Unplugging RCTV: Analyzing the Aftermath

by Rick Rockwell

Recriminations, charges and counter-charges are flying more than two weeks after Venezuela unplugged its oldest TV network. In this propaganda war, the rhetoric is so hot, it could bend steel.

Until the next round in the Venezuelan media war, perhaps it is time to put the spin in slow motion and to deflate the hyperbole on both sides.

First, to the left side of the political spectrum where some are proving the conservative caricature of knee jerk liberalism may indeed exist. If President George Bush and his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice say Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez is bad, then knee jerk logic holds that whatever Chavez does is good. Never mind that Bush and Chavez may be cut from the same autocratic cloth.

Enter Robert McChesney. For those who may be unfamiliar with McChesney, he is the leading academic voice against corporate media in the United States. But he’s a late-comer when it comes to Latin America. So, he’s brought along co-author Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research to give him some heft internationally.

Their article arguing for the RCTV shutdown hinges on three main arguments, which are mostly correct. But their final point veers off to repeat almost word for word the stand of the Chavez government, that RCTV can establish a cable or satellite network and that Venezuela has better conditions for free expression now than even the United States. Of course, this is classic propaganda. After using factual arguments, McChesney and Weisbrot slip in those whoppers. If Venezuela’s media system was compromised before Chavez (as Elizabeth Fox, a real media expert on Latin America has argued) and during Chavez’ first term (as Jose Antonio Mayobre, a Venezuelan expert, has argued) then how did it suddenly transform into one of the most free in the world? Could closing RCTV alone have done that? And finally, how many Venezuelans can pay to watch a cable or satellite network when about 70 percent of the country exists on about two dollars a day?

Then there is Justin Delacour of the Latin America News Review. His analysis actually cuts to some of the core issues: race and class. But you have to wade through the cheap shots about protesters having designer fingernails and not seeming original to get to his points. (Who cares if protest movements borrow from Berkeley and Madison in the 1960s?)

But the information on the conservative right is no better. Look at the analysis from Andres Oppenheimer, the supposedly visionary columnist for The Miami Herald. (Oppenheimer predicted Fidel Castro would be leaving power soon…in 1993.) Reporting from the summit of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Panama, Oppenheimer breathlessly tells us that Chavez has triumphed because not enough nations spoke out against the RCTV shut down. Never mind that governments around the world condemned Chavez and you could find anti-Chavez cartoons as far away as India. Oppenheimer’s column is designed to rally the right-wing troops to the battlements, lest Chavez ultimately win. But even a right-wing outlet such as Venezuela’s El Universal has more balance in its coverage. That paper noted general concern for RCTV was voiced on many fronts at the summit, although Chavez apparently won’t give permission for an OAS task force to visit Venezuela.

Then there’s conservative Thor Halvorssen (writing in The New York Post) who is so upset about RCTV that he is tearing into one of the other corporate television bosses in Venezuela, Diego Cisneros, the owner of Venevision. On the right, Cisneros is now regarded as a traitor because he did not forcefully join with RCTV as he did in the failed 2002 coup against Chavez. And with RCTV out of the way, Venevision, the country’s top network is further poised to consolidate its already overwhelming ratings advantage. Halvorssen calls RCTV’s owner Marcel Granier a hero, disregarding his traitorous actions in 2002.

So when it comes to Chavez and Venezuela, be careful what you read. The word on the far left inevitably repeats the position of the government without question, and the conservatives sound like wounded, panicked animals. We now return you to the world of spin where the information may not always be straight, but it makes for very entertaining reading.

For more background on this story, please see these previous entries:

(Photo of a march in support of RCTV in Caracas by Agência Brasil, the government news agency of Brazil; the photo is available using a Creative Commons license.)

Add to Technorati Favorites

Subscribe in a reader


Julia_1984 said...

This post its quite great and inusually objective. I'm tired of follow the news in my country as two extremes of the political spectrum who never dare to take the events as a whole not because they dont wanna be objective or good journalist, but because before telling the news they consider more important neither defend Bush or Chavez. I would like to know your opinion on this article: http://truckdriver.blog-city.com/wwwhandsoffvenezuelaorg_97.htm,I'm just tired of journalist who are also political activist and dont have any idea of how to put things into their place.
PS: Excuses about my bad english

Rick Rockwell said...

Welcome back Julia...

Please, no need to apologize. We know how difficult it can be to write in another language.

That article has an obvious political tone.

Yes, agreed, imperialism from the U.S. and the U.K. has left its stamp on Latin America. Also, I am no fan of the Cuban boycott, because it is counterproductive and you can see it gives the Cubans propaganda points.

