On March 27, Channel 4 News included a report by Washington Correspondent Jonathan Rugman: ‘Hugo to go?’ (www.channel4.com/news/special-reports/special-reports-storypage.jsp?id=2046)
Rugman relentlessly smeared Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, in a piece described by John Pilger as “one of the worst, most distorted pieces of journalism I have ever seen”. (Email to Channel 4 News, copied to Media Lens, March 27, 2006)
Channel 4 news presenter Jon Snow introduced the film:
“Now, he’s the president with his own television show and a stream of semi-humorous invective hurled at America and George Bush. Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez, accuses the US of planning to invade his country to take control of its vast oil reserves. And last night he invoked the ultimate deterrent – the bow and arrow dipped in Indian poison. ‘If we have to put a few arrows into the invading gringo, then you’ll be done in thirty seconds.’”
Snow is of course known for his own semi-humorous take on politics. But in the context of Rugman’s report, and of wider political commentary, this introduction fits well as part of the ongoing cartoonisation of Chávez.
Cartoon ‘bad guys’ are of course depicted as absurd and wicked, and as being absurdly delighted by their wickedness. Likewise, enemies of the West are consistently painted by the media as ridiculous and menacing. Western leaders, on the other hand, are presented as dignified and rational – serious people who have ascended to the summit of a meritocratic social order. Thus, Snow followed his comical portrait of Chávez by noting the mature concerns of sensible people in the West:
“Venezuela is the world’s fifth largest oil exporter, and a major supplier to America itself – that causes jitters in Washington, where Chávez is seen as a demagogue who could spearhead a regional shift to the left. Chávez is undoubtedly popular at home, where he’s spent billions on health and education programmes to improve the lives of the country’s poor, although his critics point to an increasingly authoritarian streak.”
The opening moments of Rugman’s report recalled the Guardian’s infamous October 2005 smear in which Noam Chomsky was pictured with Fidel Castro, John Pilger, and “en route to Hanoi to give a speech to the North Vietnamese”. Chomsky commented at the time:
“That’s my life: honoring commie-rats and the renegade who is the source of the word ‘pilgerize‘ invented by journalists furious about his incisive and courageous reporting, and knowing that the only response they are capable of is ridicule.” (‘Chomsky answers Guardian,’ November 13, 2005; www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?)
Rugman’s film similarly showed footage of Chávez with Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein and Qadaffi. Rugman’s voiceover, strident and dramatic, hammered home the point:
“He supplies 15 per cent of America’s oil, yet America’s enemies are his friends. Hugo Chávez, in danger of joining a rogue’s gallery of dictators and despots – Washington’s latest Latin nightmare”.
The film repeatedly depicted Chávez as a dictatorial menace, referring to his “personality cult” and to factories run as “Soviet-style collectives”. Rugman asked:
“Is Chávez on the way to becoming a dictator?”
If so, what species of monster might we be contemplating?:
“He’s no Saddam, but what’s happening here does feel eerily familiar. A strongman buoyed up by oil defying the United States, using oil wealth to rearm and consolidate his own power. Setting off alarm bells in Washington where securing energy is a key foreign policy goal. A petro-state heading for a showdown with its northern neighbour.”
“Rearm” is a media trigger word intended to suggest a resurgent menace – Hitler rearmed after the first world war. Saddam was rearming (we were told). When exactly did mighty Venezuela disarm?
Washington’s goal is merely “securing energy” – surely a reasonable, rational priority for any modern, high-tech state. There was not a word about the unreasonable, barbaric corporate greed that has led the United States to exploit, terrorise and devastate its defenceless southern neighbours for decades.
