These are dizzying times in Latin America by any standard. Across the continent, voters have elected left-leaning governments that are trimming back free-market policies, bolstering regional economic alliances and reawakening a concern for social justice. Leaders like Néstor Kirchner (Argentina), Tabaré Vázquez (Uruguay) and Hugo Chávez (Venezuela) represent a significant political shift in the region–but they have distinct origins and cannot be generalized into a single phenomenon. Yet in their portrayals of events south of the border, the mainstream American media have tended to mirror the Bush Administration’s simplistic, knee-jerk responses to this wave of change.

The dramatic shift leftward can be seen as an entirely predictable response to years of economic failure, political corruption and unpopular US policies, especially the neoliberal economic model so associated with American-style capitalism it has been dubbed the Washington Consensus. Yet mainstream US media coverage has mostly reflected, rather than investigated, the failure of policy-makers to understand changes in the region. (There have been some notable exceptions, like a November 2005 article in Time, “Why Latin America Bashes Bush,” that actually tried to answer the question suggested by its title, and a Los Angeles Times editorial from the same month, “Respecting Latin America,” urging Washington not to overreact to regional change in ways reminiscent of the cold war.)

One recent example of US media bias involved the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which Congress approved in an agonizingly close vote last year. This was a controversial initiative from the start, yet the major papers did a remarkably poor job of analyzing the yeas and nays. Their editorial boards echoed the rhetoric of politicians who argued that rejecting CAFTA would condemn Central Americans to further impoverishment, undermine fledgling democracies and spur illegal immigration to the United States. The Washington Post editorial board took issue with critics who warned that CAFTA could hurt the poor, arguing that its defeat “would help not anti-poverty movements but anti-American demagogues.” This line of reasoning was summarized by President Bush at the agreement’s White House signing ceremony last August. CAFTA “is more than a trade bill; it is a commitment among freedom-loving nations to advance peace and prosperity throughout the region,” he said. “By strengthening the democracies in the region, [it] will enhance our nation’s security.”

In fact, most analysts agree that CAFTA’s economic benefits are likely to be modest at best. Still, the New York Times editorial board tried hard to pump them up, arguing that the agreement would create hundreds of thousands of jobs. Such rosy projections disguised the clearly differentiated effects of trade liberalization, particularly its negative impacts on already vulnerable groups like small farmers, indigenous people and the urban poor. The media also virtually ignored the track record of the agreement’s direct predecessor, the North American Free Trade Agreement. More than a decade after NAFTA’s passage, its economic record is mixed–in terms of manufacturing job loss in the United States as well as its devastating effect on Mexican farmers. Unfortunately, few newspapers saw fit to question the comments of Representative Jim Kolbe, who cited the positive example of NAFTA as a reason to approve CAFTA–in direct contradiction of evidence that the earlier agreement led to more rural poverty and migration in Mexico, not less.

The press made it sound like poor Central Americans had lined up in unison behind CAFTA but were being cheated of their just rewards by “protectionists” and greedy special interests like the US sugar industry. The conflation of public opinion with government positions and the interests of elites who stand to profit from the agreement was a classic example of what Noam Chomsky calls “manufacturing consent.” In fact, there were large anti-CAFTA demonstrations throughout Central America, but US media coverage of them was sparse; and the New York Times waited until after CAFTA had passed to run a decent article describing the range of concerns about it there. It was no surprise that the Bush Administration used an array of questionable tactics to squeeze CAFTA through Congress. More shameful was how a complacent press promoted such a controversial agreement.

Perhaps the most obvious example of skewed coverage of Latin America has been Venezuela. The editorial pages have featured a remarkable outpouring of fear and loathing toward President Hugo Chávez. Whatever else one thinks of him, Chávez has won two independently monitored elections–and he survived a 2002 coup and a 2004 presidential recall referendum, both of which received more than a strong whiff of US support. Yet major US newspapers have consistently demonized Chávez, labeling him a “quasi-dictator” and “strongman.” Columnists like the Washington Post‘s Jackson Diehl and the Miami Herald‘s Andrés Oppenheimer have wielded the sharpest hatchets. Diehl, for instance, labeled pro-Chávez social movements “anti-democratic” while lauding the anti-Chávez opposition, which used such tactics as distributing false exit poll results during the 2004 referendum.

