Venezuela's left-wing populist president Hugo Chávez died on Tuesday, March 5, after a two-year battle with cancer. If world leaders were judged by the sheer volume of corporate media vitriol and misinformation about their policies, Chávez would be in a class of his own.
Shortly after Chávez won his first election in 1998, the U.S. government deemed him a threat to U.S. interests–an image U.S. media eagerly played up. When a coup engineered by Venezuelan business and media elites removed Chávez from power, many leading U.S outlets praised the move (Extra!, 6/02). The New York Times (4/13/02), calling it a "resignation," declared that "Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator." The Chicago Tribune (4/14/02) cheered the removal of a leader who had been "praising Osama bin Laden"–an absurdly false charge.
But that kind of reckless rhetoric was evidently permissible in media discussions about Chávez. Seven years later, CNN (1/15/09) hosted a discussion of Chávez with Democratic strategist Doug Schoen, where he and host John Roberts discussed whether or not Chávez was worse than Osama bin Laden. As Schoen put it, "He's given Al-Qaeda and Hamas an open invitation to come to Caracas."
There were almost no limits to overheated media rhetoric about Chávez. In a single news article, Newsweek (11/2/09) managed to compare him to Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin. (Chávez had built a movie studio, which is the sort of thing dictators apparently do.) ABC (World News, 10/7/12) called him a "fierce enemy of the United States," the Washington Post (10/16/06) an “autocratic demagogue.” Fox News (12/5/05) said that his government was "really Communism"–despite the fact he was repeatedly returned to office in internationally certified elections (Extra!, 11-12/06) that Jimmy Carter deemed "the best in the world" (Guardian, 10/3/12).
Apart from the overheated claims about terrorism and his growing military threat to the region (FAIR Blog, 4/1/07), media often tried to make a simpler case: Chávez wasn't good for Venezuelans. The supposed economic ruin in Venezuela was a staple of the coverage. The Washington Post editorial page (1/5/13) complained of "the economic pain caused by Mr. Chávez," the man who has "wrecked their once-prosperous country." And a recent New York Times piece (12/13/12) tallied some of the hassles of daily life, declaring that such
frustrations are typical in Venezuela, for rich and poor alike, and yet President Hugo Chávez has managed to stay in office for nearly 14 years, winning over a significant majority of the public with his outsize personality, his free-spending of state resources and his ability to convince Venezuelans that the Socialist revolution he envisions will make their lives better.
Of course, Venezuelans might feel that Chávez already had improved their lives (FAIR Blog, 12/13/12), with poverty cut in half, increased availability of food and healthcare, expanded educational opportunities and a real effort to build grassroots democratic institutions. (For more of this, read Greg Grandin's piece in the Nation—3/5/13.)
Those facts of Venezuelan life were not entirely unacknowledged by U.S. media. But these policies, reflecting new national priorities about who should benefit from the country's oil wealth, were treated as an unscrupulous ploy of Chávez's to curry favor with the poor. As the Washington Post (2/24/13) sneered, Chávez won "unconditional support from the poverty-stricken masses" by "doling out jobs to supporters and showering the poor with gifts." NPR's All Things Considered (3/5/13) told listeners that "millions of Venezuelans loved him because he showered the poor with social programs."
Buying the support of your own citizens is one thing; harboring negative feelings about the United States is something else entirely. As CBS Evening News (1/18/13) recently put it, "Chávez has made a career out of bashing the United States." But one wonders how friendly any U.S. political leaders would be toward a government that had supported their overthrow.
Though this is often treated as another Chávez conspiracy theory–"A central ideological pillar of Chávez's rule over 14 years has been to oppose Republican and Democratic administrations in Washington, which he accuses of trying to destabilize his government," the Washington Post (1/10/13) reported–the record of U.S. support for the coup leaders is clear.
As a State Department report (FAIR Blog, 1/11/13) acknowledged, various U.S. agencies had "provided training, institution building and other support to individuals and organizations understood to be actively involved in the brief ouster of the Chávez government." The Bush administration declared its support for the short-lived coup regime, saying Chávez was "responsible for his fate" (Guardian, 4/21/09).
Of course, as with any country, there are aspects of Chávez's government that could be criticized. U.S. media attention to Venezuela's flaws, however, was obviously in service to an official agenda–as documented by FAIR's study (Extra!, 2/09) of editorials on human rights, which showed Venezuela getting much harsher criticism than the violent repression of the opposition in U.S.-allied Colombia.
In reporting Chávez's death, little had changed. "Venezuela Bully Chávez Is Dead," read the New York Post's front page (3/6/13); "Death of a Demogogue" was on Time's home page (3/6/13). CNN host Anderson Cooper (3/5/13) declared it was "the death of a world leader who made America see red, as in Fidel Castro red, Venezuela's socialist president, Hugo Chávez."
"The words 'Venezuelan strongman' so often preceded his name, and for good reason," declared NBC Nightly News host Brian Williams (3/5/13); on ABC World News (3/5/12), viewers were told that "many Americans viewed him as a dictator." That would be especially true if those Americans consumed corporate media.
The fact that U.S. elite interests are an overarching concern is not exactly hidden. Many reports on Chávez's passing were quick to note the country's oil wealth. NBC's Williams asserted, "All this matters a lot to the U.S., since Venezuela sits on top of a lot of oil and that's how this now gets interesting for the United States." MSNBC's Rachel Maddow (3/5/13) concurred: "I mean, Venezuela is a serious country in the world stage. It is sitting on the world's largest proven oil reserves."
And CNN's Barbara Starr (3/5/13) reported: "You're going to see a lot of U.S. businesses keep a very close eye on this transition in Venezuela. They're going to want to know that their investments are secure and that this is a stable country to invest in." Those U.S. businesses would seem to include its media corporations.