When a review of news articles spanning a 16-year period finds that terms like “Venezuelan people” and “civil society” refer exclusively to groups either in alignment with or actually funded by the US government, we should be wary of what we read about the South American country. US government statements, as well as reports and editorials from major publications like the New York Times, CNN and the Guardian have repeatedly spoken of the “Venezuelan people” rising up against besieged president, Nicolas Maduro – and no doubt there have been protests and rightful outpouring frustration in the country. But it’s worth considering the basis for the US government’s role in the story-making of Venezuela.
The purpose of this article is not to defend Maduro’s PSUV party, which has relied on increasingly desperate measures to cling to power, including repression. Or to deny the corruption, mismanagement and dire economic situation faced by Venezuelan people. Rather, it aims to present some aspects of the stories that have been ignored by most press reports, and to consider the reasons why major publications have chosen to ignore them.
Until recently, more than 80% of Venezuelans had never heard of Juan Guiadó, the US-backed National Assembly leader who declared himself president. What’s more, the Assembly he leads has a disapproval rating as low as Maduro’s. Whatever the claims of vote rigging, it should be remembered that the election process that put Maduro in office in the first place were judged by The Carter Center (former US president Jimmy Carter’s foundation) as “the best in the world”. The legitimacy of Guiadó’s position is, therefore, far from rock-solid, despite US government claims to the contrary.
Much has been written about the political mismanagement, corruption and overdependence on oil on the part of the Venezuelan government. Much less has been said about the UN Independent Expert Alfred de Zayas’s recent report on Venezuela, which calls US sanctions against the country “crimes against humanity”. One of the mechanisms of these sanctions blocks the repatriation of billions of dollars in oil revenues to Venezuela, money that could be used to ease the economic suffering there. The UN Human Right Council has condemned the sanctions, and went as far as discussing whether the US should pay reparations to Venezuela.
To illustrate the US government’s direct interference, the Venezuelan foreign minister claimed in an interview that a 2018 settlement between Maduro’s government and Venezuelan opposition, negotiated by then-president of Spain Zapatero, was scuppered at the last minute by a call from the US State Department ordering the opposition representatives to pull out. These opposition parties subsequently refused to take part in the elections that followed.
While it’s hard to verify the foreign minister’s claims, it’s clear a negotiated settlement wouldn’t suit a US government who would prefer Maduro’s party to have no say whatsoever in governing the country. US National Security Advisor John Bolton made the basis of US policy for Venezuela plain when he said, “It’ll make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies really invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela.” (Venezuela currently has the world’s largest oil reserves – with a US government that tries to hide its own climate change report, clearly oil still matters.)
Perhaps we should welcome such candour about American imperial ambitions. Before, we had to rely on leaked documents, like the State Department memo to then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. It gives an inside look at foreign policy communication around human rights and reads like a crash course for Tillerson, a former oil executive and newcomer to government office. It was summarised neatly in Politico: “the U.S. should use human rights as a club against its adversaries, like Iran, China and North Korea, while giving a pass to repressive allies like the Philippines, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.”
When the “Venezuelan people” are invoked in official US government statements, we should understand then that their name is being exploited and that the story being shaped is one that serves US interests of the day. Deplorable as it may be that human rights issues should be used in this way, it explains perfectly the form the official story takes. But why is this government version repeated in news reports and amplified in editorials?
Thirty years after its publication, a classic text on bias in media, Manufacturing Consent, still has relevance. The five filters they describe (illustrated in brand-new 5-minute animation) still explain why major news outlets amplify news that serves corporate interests first, while serving to discourage critical journalism. Among the reasons described are the cosy relationship between government sources and journalists, the reliance on advertisers, and the corporate nature of news publications themselves.
The story of a socialist strongman leader, guilty of corruption, vote rigging, political persecution and irresponsible spending who is finally ousted due to popular outrage is a satisfying one, as comfortably familiar as a Hollywood movie. It also happens to fit with a particular world view, one shared by mainstream media publications who are themselves part of large corporations. As media-bias monitoring organisation FAIR says: ‘The owners and managers of dominant media outlets generally share the background, worldview and income bracket of political elites.”
The emergence of independent, reader-funded news sources has provided a platform for other stories. Online publications like The Intercept, Democracy Now! and The Correspondent provide in-depth reporting which is well researched and presented, and paints a fuller picture of issues in places like Venezuela. The Intercept’s reporting on Brazil, too, is particularly enlightening. That publication’s founder, Glenn Greenwald, is the Pulitzer-prize winning journalist who broke the story on Edward Snowden. He also happens to live in Brazil and has a thorough understanding of politics in that country. The difference between The Intercept and mass media reporting on Brazilian political events is stark, and one can’t help but come away from the comparison between the two versions with a sense that ‘respected’ news sources like the New York Times and the Guardian are simply irresponsible in their representation.
The difference in coverage between mainstream sources and more independent ones is often put down to their respective politics. But explaining the matter in such a way misses a crucial aspect of how we, the audience, experience the news – the corporate nature of mass media publications and the way they work with government sources means there’s a predominance of views that serve particular interests. The stories they pick are the ones we hear more loudly and more often. In fact, they’re usually the only version we hear, and begin to represent the definitive version. Without actively seeking out independent, well-researched reporting on the issues of the day – a time-consuming task that is beyond the resources of most working people – we’re condemned to hearing one version of events only, one shaped by powerful elites with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.