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The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth on Venezuela?

By: Victoria L. Henderson - @vlhenderson - Mar 24, 2014, 10:52 am

EspañolMark Weisbrot is a man on a mission to correct misinformation about Venezuela.

Co-founder of the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), Weisbrot has repeatedly petitioned the North American press for more accurate coverage of the Venezuelan regime.

featured-henderson-vzla-coverage
Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research defends the Chavista regime on state broadcaster China Central Televsion.

Weisbrot insists that amidst the complexities of the Venezuelan crisis there are factual questions about which all reasonable analysts can and should agree “independent of whether one is sympathetic to the opposition or the government, or to neither.”

It is a valid claim. The question is whether Weisbrot is prepared to uphold it.

A quick review of Weisbrot’s own work reveals not only that he commits the same infelicities of reporting for which he so routinely criticizes others, but also that he seems to absolve Venezuela’s state media from adhering to the same journalistic standards that he sets for mainstream rivals.

Weisbrot’s latest tussle with the press concerns a New York Times article that he says unfairly “trashes the [Venezuelan] government for ‘combative tactics’ and ‘cracking down’ on protesters.”

Seeking to counter the Times’ allegation of state-sanctioned repression in Venezuela, Weisbrot advances a two-step argument to legitimize the state position. First, he says, it is necessary to understand that there are “violent elements” among the protestors. This, combined with the fact that Venezuela has a staggeringly high homicide rate, Weisbrot continues, makes pre-emptive action on the part of the Venezuelan state an arguably “prudent” response.

Never mind the distinctions between pre-emptive and excessive force, or the fact that Weisbrot’s argument conveniently twists the failure of the Venezuelan regime to control rampant violence into a defense of repression against those who protest to draw attention to this failure.

That’s too complicated for what Weisbrot wants, which is a straight presentation of the facts.

To that end, Weisbrot enumerates a list of victims associated with the protests. He groups victims into six categories: those “allegedly killed by security forces;” those “allegedly killed by civilians;” those who “appear” to have been killed by security forces, civilians, or protesters (one category each); and those who “died in circumstances that are too unclear to determine if they were really related to protests, but [who] are often included in press reports.”

In each instance, Weisbrot emphasizes the uncertainty of the identities of both aggressors and victims using qualifiers such as “alleged,” “appears,” and “unclear.” Then, appealing to the very tactics that animate his dogged criticism of others, Weisbrot arrives at a stunning conclusion: “the statistics show that more people have died at the hands of protesters than security forces.”

From Weisbrot’s own enumeration of victims and aggressors, the data is inconclusive in every respect, yet he spins his speculation about the state-to-protester aggressor ratio as if it were a statement of fact. Again, this is exactly the type of reporting that has Weisbrot crying foul against the mainstream press.

In early March, for example, Weisbrot took the New York Times to task for reporting Venezuela’s actual (56 percent) and “implied” (300 percent) inflation rate. Calling implied inflation a “bogus statistic” that “violates standard economic reporting,” Weisbrot expressed concern that the circulation of such misinformation by Venezuela’s opposition “could have a significant influence on the actual dynamic of inflation in Venezuela.”

Surely if Weisbrot recognizes the potential dangers of misreporting inflation figures in Venezuela he also understands the risks of passing off speculation as fact when it comes to assigning blame for protest-related violence, especially given the difficulties inherent in classifying victims and aggressors.

Weisbrot argues that there is no evidence to support the opposition claim that protestors have been killed by armed civilians operating as paramilitary collectives (colectivos) in the service of the state. Ignoring the fact that the government has tasked communal groups with policing and defending the Bolivarian Revolution and that Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro specifically called colectivos into the street to “snuff out” opposition protests, Weisbrot maintains “it is most likely these armed civilians are acting on their own.”

This allows Weisbrot to distance armed civilians from the state and thereby to depoliticize the deaths of protesters. By contrast, Weisbrot does not classify protesters as civilians with the capacity to act independently but rather identifies them as a distinct and homogenous category of aggressor. No reason is given for this analytic sleight of hand.

If Weisbrot is serious about the importance of accuracy in reporting, he should issue a correction addressing these analytical vagaries and explaining that his statement regarding the balance of aggression in Venezuela is not substantiated by the evidence he presents.

Moreover, Weisbrot should demand Venezuela’s state media adhere to the same standards set for the mainstream press.

Last week, Venezuela’s state broadcaster, Venezolana de Televisión (VTV), reported that “vandalism carried out by right-wing groups in certain areas of the country has caused the deaths of 31 people since February 12.” Not even Weisbrot, whose sympathies with the Venezuelan regime are well known, has dared suggest that Venezuela’s “right-wing” opposition is responsible for all of the deaths associated with the current protests.

VTV’s clearly misleading claim urges Weisbrot’s trademark scrutiny.

Consider that Weisbrot took the New York Times to task in February for what he regards as a misleading article suggesting that the sale last year of Venezuela’s leading opposition broadcaster, Globovisión, left critics of the Venezuelan regime without a regular media presence. While Weisbrot agrees with the Times that Globovisión has “softened” its news coverage, he maintains that opposition views have not been silenced and that the shift in news coverage simply “adheres to the journalistic norm that there should be some balance.”

Source: MoveOn.org.

Weisbrot’s argument won over more than 14,000 people who signed a petition calling on the Times to correct its “false report” about media bias in Venezuela. According to the signatories, such erroneous reporting only “emboldens the faction of the opposition – and its supporters abroad – that is advocating the use of violence to oppose the government.”

The petition was successful. The Times issued a correction clarifying that the space for opposition voices in Venezuela was reduced but not eliminated following the sale of Globovisión.

Now it is time for Weisbrot and VTV to make clear whether the “journalistic norm” of accuracy and balance in reporting applies equally to Venezuelan state media and its sympathizers.

Victoria L. Henderson Victoria L. Henderson

A former print journalist and magazine editor, Henderson is a PhD Candidate (ABD) at Queen’s University and a director at the Institute for Social and Economic Analysis in Ontario, Canada. She holds degrees in Spanish & Latin American Studies and Geography. Follow @vlhenderson, and read more of her featured PanAm Post column, "The Northern Passage."