Rugman interviewed Maria Corina Machado, describing her as a “civil rights activist”. In fact she is a leader of Sumate, an extreme right organisation that was deeply involved in a 2002 coup that temporarily ousted Chávez (see below). Machado met Bush in the White House shortly before the coup. Last November, the New York Times reported:
“Ms. Machado does not hide her close relations with Washington, which has provided financial aid to Sumate, the anti-Chávez, election-monitoring organization she helps run. In May, she infuriated the government when she met with President Bush at the White House, and she further antagonized officials in September by announcing that Sumate had received a fresh infusion of $107,000 from Washington.” (Juan Forero, ’Venezuela’s best-loved, or maybe most-hated, citizen,’ New York Times, November 19, 2005)
In a March 23 report Rugman again described Machado as a “civil rights activist”, citing her as the source for his claim that “government critics” are “fearing another Zimbabwe here”. (Rugman, ‘Lord Vestey’s farm,’ Channel 4 News, March 23, 2006; www.channel4.com/news/special-reports/special-reports-storypage.jsp?id=2022)
John Pilger sent a letter to Channel 4 News complaining of Rugman’s report:
“This was a piece seemingly written by the US State Department, although Channel 4’s Washington correspondent, Jonathan Rugman, appeared on screen. It was one of the worst, most distorted pieces of journalism I have ever seen, qualifying as crude propaganda. I have been in Venezuela lately and almost nothing in Rugman’s rant coincides with reality. Factories are like ‘Soviet collectives‘; a dictatorship is on the rise; Chávez is like Hitler (Rumsfeld); and the media is under government attack. The inversion of the truth throughout this travesty is demonstrated in the ‘coverage’ of a cowed media. Venezuela is a country in which 95 per cent of the press and TV and radio are owned by the far-right, who mount unrelenting daily attacks on the government unhindered. The Latin American Murdoch, Cisneros, unfettered, controls much of it. Indeed, it is probably the most concentrated, reactionary media on earth – but that was not worthy of a single word from Rugman.” (Pilger, op., cit)
Chávez – Doing Something For The Poor
First elected in 1998, Chávez launched massive campaigns, described as Bolivarian Missions (named after the Venezuelan revolutionary, Simon Bolivar), to combat disease, illiteracy, malnutrition, poverty, and other social ills. Eighteen months after taking office, in a country of 25 million people, 1.4 million had been taught to read and write, while three million previously excluded from education due to poverty had enrolled in the education system. Seventy per cent of the population now enjoys access to free health care while 45 per cent receive subsidised food. Julia Buxton, a British scholar of Venezuelan politics, argues that the Chávez government “has brought marginalised and excluded people into the political process and democratised power”. (Buxton, ‘Resisting Confusion: Pundit Michael Shifter and Venezuela,’ April 23, 2005; www.venezuelanalysis.com/articles.php?artno=1428)
Chomsky comments on Chávez:
“The wealthy and the privileged hate him. On the other hand, the great majority of the population is very impoverished and has always been kept out of the country’s enormous wealth. This Bolivarian Revolution, whatever you and I may think about it, is actually doing something for the poor and apparently they are reacting.” (Chomsky interviewed by Steven Durel, ‘Toward Freedom,’ Social Change Today, November 7, 2005; www.chomsky.info/interviews/20051107.htm)
Radical attempts to raise the living standards of the poor are not welcomed by US elites. Such reforms risk creating “the threat of a good example”, unleashing demands for greater equality and justice among impoverished people across the region. The potential cost to Western corporations exploiting this poverty is incalculable.
Thomas Carothers, a former Reagan State Department official, described US policy in Latin America. He explained how the US sought to maintain “the basic order of… quite undemocratic societies” and to avoid “populist-based change” that might upset “established economic and political orders” and open “a leftist direction”. (Quoted, Neil Lewis, ‘What can the US really do about Haiti?’, New York Times, December 6, 1987)
In February, US media watch dog, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), reported that 95 per cent of the nearly 100 US press commentaries covering Venezuelan politics during the first six months of 2005 expressed clear hostility to Chávez.
