Colombia and Venezuela: Testing the Propaganda Model

Kevin Young – Media Accuracy on Latin America (MALA)

U.S. news coverage of parallel political events in Colombia and Venezuela offers an opportunity to test the usefulness of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s “propaganda model,” developed in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (Pantheon, reissued 2002). The model predicts that the news media will look favorably upon the Colombian government of Álvaro Uribe, a close U.S. ally, while consistently vilifying the Venezuelan government of Hugo Chávez, whom the U.S. government frequently identifies as an antagonist. If the model holds, U.S. media outlets will be found to portray the Uribe government as relatively democratic, progressive, and peaceful, while casting the Chávez government as authoritarian, regressive, and militaristic.

Restricting the comparison to the two leading liberal U.S. newspapers, The New York Times and The Washington Post, this prediction is testable using two sets of similar events revolving around issues of political freedom and democracy:

1. Freedom of speech and the press. In October 2004 the Uribe government closed down Inravisión, a public broadcaster analogous to PBS, calling it “inefficient.” The station, which often broadcasted reportage critical of the Colombian government, was home to a strong labor union. Three years later, the Chávez government declined to renew the public broadcasting license of RCTV, a privately owned Venezuelan network critical of Chávez policies that had supported a brief military coup against Chávez in 2002. RCTV returned to the airwaves seven weeks later via cable and satellite.

2. Presidential term limits. Between 2004 and 2007, both Chávez and Uribe attempted to extend or abolish presidential term limits in their respective countries; Uribe was successful, Chávez was not. Their proposals differed in three 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, 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. Nonetheless, both were proposals to expand executive power.

If the propaganda model holds, U.S. newspaper reports and editorials will express outrage over Chávez’s actions while ignoring, justifying, or endorsing Uribe’s.

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In May and June 2007, the Times and the Post together published 19 articles dealing with the Chávez government’s nonrenewal of the RCTV license, plus two editorial columns strongly condemning the Venezuelan government’s decision. The Times’ May 27 report described a decisive “shift in media” under Chávez, noting the emergence of “a new media elite” composed of Chávez’s “ideological devotees,” although it did acknowledge that “most news organizations in Venezuela remain in private hands.” The next day Times correspondent Simon Romero reported that “thousands of protesters” supporting RCTV filled the streets of the capital Caracas before “the police dispersed [them] by firing tear gas into [the] demonstrations.”

Even more so than the Times’, the Post’s coverage tended to glorify the protesters as freedom fighters confronting the repression of the Chávez government. During the two-week stretch immediately before and after RCTV went off the airwaves, the Post featured six updates in its World in Brief section that all cast Chávez in a decidedly autocratic light. Several also portrayed government forces as having violently repressed 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,” but the report did not mention that many of the protesters had themselves committed acts of violence. One later update noted that the protests were “sometimes violent” and another mentioned that “[a]t least 30 [protesters] were charged with violent acts.”

Neither paper reported the well-documented fact that RCTV had lent vocal support to an authoritarian military coup against the democratically elected Chávez administration—comparable to NBC or CBS advocating the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. RCTV was frequently described as a “dissident network” or an “opposition TV station” without any mention of its support for the coup. When news reports and opinion pieces did mention this fact, they usually qualified it by saying that Chávez claimed RCTV had supported the coup. A typical example in the Post: “Authorities here say that RCTV supported a coup that dislodged Chávez for two days in 2002.” By framing RCTV’s support for the coup as a mere allegation of the Venezuelan government—rather than as a matter of fact—the newspapers implied that the charge against RCTV could simply be dismissed by outside observers.

Unfortunately, we cannot compare this coverage of the RCTV affair to the papers’ coverage of the Inravisión scandal in Colombia: The latter event received not a single mention in either paper.

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The results for the second of the two case studies are similar. Chávez’s package of social and political reforms later in 2007 was dealt predictable treatment in the U.S. press prior to its defeat by popular referendum in December, with most media attention focusing on opposition protests in the lead-up to the vote. The Times painted a romantic portrait of student leader Yon Goicoechea that recalled stories of underground dissidents in the Eastern bloc: “He changes cellphones every few days. After receiving dozens of death threats, he moves among the apartments of friends here each day in search of a safe place to sleep.” Two days before, on November 8, the Times had reported that “a march by tens of thousands of students to the Supreme Court” was met by masked gunmen who injured two people. The report made little attempt to avoid giving the impression that the gunmen were sent by the government, simply quoting a government official as saying that “we do not know what faction they belong to.” After the December 2 referendum, four more Times articles on the issue appeared in eight days, all conveying similar impressions.