But the Cubans can't really be preaching democracy to anyone. The pity is that folks on the far left still buy this.

And yes, we need to acknowledge that the Chavez government has far more popular support than perhaps Blair and Bush combined, at least on a percentage basis. However, that doesn't give Venezuela's president license to ignore international treaty obligations, the rule of law, or due process.

Mark Weisbrot said...

Dear Rick,

thanks for citing our article. This part of your post was inaccurate:

"But their final point veers off to repeat almost word for word the stand of the Chavez government, that RCTV can establish a cable or satellite network and that Venezuela has better conditions for free expression now than even the United States."

The Chavez government has made many statements about the RCTV case I haven't heard them say anything about RCTV establishing a cable or satellite network.

I guess you were looking for a way to discredit our arguments and figured that calling it a "word for word" repetition of a foreign government and "propaganda" would do the trick.

If you go to Venezuela you will see that there is in fact a much more oppositional media than we have here, with regard to both the oppositional nature and the range of views that reach a large audience (as opposed to the audience of a random blog or internet site) there is no comparison to the U.S.

Actually if you want to compare my position to a foreign government you might do better with Lula da Silva of Brazil, who said in reference to the RCTV case that a decision to not renew a broadcast license is just as democratic as to renew it. (Of course the US media did not report this statement, nor the statement of Lula's Workers' Party or Lula's top foreign policy advisor, both strongly supporting the Venezuelan government's decision). Although I also think it might be worth considering returning all public broadcast frequencies to the public, especially in the US. It would almost certainly be an improvement here -- I'm not sure why anyone who cares about the media prefers private monopolies to public access TV. As long as we have a democratic government -- and we do have a democracy here, however limited it is -- it's just a public choice about how we want to distribute these scarce, publicly owned resources.

Mark Weisbrot

Rick Rockwell said...

Thanks for weighing in here. I appreciate that you took the time to respond.

My citations were not clear about the Venezuelan government, but that does not render what I said as inaccurate. If you check my recent post ”Hugo Chavez v. The Media: Next Round you’ll see that the view that RCTV can set up a cable or satellite network (which you also propose) is the position of William Lara, Venezuela’s Minister of Information. You can also find that quoted by ”El Universal” in Caracas, along with other news outlets from weeks before RCTV was unplugged.

I can also report to you that representatives of the Venezuelan embassy have used these same lines of argument about the rights of RCTV and the freedom of the Venezuelan media system in public forums and presentations for months in Washington, including in presentations at American University. I have not created their position. That you are echoing their talking points and don’t realize it may be quite telling.

I was not reaching when I said your views were the views of the Venezuelan government, especially if they are the same positions as the Minister of Information. I don’t know a clearer definition for propaganda.

True, I have not been to Venezuela since Chavez’ first term but I stand by what I wrote. A polarized media system (as evidenced by the view in the first comment in this post by a Venezuelan) is far from one that truly represents all viewpoints in a democratic system. I respect the views of other researchers who have spent more time there who say the system has been flawed for decades and there is no evidence yet of major change. Yes, Chavez has taken steps to provide community media on a scale never before seen in his country. But the independence of those outlets is still questionable given their primary funding source remains the state.

Finally, I am no fan of an overly commercialized broadcast system, as many posts in this blog and my writing elsewhere can attest. My criticism is not that a duopoly should be maintained or that corporate media should be given special breaks. But no one should cede too much authority to the state just because that state is conveniently making sweeping changes that agree with that person’s policy views at least for now.

Mark Weisbrot said...

Well it was clear from your writings that you have not been to Venezuela during the last 8 years, so I'm glad you acknowledged that.

But that doesn't really bother me as much as the lack of logic in your argument. If the government of Venezuela says something that is true, and someone else also states the same facts, then this person is spewing "propaganda." By that logic, everyone in the US who argues against the US invasion or occupation of Iraq, or the abuses at Guantanemo, is putting forth the propaganda of – you pick: Iran, Brazil, Venezuela, Al-Qaeda?

I think I will not waste any more keystrokes here until you correct this mistake. If you want to have a discussion, you have to accept some basic rules of logic.

Rick Rockwell said...

So this is no longer a discussion of accuracy but logic? Because inaccuracies were found in your first comment, I guess it is so.

I may not have interviewed Chavez, as you have, but these days watching Telesur and reading reveals a lot. And I have interviewed key people on both sides of the issue, as we journalists have a tendency to do. (And those interviews have been done recently.) Even though I have not been in Venezuela for awhile (and it has not been as long as eight years) I think my background on Latin American media issues qualifies me to write on the subject.

A logical argument should stay on the facts at hand. So I’ll try to do that.