The Wall Street Journal labelled Chávez a “tyrant” and “strongman”, claiming he had presided over “the collapse of democracy”. Three Journal editorials also referred to Chávez as a “strongman”, while the editorial board suggested that Chávez should be placed on a list of the world’s worst dictators. The Los Angeles Times called Chávez a “would-be dictator,” arguing he engaged in “undemocratic tactics”. (Justin Delacour, ’The Op-Ed Assassination of Hugo Chávez,’ February 13, 2006;
And yet the Venezuelan government and its programme of change have been ratified by the Venezuelan electorate in eight elections and referenda. FAIR noted that, in spite of the fact that recent polls indicate that Chávez’s domestic approval rating is above 70 per cent, “almost all commentaries about Venezuela represent the views of a small minority of the country, led by a traditional economic elite that has repeatedly attempted to overthrow the government in clearly anti-democratic ways“. (Ibid)
Similarly, in Britain the Independent wrote of “the Venezuelan strongman, Hugo Chávez”. (Rupert Cornwell, ‘The 5-minute briefing: South America’s struggle towards democracy,’ The Independent, April 22, 2005) The Financial Times wrote of how “the populist militaristic strongman has irked Washington with his anti-US rhetoric”. (Andy Webb-Vidal, ‘US softens its stance on Venezuela in belief Chávez will hang on to power,’ Financial Times, August 6, 2004)
Chávez insists America is planning to invade his country. Chomsky argues that this would probably already have happened, but for the disastrous turn of events in Iraq.
Some kind of military action is certainly an option for the West. In an April 2002 article titled, ‘US “gave the nod” to Venezuelan coup,’ the Guardian reported US involvement in a coup that temporarily removed Chávez from office earlier that month. A few weeks before the coup attempt, US administration officials had met business leaders who took over the interim government after Chávez was arrested. The US defence department also confirmed that the Venezuelan army’s chief of staff, General Rincon, visited the Pentagon the previous December and met senior officials.
Although the Organisation of American States denounced the coup attempt, as did all Venezuela’s neighbours, Washington was eager to acknowledge the new government, declaring: “A transitional civilian government has been installed. This government has promised early elections.” (Julian Borger and Alex Bellos, ‘US ‘gave the nod’ to Venezuelan coup,’ The Guardian, April 17, 2002)
In February, Tony Blair preached ethics to Venezuela:
“It is rather important that the government of Venezuela realise that if they want to be respected members of the international community they should abide by the rules of the international community.” (‘Chávez rejects “attack” by Blair’; www.news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/4695482.stm, February 9, 2006)
The response from Chávez was telling:
“You, Mr Blair, do not have the morality to call on anyone to respect the rules of the international community. You are precisely the one who has flouted international law the most… siding with Mr Danger [George Bush] to trample the people in Iraq.”
By contrast, Jonathan Rugman said of the invasion of Iraq:
“Yes, the Americans want democracy here, but they don’t want to die for it.” (Channel 4 News, November 12, 2003)
Rugman warned, without irony, that if the Americans “democratise too quickly” they risked handing power over to Shia clerics.
There is an ugly truth behind the high technology, smart suits and genial smiles – the modern mass media system provides the vital propaganda component for a brutal system of exploitation.
But what will we see when the cruise missiles scorch the skies over Venezuela? When yet more poor, brown-skinned people are left incinerated by the weapons of the wealthy? Will we see the real thing: terrible crimes, the trampling of hope – the West once again imposing poverty for profit on helpless human beings?
Or will we see the media’s version: one more tinpot dictator getting what he deserved? A “rogue’s gallery” of cronies and lackeys – the “willing executioners” of a “rogue state“ – receiving their just desserts? Will the Sun headline read: ‘Chávez Shafted!’? Will we see our leaders sincerely mourning the “collateral damage” inflicted on the loved ones and little ones with whom, as ever, “we have no argument”?
Will we be appalled, or will we stand a little taller, a little prouder, alongside the Rugmans at the thought that the civilised West has once again made its “tough choices” wisely in bringing “order” to this unruly world?
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to Jonathan Rugman
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Write to Jon Snow
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Write to Channel 4 editor Jim Gray
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