Away from the opinion pages, recent news coverage of Venezuela has been highly critical. Several articles have scornfully questioned Chávez’s ambitious antipoverty agenda. In a cynical July 2004 piece, Juan Forero of the New York Times implied that this “spending spree” was mostly just a “tool for solidifying support for Mr. Chávez” among poor voters. And rather than report on any of the government’s successful projects, a January 2006 Times article focused on its failure to rebuild a road between Caracas and the airport. Less ink is spilled on where these social programs originated: a desperate need to address poverty that worsened during years of neoliberal policies and control of the nation’s oil wealth by a small elite.

The repeated failure of those policies across the continent is often ignored in the press, as when Journal columnist James Whelan bemoaned the decline of “free-market, pro-Western ideas in South America.” Another Journal columnist, Mary Anastasia O’Grady, blames Chávez and his allies in other countries for promoting “the kinds of policies that have consigned huge numbers of Latinos to a permanent state of poverty,” and the Post editorial board recently opined that Latin Americans “remain mired in confusion over economic models” because they are returning to statist policies that “have led repeatedly to catastrophe.” But the Washington Consensus has dominated the region for two decades; surely it deserves much of the credit for perpetuating poverty there.

The vitriol toward Chávez reflects a more general antipathy toward “leftist populism,” a phrase that is darkly associated with irrational policies and pandering to mob rule. With each new election of a left-leaning government, a raft of articles frame the electoral decisions as misguided or naïve and stoke fears of this or that leader as the next Latin caudillo. Unpredictable populist types are contrasted implicitly or explicitly with respectable conservatives like Colombian President Álvaro Uribe and pro-market social democrats like Michelle Bachelet, who was recently elected in Chile.

After Evo Morales became the first indigenous person to be elected president of Bolivia, last December, Forero reflected in the Times that though his opponent, Jorge Quiroga, “pledged to advance international trade, Mr. Morales promised to squeeze foreign oil companies and ignore the International Monetary Fund’s advice.” But if “squeezing” oil companies means renegotiating the terms under which they operate in Bolivia, and “ignoring advice” from the IMF might improve the dire economic situation there, what thoughtful leader wouldn’t consider these actions?

Parroting the Bush Administration line, journalists have linked recent political changes with a growing threat to democracy. It’s true that for many Latin Americans, decades of formal democracy, with its political parties and election campaigns, appear to have done little to reduce the hardships of daily life. (This might explain why, in a 2004 United Nations poll, 60 percent of Latin Americans said they would willingly trade democracy for economic development.) Yet the rise of the new left across Latin America has been the direct outcome of an exercise in–guess what?–electoral democracy. Much of the region may be moving toward a stronger version of it (a recent poll by the respected Chilean firm Latinobarometro shows that more Venezuelans rate their country as “totally democratic” than citizens of any other Latin American country). Citizens and their new leaders have pressed for genuine political representation rather than rule by a revolving door of oligarchic interests; for a tempering of untamed markets with greater concern for social justice; and for a broader distribution of benefits from valuable resources like oil and gas that have long provided windfall profits to multinational corporations.

Washington’s hostility toward the recent changes echoes a wave of earlier suspicion of the likes of Cuba’s Castro, Nicaragua’s Ortega and Chile’s Allende. It also reflects unease at declining US influence in the region. The Post‘s Diehl gripes about Venezuela “buying the support of” other Latin American governments with subsidized oil, and an April 4 article in the New York Times prods Chávez for “spending billions of dollars of his country’s oil windfall on pet projects abroad.” Nothing is said about Uncle Sam’s own long history of handing out carrots and wielding sticks in the region.

All these changes are coming in a continent that emerged only recently from decades of death squads, armed rebellions and military dictatorships, many of which were openly backed by a US government that had not yet found its current religion about “democracy.” So it’s strange to hear David Rieff (in a New York Times Magazine article about Morales) argue that the return of the left across Latin America “is more a sign of despair than of hope.” Rather than giving this dramatic period of change the thoughtful treatment it deserves, the mainstream US media too often sound like a mouthpiece of Wall Street and the State Department. Given the crucial role of the press in questioning orthodoxy and shaping public opinion, this failure to take Latin Americans and their concerns more seriously is tragic indeed.