Guest Commentary: Could It Happen Here?

Aug 25, 2003  •  Post A Comment

The morning after a military-backed faction seized control of Venezuela’s government in April 2002 and kidnapped its democratically elected president, Hugo Chavez, several of the coup leaders appeared on television to thank the media for their help.
Showing not a trace of embarrassment, the ringleaders explained to the nation how the just-completed “transition” was orchestrated through the media. The broadcast was carried on all the commercial stations in Caracas-Venevision, RCTV, Globovision and Televen-because the station owners, without exception, despised the deposed president for his land reforms and controls on Venezuela’s oil and import industries.
The state-run Venezolana de Television, or Channel 8, was knocked off the air in the early hours of the coup, allowing the opposition to monopolize coverage of the crisis. Viewers heard endless anti-Chavez speechifying. They saw the military surround the presidential palace and issue a demand that Chavez come out. They heard TV commentators urge calm. “Let’s have a peaceful handover,” one said.
When pro-Chavez forces reasserted control 48 hours later, commercial stations suddenly imposed a news blackout. “On one of the most important days in Venezuela’s history,” noted journalist Naomi Klein, “they aired `Pretty Woman’ and `Tom & Jerry’ cartoons.”
A provocative new film has brought to light just how intimately Venezuela’s privately held media were involved in promoting and enabling the crisis. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” scheduled for next month’s Toronto Film Festival, was made by two Irish filmmakers who happened to be in Caracas at the time making a (sympathetic) documentary about Chavez. Though their allegiances are plain, the filmmakers keep their opinions to a minimum. Instead they let the images speak for themselves, including a great deal of damning broadcast video.
Hours before the takeover, snipers fired into a massive demonstration near the presidential palace, killing a dozen or more people. The anti-Chavez stations quickly blamed the violence on the government.
A few pro-Chavez demonstrators were caught on camera firing their handguns at an off-camera target. The stations-tell me if this sounds familiar-aired these clips over and over all day, creating a propaganda effect.
“That Chavez supporter,” we hear a commentator say, “has just fired on the unarmed peaceful protesters below.” In fact, the supporter was firing at a deserted street from which deadly sniper fire had come. We see video, taken from a different angle, bearing this out. But in the initial confusion, the message of the opposition media carried the day.
At the White House, which considered Chavez hostile to American interests, press secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters, “According to the best information available, the Chavez government suppressed peaceful demonstrations.” For a while, most of the American press echoed reports that Chavez had resigned and that he was responsible for the violence.
The Venezuelan crisis may have been political and media turmoil at its most extreme. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons for us as the debate over U.S. media ownership rages on.
In the September issue of The Atlantic Monthly, James Fallows weighs in with a tightly reasoned article arguing that the old “public interest” model of media ownership is dead. In its place is emerging a purely market-driven model, championed by News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch. That won’t come as news to anyone reading this column.
Fallows, however, also argues that this new media model will become more “frankly partisan.” Even now, he notes, many are convinced Fox News Channel is slanted, just as Fox’s loyal viewers believe everyone else’s news is slanted. This stridency will grow more pronounced over time, Fallows warns, making the free press increasingly useless to a self-governing public.
The bitter media battle in Venezuela makes the CNN-Fox News “war” look like two old coots slapping each other with their walking sticks. Since the coup, it’s only gotten worse. A report in February by the Committee to Protect Journalists called the press situation there “extremely polarized” and noted that “both private and state media have dropped all pretense of objectivity from their news coverage.” State-run Channel 8 is as shrill in its support of Chavez as the commercial stations are in their opposition.
Here in the United States, the media debate rolls on, long after many observers (myself included) expected it to quiet down. Some Americans are watching the ongoing dispute between the BBC and Tony Blair’s government and wondering whether a similarly well-funded and independent-that’s key-public news outlet here wouldn’t have raised more questions about the decision to go to war with Iraq.
Studying the Venezuelan media crisis would likewise be useful, though in a what-not-to-do way. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” has already aired on Irish, British, French and German television.
Unfortunately, when I inquired with the filmmakers last week, no American TV outlet had yet agreed to carry it.
Aaron Barnhart is a TV critic for the Kansas City Star.