The following petition, signed by over a dozen experts on Latin America and the media, was sent today to Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor of The New York Times:
May 14, 2013
Dear Margaret Sullivan,
In a recent column (4/12/13), you observed:
Although individual words and phrases may not amount to very much in the great flow produced each day, language matters. When news organizations accept the government’s way of speaking, they seem to accept the government’s way of thinking. In The Times, these decisions carry even more weight.
In light of this comment we encourage you to compare The New York Times’s characterization of the leadership of the late Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and that of Roberto Micheletti and Porfirio Lobo in Honduras.
In the past four years, the Times has referred to Chávez as an "autocrat," "despot," "authoritarian ruler" and a "caudillo" in its news coverage. When opinion pieces are included, the Times has published at least fifteen separate articles employing such language, depicting Chávez as a "dictator" or "strongman." Over the same period—since the June 28, 2009 military overthrow of elected president Manuel Zelaya of Honduras—Times contributors have never used such terms to describe Micheletti, who presided over the coup regime after Zelaya’s removal, or Porfirio Lobo, who succeeded him. Instead, the paper has variously described them in its news coverage as "interim," "de facto,” and "new."
Porfirio Lobo assumed the presidency after winning an election held under Micheletti's coup government. The elections were marked by repression and censorship, and international monitors, like the Carter Center, boycotted them. Since the coup, Honduras's military and police have routinely killed civilians.
Over the past 14 years Venezuela has had 16 elections or referenda deemed free and fair by leading international authorities. Jimmy Carter praised Venezuela’s elections, among the 92 the Carter Center has monitored, as having "a very wonderful voting system." He concluded that "the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world." While some human rights groups have criticized the Chávez government, Venezuela has had no pattern of state security forces murdering civilians, as is the case in Honduras.
Whatever one thinks of the democratic credentials of Chávez’s presidency—and we recognize that reasonable people can disagree about it—there is nothing in the record, when compared with that of his Honduran counterparts, to warrant the discrepancies in the Times’s coverage of the two governments.
We urge you to examine this disparity in coverage and language use, particularly as it may appear to your readers to track all too closely the U.S. government’s positions regarding the Honduran government (which it supports) and the Venezuelan government (which it opposes)—precisely the syndrome you describe and warn against in your column.
Affiliations are used for identification purposes only.
Readers can add their names to the petition at New York Times eXaminer, or contact Ms. Sullivan directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please limit emails to 300 words, and follow the guidelines listed at the public editor's web page.
Update (5/14): Oscar Award-winning director Oliver Stone has added his name to the list of signatories, and a Spanish-language translation of the petition is now available at New York Times eXaminer. (Una traduccíon al español ya está disponible aquí.)
Update (5/15): Another Oscar-winning filmmaker, Michael Moore, has added his support to the petition. Other prominent signatories of late include philosopher Slavoj Zizek, author Eva Golinger, and Marjorie Cohn, former president of the National Lawyers Guild.
Update (5/17): Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, has added his support as a main signatory to the petition. Other academics who have added their names to the petition include Latin America specialists Rosa Maria Pegueros of Rhode Island University, Suyapa Portillo Villeda of Pitzer College and Ryan C. Alaniz of Cal Poly State University. Adolph Reed, political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is also a recent signer.
Below is a list of 16 Times articles that served as the basis of an analysis piece from which this petition was derived. None of the terms below (autocrat, despot, authoritarian, ruler, strongman, caudillo, dictator, tyrant, sultan) have been applied to either of Honduras's post-coup regimes:
"Shy U.S. Intellectual Created Playbook Used in a Revolution," Sheryl Gay Stolberg, 2/16/11: "Autocrats abhor Mr. Sharp. In 2007, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela denounced him."
"The Arab Spring Finds Itself Upstaged by a New Season," Neil MacFarquhar, 9/22/11: "In fact, this year’s gathering was suffering from something of a despot deficit, or at least the ranks of haranguers raging against the evils of capitalism and the West have been drastically thinned by revolutions or disease. President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, undergoing chemotherapy treatment in Cuba, literally mailed it in . . ."
"Charges Against U.S.-Aided Groups Come With History of Distrust in Egypt," Scott Shane and Ron Nixon, 2/6/12: "Authoritarian rulers from Caracas to Moscow and beyond have long viewed pro-democracy groups financed by the United States with deep suspicion, regularly denouncing them as meddlers or spies and sometimes harassing their workers."
