The Hugo Chavez Show: the other side

25 April, 2009 – Green Left

On April 21, SBS screened two documentaries about Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution he is leading. One of them was The Hugo Chavez Show, produced by Frontline, a program on the US-based PBS channel.

Below we reprint a letter from Steve Ellner, professor at the Universidad de Oriente in Venezuela, who is a respected commentator on Venezuelan politics and one of the people interviewed in the The Hugo Chavez Show. His letter was written shortly after the documentary was first screened in the US.

In it he exposes the biased, anti-Chavez nature of the documentary and asks the question: ‘Why is the US media incapable of presenting the other side when it comes to Chavez’s Venezuela?’

On November 25 PBS’s Frontline broadcast its 90 minute The Hugo Chavez Show. The Frontline team contacted me when they were here in Venezuela about five months ago and paid my fare to Caracas as well as hotel and daily expenses in order to interview me.

In the filmed interview, I spoke of a new model that is emerging that, for example, promotes popular participation, emphasises the communities, nationalises strategic sectors of the economy, excludes the business sector from cabinet positions, and forces the wealthy to pay income tax.

None of this analysis was used, even though they told me at the time they were very impressed by what I had to say. Instead I appear on two occasions making some brief, innocuous statement.

From the very outset it is evident that Frontline is presenting a line, namely that Chavez is a media pro (‘the first virtual president of the twenty first century’), but that his rule has been a disaster.

Nearly everybody interviewed, both politicians and analysts, are anti-Chavistas, including many who are known for being aggressively anti-Chavez.

The guy that talks the most is Teodoro Petkoff who is introduced as a left-wing journalist, thus making it seem as if Chavez is getting it from all sides.

How can Petkoff be described as left-wing if he was one of the main architects of the neoliberal policies of the [1994-1999] Caldera administration? It’s like calling Clinton a leftist.

There is no discussion at all of popular participation in decision making. The two-month general strike [in 2002-2003], according to their version, was broken thanks to a guy named Wilmer Ruperti (few have heard about this guy here) who contracted private shipping companies and went on to become one of Venezuela’s richest people.

No talk at all about the popular mobilisations that were essential to the government’s success. Also, anyone listening to the program who knows nothing of Venezuela is left with the impression that Chavez indeed resigned on April 11, 2002. That, of course, is a flat lie.

Why is the US media incapable of presenting the other side when it comes to Chavez’s Venezuela?

I do not object to the version that they present and the occasional errors (which I find less disturbing).

What disturbs me most is that they make no effort to present the pro-Chavez side, or an analysis (such as my own) that talks of problems and downsides but also interesting and positive developments.

Isn’t the media morally obliged to present both sides of the story? Isn’t a program like this one unethical from a journalistic viewpoint?

Some progressives say that the problem with the media is that everything is reduced to sound bites. Well here is a case of a 90-minute program in which the media had all the time in the world to present both sides (actually there are more than two sides to Chavismo), and instead they present a consistent line.

It makes you wonder why these guys ever complained about alleged ‘monolithic Communism’.

From: Comment & Analysis, Green Left Weekly issue #792 29 April 2009.

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