Much of the coverage in both papers implied or even stated explicitly that the proposal, if approved, would install Chávez as “de facto president for life.” Before the vote Post columnist Jackson Diehl wrote indignantly that “Chávez will become the presumptive president-for-life of a new autocracy.” The Times’ Roger Cohen went a step further, comparing Chávez to fascist dictators of the past because of his “grab for socialist-emperor status.” The Times. editorial page registered its full agreement. In their one editorial, titled “Saying No to Chavez,” the editors expressed shock at the “breathtaking gall of Mr. Chavez’s latest lunge for power,” echoing Times reports that “thousands of university students have taken to the streets to protest, facing down armed Chavista thugs.” The December 4 editorial compared Chávez to Vladimir Putin of Russia and applauded the courage of Venezuelan voters for having defeated Chávez’s proposal.

Nor was this type of language limited to editorial columns; news reports often spoke of “constitutional changes that, if approved by voters on Sunday, could extend [Chávez’s] presidency for life.” Post correspondent Juan Forero wrote a total of eight reports dealing with Chávez’s proposal to eliminate term limits. In his November 29 article Forero opened by saying that the upcoming referendum vote “could extend [Chávez’s] presidency for life.” In the same piece he interviewed an opponent of the proposal, and then seemed to agree with his interviewee that its passage “would effectively turn Venezuela into a dictatorship run at the whim of one man.” In case Forero’s reportage left any doubt about the Post’s position on the vote, the editors published two editorials and five op-eds condemning Chávez. Among the op-ed writers was Donald Rumsfeld, who recommended passage of the Colombian “free trade” agreement as the best method of undermining Chávez; meanwhile the Post’s own Charles Lane compared Chávez to Stalin, Mao, and other “high modernists,” and Jackson Diehl, without citing any evidence, accused the Venezuelan government of “overt violence that has included the gunning down of student protesters.”

Most reports neglected to mention that Chávez would still have to be elected for each successive term. Moreover, none mentioned that U.S. allies like Australia, Canada, Japan, and the United Kingdom have no term limits for their prime ministers, or that the United States itself did not establish presidential term limits until 1951. And only one noted that Colombia’s Uribe was at that very same time (November 2007) thinking of again extending his own term limits, after already having done so in 2005.

Three years earlier the U.S. press had been similarly uncritical of Uribe’s political maneuvers. In November 2004 the Colombian Congress had approved Uribe’s proposal allowing him to run for an additional term, and eleven months later the Supreme Court had declared the proposal constitutional. During the two-month time frame around each of these events (November 2004–January 2005 and September 15–November 15, 2005), little indignation appeared in either the Times or the Post. The two papers mentioned Uribe’s proposal a combined total of four times: two news articles in the Times, and two World in Brief blurbs in the Post. No fire-breathing editorial columns appeared, and neither team of editors felt compelled to even mention the events.

Forero, then writing for the Times, was the only reporter for either paper who called attention to Uribe’s efforts to extend term limits (to Forero’s credit, he also reported on Uribe’s fall 2007 plans to do so once again). But his reports on Uribe reveal a fundamental difference from those on Chávez: In Uribe’s case, the reports offered context that encouraged readers to look more favorably on the president’s actions. In December 2004 Forero called Uribe “immensely popular,” adding in October 2005 that he “remains the most popular president in Latin America.” Moreover, Uribe faces a “long, drug-fueled conflict with Marxist rebels,” and his “policies . . . are starting to pay off,” implying that perhaps we should forgive the Colombian president’s attempts to increase his own power.

In the case of Venezuela, context, like the lack of term limits in various Western nations or the results of popular opinion polls showing significant support for Chávez, was all but missing. Forero’s brief reports on Uribe represent the closest thing to criticism of Uribe in the the mainstream U.S. media; more often, reports and editorials have heaped praise upon Uribe for his commitment to democracy and freedom. For the Post editors, for example, “Uribe stands out as a defender of liberal democracy.”

Uribe’s commitment to democracy was revealed again in June 2008, when the Colombian Supreme Court sentenced a member of the Colombian Congress to house arrest for accepting bribes from the Uribe government in exchange for supporting the 2004 constitutional amendment allowing for presidential reelection. The Times and Post each ran one mildly critical news article, but the articles nonetheless praised Uribe’s popularity in Colombia and were free of language that might have directly implicated Uribe himself in the scandal. Neither article even questioned the legitimacy of Uribe’s immediate proposal to conduct the election again, noting only that the scandal “potentially call[ed] into question the legitimacy of Mr. Uribe’s re-election” (emphasis added).

In sum, the two papers published 30 articles and 15 editorials on Chávez’s bid to extend term limits; two articles and no editorials appeared when Uribe did the same. The tally on the freedom of speech issue is even more dramatic: 19 articles and two editorials on the RCTV affair, compared with a complete black-out regarding Inravisión. We can reasonably conclude that the propaganda model—which predicts systematic media bias in favor of official friends and against official enemies—holds for coverage of Colombia and Venezuela in the United States’ two leading “liberal” newspapers.

Kevin Young is a graduate student in history at Stony Brook University.

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