Challenging our Mala Prensa on Latin America

September 25, 2007

In the wake of some two and a half decades of democratic consolidation during which—despite gains in formal electoral democracy—the majority in Latin America has been left out of the decision-making processes of their governments, the people of Latin America are now making their voices heard. And yet, somehow, the U.S. public and its representatives in government aren’t hearing the call for change emanating from our South. U.S. leaders aren’t celebrating the triumph of democracy over dictatorship in Latin America, despite their convictions about the “global march of freedom.” Indeed, despite advances in communications technology, information flows from around the world remain sporadic and of generally dismal quality, meaning that the U.S. public, in general, is arguably more isolated from the events shaping our hemisphere than ever before.

The failure of the media to deliver accurate, reliable information on events unfolding in our hemisphere squanders the tremendous opportunity presented by the unprecedented changes underway in Latin America. The little coverage of hemispheric affairs that does emerge is often sensationalist, superficial and pervaded by longstanding suspicions that continue to characterize the North-South divide.

Some examples: in November 2005, the New York Times blithely asserted that the gathering momentum of the left in Latin America was due to “financial shocks” that “have led to disenchantment in young democracies,” and reduced decades of struggle by social movements and reformers to a mere anti-American economic backlash. Then, in February, the Times reported at length on the fashion choices of Evo Morales, thereby elevating the wardrobe of Bolivia’s first indigenous president to the geopolitical arena. When the press does choose to examine Morales’ policy preferences, rather than his wardrobe, it falls almost universally into a “Lula vs. Chávez” dichotomy that proves entirely inefficacious for explaining the situation on the ground in Bolivia.

And as for Chávez, while much of the mainstream press has stopped calling Venezuela’s democratically elected president a “dictator,” as they did during the unsuccessful U.S.-backed coup attempt in 2002, they have created an echo chamber for Pat Roberson’s call for the assassination of the Venezuelan leader—a call he repeated again on Fox News in early February. But while press attention is focused on Robertson’s opinions on the Venezuelan President, the U.S. public gets little coverage of the struggle over CAFTA; nearly no coverage of U.S. support for “opposition” candidates in the recent Haitian election; and coverage of the emergent “Other Campaign” in Mexico as little more than a circus-like spectacle, a “Marimba and Marxism extravaganza,” as the Los Angeles Times put it. At every turn, we are confronted by errors of omission, ignorance and political posturing.

The failure of the mainstream press to provide the U.S. public with reliable, in-depth, analytic coverage of Latin American affairs and U.S. policy in the region is, of course, not a new phenomenon, and indeed provided a motivating rationale for the creation of the NACLA Report. Readers of this magazine look to these pages for precisely what’s lacking in the mainstream media. But our reach, and that of the rest of what has come to be called the “alternative press,” is limited, not least by the constant consolidation of the few conglomerates that control nearly all media, leaving the vast majority of people in the United States to rely on incomplete or faulty information (and, three years into the Iraq war, we need not be reminded of the crucial role played by the mainstream press in U.S. society, particularly with regard to foreign policy decisions). The lesson to be learned, then, is this: media reform matters to all of us, as Latin Americanists, activists, scholars, students and teachers, if we want our ideas to be heard and to have broad impact on policy debates and public opinion. Our work to create space for alternative viewpoints, sources and ideas is not enough, and must be accompanied by an explicit struggle to reform the mainstream media. NACLA is, therefore, actively joining the struggle for media justice, allying with groups like the New York City Grassroots Media Coalition, the Independent Press Association, and the Center for International Media Action, among others, to help build the emerging media justice movement. I hope that NACLA readers will join us.

About the Author
Christy Thronton is NACLA's executive director.


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