"A Polarizing Figure Who Led a Movement," Simon Romero, 3/5/13: "He maintained an almost visceral connection with the poor, tapping into their resentments, while strutting like the strongman in a caudillo novel. . . . He grew obsessed with changing Venezuela’s laws and regulations to ensure that he could be re-elected indefinitely and become, indeed, a caudillo."
"The Winner in Honduras: Chavez," Alvaro Vargas Llosa, 6/30/09: "The United States’ more measured response [to Honduras's coup d'etat], and the low-profile stance taken by some South American governments, have been lost amid the high-stakes campaign launched by Venezuela’s caudillo."
"Real Men Tax Gas," Thomas Friedman, 9/19/09: "Such a tax would make our national-security healthier by . . . increasing our leverage over petro-dictators, like those in Iran, Russia and Venezuela, through shrinking their oil incomes."
"As Ugly as It Gets," Thomas Friedman, 5/25/10: "[Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva] regularly praises Venezuela’s strongman Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro, the Cuban dictator — and now Ahmadinejad — while denouncing Colombia, one of the great democratic success stories. . ."
"Wallflowers at the Revolution," Frank Rich, 2/5/11: "More damning, Morozov also demonstrates how the digital tools so useful to citizens in a free society can be co-opted by tech-savvy dictators, police states and garden-variety autocrats to spread propaganda and to track (and arrest) conveniently networked dissidents, from Iran to Venezuela."
"Why Tyrants Love the Murdoch Scandal," Bill Keller, 7/24/11: "And autocrats will be autocrats, with or without our bad example. Robert Mugabe and Hugo Chávez would be just as hostile to an unfettered press if no British journalist had ever hacked a phone."
"The Stomachs of Strongmen," Ann Louise Bardach, 8/21/11: "Ironically, the hemisphere’s most indomitable strongmen and determined foes of the United States and free market economics have both been felled, at least for now, by abdominal woes . . . The symbiosis between Cuba’s emeritus or former (and in most ways, still de facto) commander in chief and the Venezuelan colonel-turned-oil-sultan is the most powerful and fascinating political alliance in the Americas."
"The Realest Reality Show in the World," Rachel Nolan, 5/6/12: "[I]t’s hard to imagine another political figure with the combination of manic exhibitionism and entertainer’s stamina required to star in this sort of show, never mind the autocratic control required to make it, literally, must-see TV in his home country. . . . 'Aló Presidente' has that same wacky quality. The difference is that Mrs. Mouth wasn’t the autocratic leader of an oil-rich country of 29 million people."
"Velvet Gloves Over Iron Fists," Dwight Garner, 6/10/12: "The neo-authoritarians, from Vladimir Putin in Russia to Hugo Chávez in Venezuela to China’s more faceless technocrats, are still brutal, but they have learned to adapt."
"How Hugo Chávez Became Irrelevant," Francisco Toro, 10/5/12: "Mr. Chávez’s autocratic excesses came to look unnecessary and inexcusable to Venezuelans. . . . With oversight institutions neutered, the president now runs the country as a personal fief . . . Chávez-style socialism looks like the worst of both worlds: both more authoritarian and less effective at reducing poverty than the Brazilian alternative. . . . Mr. Capriles pitches himself as an ambitious but pragmatic social reformer committed to ending the Chávez era’s authoritarian excesses."
"The Missing President," Alberto Barrera Tyska and Christina Marcano, 1/22/13: "In the name of the dispossessed, he revived the ghost of the South American military caudillo, creating a new version of that traditional strongman. ... There is one element of the Chávez leadership, however, that is no different from any of Latin America's other personality-driven authoritarian regimes: its messianic nature."
"Hugo Chávez," Editorial Board, 3/6/13: "Hugo Chávez dominated Venezuelan politics for 14 years with his charismatic personality, populist policies and authoritarian methods . . . his legacy is stained by the undermining of democratic institutions."
"Death of a Strongman," Jonathan Tepperman, 4/5/13: "Finally, after years of riding the sugar binge of Chávez’s populist politics, which left the country 'flabby, enfeebled and import-addicted,' much of the public lost enthusiasm for their latter-day caudillo. . . . efforts to underscore the inherent absurdity of autocrats and their personality cults are nothing new."
Keane Bhatt is an activist in Washington, D.C. He has worked in the United States and Latin America on a variety of campaigns related to community development and social justice. His analyses and opinions have appeared in a range of outlets, including NPR, The Nation, The St. Petersburg Times, and CNN En Español. He is the author of the NACLA blog “Manufacturing Contempt,” which critically analyzes the U.S. press and its portrayal of the hemisphere. Connect with his blog on Twitter: @KeaneBhatt