Violence in Venezuela dominated the front pages of American newspapers on April 12, 2002, with the story that President Hugo Chávez had resigned and that the military had installed a civilian businessman as the country's new leader. American journalists reporting from Caracas attributed this development to a popular uprising led by commoners disgusted with a pseudo-Castro's ways. With little exception, no one questioned whether the events that ended the Chávez government were what many Chávez supporters claimed: a coup.
These same American papers published a vastly different perspective two days later, however, when Chávez and his supporters retook control of Venezuela. What the papers had written in their original stories as a Chávez "resignation" was now being reported as a "coup." Major metropolitan dailies even apologized for the shoddy coverage in their original dispatches, openly admitting their mistakes in not considering Chávez's disposal a coup despite the overwhelming evidence supporting such a conclusion.
This reversal of coverage is absent in Donnacha O'Briain and Kim Bartley's The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, which screens Sunday at the Centro Cultural de México in Santa Ana. This otherwise fine 2003 documentary ably shows through television broadcasts how Venezuelan media barons distorted events so that people thought Chávez was a madman rather than the victim of a hostile takeover. But the more urgent conclusion that Americans should glean from the chaos—one not dealt with by the documentary—is how the American foreign press corps' botched stories are indicative of problems in an industry in which fewer reporters cover the world for a growing readership.
In a country with nearly 1,500 daily newspapers and 7,700 weeklies, only 12 American newspaper organizations had reporters in Caracas at the time of the coup and countercoup. Such a miniscule number meant that the subsequent dissemination of the events to readers was based on the observations of no more than a dozen people.
And their observations were terrible. Take, for example, the curious use of adjectives to describe coup leader Pedro Carmona. Amazingly, nearly every American newspaper with a correspondent in Venezuela used similar adjectives in describing Carmona, from "mild-mannered" (Boston Globe, The New York Times, Los Angeles Timesand the Associated Press) to "buttoned-down" (Chicago Tribune) and "respected" (Dallas Morning News, Newsday, Houston Chronicleand United Press International). (The Revolution Will Not Be Televised depicts Carmona, more acccurately, as an oaf.) The uniform description of Carmona wasn't based on any actual reporting but rather on plagiarism: an April 12 Associated Press dispatch on the coup—the first American report out of Venezuela—described Carmona as "mild-mannered."
The most disturbing byproduct of the limited American press presence in Venezuela, however, was the almost universal refusal by any newspaper to call the events a coup. In the first batch of stories to come out of Venezuela, the word coup was mentioned only when noting that Chávez had led a 1992 coup, that Chávez's allies called his removal from office a coup, or that coup leaders denied orchestrating a coup. Indeed, every American paper save for the Miami Heraldfollowed the lead of the Venezuelan press and reported to readers that Chávez resigned under his own will.
Why did American journalists refrain from calling the April 12 chaos a coup and prettify the notorious Carmona, who left Venezuela in disgrace soon after Chávez retook his rightful position? Obviously, there are some lazy American journalists in South America, but such a small number of reporters coupled with the unique nature of foreign press coverage ensured that the "official" story became the story.
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Homegrown manipulation of American reporters abroad is a given. "My observation is that U.S. foreign correspondents abroad spend a great deal of time reading the local press," one American diplomat told Bernard Cohen in his 1963 study The Press and Foreign Policy. "First he must read up to a dozen or more newspapers, of many different political opinions—just to keep posted on what's going on." And American journalists were at the whim of the Venezuelan press, who eagerly fed them fake information, a point The Revolution Will Not Be Televised shows well. By relying on the foreign press, then, what anti-Chávez Venezuelan media owners wanted the world to know about their country was printed by the American press with little thought given to Chávez supporters or even sources not aligned with the Chávez opposition.
Mainstream journalists wildly backtracked from their original reporting once Chávez retook power, thanks to the firsthand accounts of the events (including critiques of the mainstream press coverage) offered by such independent websites and organizations as VHeadline.com, Narconews.com, the Indymedia network and Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. New York Times opinion page editor Gail Collins even wrote to Narconews.com apologizing for the Gray Lady's shoddy job. "Nobody should ever cheer the overthrow of a democratically elected government," Collins wrote on April 16, 2002. "You're right, we dropped the ball on our first Venezuela editorial."
With the chains' escalating buyout of independent American papers—the Orange County Register was nearly sold to Gannett last year—and more corporate cost-cutting moves that result in the shuttering of foreign bureaus, expect the mainstream American press to continue dropping the ball.
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised was directed by Donnacha O'briain and Kim Bartley, and produced by David Power. It screens at The Centro Cultural De México, 1522 S. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 953-9305. Sun., 3 P.M., $3 Suggested Donation. All Ages.