The Fear of the Poor – Liberal Journalists and Venezuela


Most journalists work for companies whose purpose is very well described in Patrick Chalmers' article News to Make the Rich Richer. Based on his 11 years' experience as journalist for Reuters, this article introduces the broader themes of his excellent book Fraudcast News. Ownership, who pays, news sources, editorial ideology, and the fear of journalists all contribute to the distorting lens.

The immediate aftermath of another election in Venezuela is a perfect opportunity to count the cost of corporate media mis-reporting in the lead-up to it. This article will analyse the reporting of some journalists of the supposedly liberal media in the UK. But following Patrick's lead, let's look first at Reuters.

Sure enough, in the lead-up to the Venezuelan Presidential election, which pitched socialist incumbent Hugo Chavez against candidate of the right-wing coalition Henrique Capriles, Reuters followed the meta-narrative of the vast majority of the corporate media. They constantly insisted that the election was closely fought, right up until election day, when Chavez actually won by a whopping 11%. This depiction of a close-fought race was despite most opinion polls showing Chavez with a double-digit lead. A cursory research would have told a half-decent journalist that the solitary polling organisation that showed Capriles to have a lead, Consultores 21, has an abysmal record in previous elections. In 2004, 2006, and 2009 this poll underestimated Chavez' vote by between 10 and 13%, well outside the acceptable margin of error. And again this time, Consultores 21 underestimated Chavez' vote by 10%. They are nothing if not consistent. Of course for US media organisations, that makes this poll "respected", "reputable" and "well-regarded" (in the words of the Wall Street Journal, ABC News, and the Washington Post respectively). But why are the reporters of Reuters not more sceptical? Patrick Chalmers answers this well. But I believe there is another factor.

In the almost universal disparaging of Bolivarian socialism in the media of the US and UK, one of the most interesting phenomena is the intense involvement of liberal newspapers and news outlets. The Guardian's Rory Carroll is notorious. For him, Venezuela is always on the point of infrastructural collapse, while Chavez is a waning force. His recent headlines included "A strongman's last stand", "People's hero in final showdown". Chavez was described as "Banquo's ghost". Given the opinion polls cited above, was the apocalyptic tone justified? His reports are also peppered with the kind of factual errors which always chime with the opposition's narrative of an authoritarian populist demagogue. I felt roused to challenge Carroll, using the feeble means of twitter, over his claim that Chavez' election victories were "not always fair". Jimmy Carter, after his long experience of monitoring democratic elections, for which he won a Nobel Prize, said “the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world” and that Chavez has always won “fairly and squarely”. No response of course came from Carroll, so I ask again. What is it that you know, Rory, that Jimmy Carter doesn't? The overwhelming tone of all of Carroll's pieces is an obsession with the figure of Chavez himself, not the Revolution he has led into being. His post-election piece is headed "Hugo Chavez: a victory of enduring charisma and political mastery". Note how Chavez' voters, the Venezuelan poor, are, according to Carroll, voting for him because of his charm and Machiavellian skills, not because of their empowerment through communal councils, the free health clinics and universities, the new housing, or the massive reductions in poverty.

The Independent newspaper reporter Jim Armitage, however, makes Carroll look like a Chavista sympathiser. Here we have unsupported references to human rights abuses, defamation of oil workers, the casual, and again unsupported, claim of privations, and the cheap and gratuitous reference to ex-London mayor Ken Livingstone. If you are astonished by the tone of the unfactual hack piece in the link, it's worth noting that the supposedly liberal Independent has a long history of this kind of coverage.

But one thing connects Carroll and Armitage. When I wrote that I would analyse their coverage, I meant it in an almost psychoanalytic way. Their patronising of and disregard for the poor majority seems to me to involve the same hysteria that Carroll ascribes to Chavez' voters. They both profess to support a mildly social democratic system of social welfare, as avowedly did Chavez' so soundly beaten rival Capriles. In other words, they think the elite should deign to alleviate the worst excesses of capitalism. What troubles them beyond their being able to deal with it rationally is the idea of the poor majority taking power. For this presumption on the part of the working class, and their vision of a society that goes beyond welfarism to socialist democracy, the poor deserve to be mocked or sidelined or ignored. Why do they not celebrate the Bolivarian revolution's reduction of poverty by half, instead of putting it in parenthesis, or treating it as an electoral bribe? What is the mixture of hatred and fear that motivates them to write such shoddy journalistic bile? The fact that the Guardian and Independent commission and print it shows us the dark, inhuman heart of liberalism.

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