not a single article or editorial column even mentioned the event is strong evidence of the propaganda model’s applicability vis-à-vis Venezuela and Colombia. In fact, similar examples are available for other US-backed governments as well; media censorship similar to that in Colombia has occurred in recent years in Mexico and other countries ruled by US allies without the US press taking notice [27].
Test Case 2: Extending Presidential Term Limits
Between 2004 and 2007 both Hugo Chávez and Álvaro Uribe attempted to extend or abolish presidential term limits in their respective countries; Uribe was successful, Chávez was not. The two presidents’ proposals differed in three additional respects: first, Chávez included his request within a larger package of social, economic, and political reforms, whereas Uribe did not; second, the Chávez proposal and reforms were defeated by a popular referendum of the entire electorate, whereas Uribe’s request was granted by the Colombian Congress and upheld by a Supreme Court ruling; and third, Chávez proposed to eliminate term limits entirely whereas Uribe proposed to extend them. Despite these differences, however, the two presidents’ proposals were fundamentally similar in that they both sought to allow the current president to run for office again, in effect representing an expansion of the president’s personal power. As such, the two events might be expected to elicit similar reactions from outside observers and therefore allow a viable comparative case study of press coverage.
The Venezuelan referendum occurred on December 2, 2007. In November and December the New York Times published twenty-two news reports mentioning, and eight editorials and op-eds explicitly condemning, Chávez’s efforts to extend his powers. Of these 30 total articles, about two-thirds (19) specifically mention Chávez’s attempt to abolish term limits; the other eleven state or imply that Chávez was attempting to expand his own powers but without explicitly referring to the issue of term limits (see Table 2, which reflects the smaller figure of 19 plus 11 articles in the Post).
Coverage of Presidential Attempts to Extend Term Limits in Venezuela and Colombia
in the New York Times and Washington Post*
Number of Articles Mentioning Proposed Extension of Term Limits
Number of Editorials Criticizing Proposed Extension of Term Limits
Percentage of Total

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