You feel Venezuela’s media are freer than U.S. media, just as some in the Chavez government have argued. I disagree. I think the statistics regarding criminal defamation, military intimidation, and other anti-media tactics speak for themselves (but if you want more, please see my earlier post ”Venezuela: Why Political Activists Don’t Get Free Expression,” which cites various international free expression groups.) Truly, media freedom is not what it was before Sept. 11, 2001 in the U.S., but I stand by my evaluation that we still have a better system in the U.S.

True, RCTV does have options. We agree there. But we disagree about the practical nature of those options.

However, the point is whether you were repeating propaganda about RCTV. The definition of propaganda according to Miriam-Webster: “ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one's cause or to damage an opposing cause.”

I think this debate reinforces all of my points, especially the opening lines of this post.

Jeff Siegel said...

This is all black comedy, right? Some Kafkaesque excursion into the Twilight Zone? Venezuela's press has more freedom than the U.S. media does? That's the kind of navel gazing that explains why the Left in this country is so screwed up and we have to suffer through Bush and the faux-Republicans at the DLC. Freedom of the press is like being pregnant. Either you have it or you don't. When the government closes TV stations, you don't. Chavez may be a leading anti-imperialist, anti-Bush populist, but that doesn't mean he believes in a free press. The two can be mutally exclusive. I happen to think Fox News is a travesty, a slur on every journalist who ever tried to honestly pursue her or his craft and that Rupert Murdoch is a danger to the Republic. But I don't believe Fox News should be closed or that Murdoch should be deported (and, by the way, I like to think of myself as an anti-imperialist, anti-Bush populist). The problem with being one of the good guys, and why it's so much more difficult to win battles if you're one of the good guys, is that you have to tell your friends when they are wrong. And the Left is wrong here. Instead of sticking up for Chavez, it should be trying to convince him to change his mind. That's what makes us different from the Fox Newses of the world.

Mike F., Portland said...

As Jeff suggests, a little pressure from outside can be effective. Pressure from inside is even better.

It worked in Pakistan, sort of.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, June 9 (UPI) — Pakistan has withdrawn controversial curbs on the media following a series of protests across the country.

Information Minister Muhammad Ali Durrani announced Saturday that President Pervez Musharraf decided to withdraw an ordinance giving the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulation Authority the power to halt broadcasts, suspend licenses and even close offices of media outlets.

Anonymous said...

A Venezuelan commentator, call me PPK.

I feel that most foreign commentators on this matter fail to address key weaknesses of the Venzuelan government's position:
First, Whether in fact RCTV's concession had actually expired. RCTV maintains that if the government had fulfilled its legal obligation to transform RCTV's existing concession into an administrative enablement as was required by the 2000 Telecomm law when RCTV filed the required documentation, RCTV would have enjoyed another 20 years of broadcast. This matter is still open to final judicial decision. The government's decision not to renew a concession when its expiration is being questioned before the courts is prejudicial.
Second, assuming that the concession had indeed expired, what are the government's reasons not to renew it? They offer three main reasons:
That the government had a constitutional mandate to set up a public service TV. The problem with this argument is that the government already owns a national VHF broadcast tv station (VTV). Obviously if RCTV's spectrum was needed to set up a public service TV station, what is the role of VTV? It follows then that VTV is not a public service station... Then what is it? Commercial? Or rather a one sided political instrument paid with taxpayer's money as the opposition argues?
The second argument is that RCTV supported the 2002 coup. Problem: Venevisión, RCTV's main competitor had an even greater role in the april 2002 events, but Venevisión's concession was renewed one or two days BEFORE RCTV's expired. The only obvious difference between both TV stations is the Venevisión changed its editorial stance completely and now has become an open supporter of the government. Note that several key political figures of the government's party have declared to CNN that Venevisión's concession was renewed because VV"rectified" its stance.
This seems to show that the real reason for not renewing RCTV's concession was essentially political.
The third argument was that RCTV was in violation of numerous telecomm regulations. The fact is that RCTV had been found in breach of regulations in the past, and it had paid all applicable fines. It does not follow that RCTV should be punished twice for the same faults. The government also claims that several investigations that could lead to penalties against rctv were open. However, the government fails to mention that its own actions are bound by the presumption of innocence granted by the constitution, therefore if the non-renewal as punishment would be unfair as RCTV must be presumed innocent until found guilty and no such finding has been made yet.
The question then is: Does political support of a government (63% majority) justify that said government exercise its power in manner that is discriminatory for political reasons? Isn't the principle of non-discrimination superior to the vagaries of popular support? Shouldn't progressive minded commentators hold that principle above their ideological preferences?

© iVoryTowerz 2006-2009

Blogger Templates by OurBlogTemplates.com 2008