by Murtaza Hussain, The Intercept
March 14, 2013 (TSR) – The Washington Post’s Feb. 19 article about the recent spate of unrest in Venezuela took a breathlessly laudatory stance towards the opposition against President Nicolás Maduro. The opening paragraphs offer a good indication of its tenor:
Leopoldo López, the defiant Venezuelan opposition leader taken into custody Tuesday in front of thousands of anti-government protesters, spent last night in a prison on a military base.
But even there, the government couldn’t shut him up….
It was the kind of passionate, personal appeal and call to action that showed exactly why the Harvard-educated López has been at the center of the most serious challenge yet to the struggling Maduro, successor to the late Hugo Chávez.
The piece continues in a similarly effusive manner throughout; but what’s most interesting about it are the sources which the authors choose to cite as impartial experts. Not only do they appear hostile to the Venezuelan government and supportive of the opposition, they also appear to have serious, unstated conflicts of interest that cast doubt on the integrity of the Washington Post‘s entire reportage on this issue.
At one point, the article quotes Michael Shifter “president of Inter-American Dialogue, a think-tank in Washington”, as giving the following analysis of the situation: “López is saying, ‘this is intolerable, let’s not be resigned to it.’… He felt this wasd his moment to act, to take to the streets.” Going further, the piece also quotes Moisés Naím – omitting to mention that he too is a member of the Inter-American Dialogue – excoriating the previous opposition leader for not going far enough in challenging Maduro when he had the opportunity.
What the authors failed to explain is that the Inter-American Dialogue is a think-tank whose members happen to include several officials from Venezuela’s previous government – the same one electorally deposed by Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution. Even more distressingly, the Dialogue counts among its funders organizations such as Exxon Mobil, Chevron, the U.S. government through USAID, and the embassies of Canada, Mexico and Guatemala among others.
That these groups have distinct political and financial interests in Venezuela casts some doubt on the impartiality of the viewpoints their funded analysts produce. Indeed, a 2006 diplomatic cable revealed by WikiLeaks uncovered the fact that U.S. officials were planning to implement a “5-point strategy” to undermine the Chavez government, specifically using USAID as a means to accomplish this. That USAID also happens to be a prime funder of the Inter-American Dialogue raises some serious questions about its unstated mission in the country.
For his part, Shifter has become a high-profile public critic of the Maduro administration in the mainstream press, where his organization is still depicted as a benign, “nonpartisan policy group”.
Indeed, a 2012 study by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) documented both Shifter’s political and corporate connections as well as the breadth of his reach in the media, remarking that, “What he says is very likely indistinguishable from the views of the monied interests backing his think tank.“ His appearance in the Washington Post last week was far from an aberration. He — along with others from the Dialogue — are regularly cited in articles on the region and Shifter himself has penned articles for the New York Times, Foreign Policy and others. In a 2005 op-ed in the Post he wrote:
Chavez is aggressively using rhetoric that bashes the Bush administration and claims the banner of social justice to consolidate his power…The challenge for U.S. policy is to contest the validity of Chavez’s claims and his grandiose but wrongheaded designs.
Not to be outdone, Moisés Naím also took to the pages of Post in 2011 to publish an article entitled “Imagining a World Without Hugo Chavez“, forecasting his death and the continued empowerment of his elected government. At one point, Naím laments American hesitance to involve itself more forcefully in Venezuelan politics due to its entanglements elsewhere saying:
[W]hat role would Chavez’s opponents play in a transition? These include the growing segment of Venezuela’s civil society that opposes him — especially the student movement and a new breed of young leaders — and, of course, the United States. In both cases, their influence would probably be limited: The former lacks guns, thugs or money; the latter is too busy dealing with crises elsewhere.
That the sources of this supposedly expert analysis are funded by corporations and governments openly hostile to the Venezuelan government, and which have even attempted its overthrow in the past, would appear to be a fairly glaring omission.
A Washington Post reader emailed the co-author of the story, Post staff writer Nick Miroff, asking why he didn’t explain the Inter-American Dialogue’s ties to Venezuela’s opposition and to business interests. In an email that made its way to The Intercept, Miroff wrote back that he didn’t think it necessary. (Contacted by The Intercept, Miroff confirmed the email was his, but said we did not have his permission to publish it. We don’t need his permission.)
Miroff wrote that he “quoted Michael Shifter for the simple reason that he’s a terrific Latin America analyst, and often has smart, thoughtful observations to share.” He pointed out that he stated in the story that Shifter had known Lopez for many years, “signaling to readers that he has a personal relationship with him.” He continued:
As for his organization receiving money from oil companies, or USAID, I think it’s relevant, but not necessarily worth spending ink on. A LOT of DC think tanks and universities and NGOs receive money from oil companies and other interests. Do we need to disclose all of those affiliations, every time? Chevron is one of the biggest foreign oil companies working in Venezuela and paying royalty $ to the government.
Miroff praised what he called “a good question,” but concluded that “I think in many cases it’s up to the reader to look up the organization and decide whether or not they think the comments are colored by donor interests. In Shifter’s case, I don’t believe they are.”
So there you have it: Because the infiltration of oil companies and other vested interests in policymaking has become so entrenched, there’s no point even mentioning it anymore. That Michael Shifter runs an organization funded by many of the same corporations and governments which have open conflicts with the Venezuelan government is apparently immaterial to him also providing expert analysis on political developments in Venezuela.
Even more incredibly, his colleague at the Inter-American Dialogue Moisés Naím was formerly Venezuela’s Minister of Trade and Industry during the tenure of President Carlos Andrés Pérez – a leader who was electorally deposed by Chavez and who presided over the massacre of hundreds of unarmed protestors in the country. Nonetheless, his commentary has been included without even the slightest acknowledgment of what appears to be a deeply prejudicial history.
None of this is written necessarily as a defence of the Venezuelan government or a commentary on events in that country, but rather to demonstrate the fundamental incapacity of the mainstream media to cover this story in a way that is not corrupted by corporate and political interests.
The corrosive influence of corporations and government in the news media has long been documented. The establishment press has demonstrated time and again its reflex to serve as a tool of powerful vested interests, and to act essentially as the communications arm of U.S. foreign policy. The Washington Post‘s coverage is just the most glaring and recent example of such behavior.
Murtaza Hussain is a journalist and political commentator. His work focuses on human rights, foreign policy and cultural affairs. Murtaza’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Globe and Mail, Salon and elsewhere. He is a staff writer for The Intercept.
First published in The Intercept.