Cold war journalism made a comeback last month. On April 11 Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was ousted in an ill-fated coup attempt. On April 14 he returned in triumph to the presidential palace. During the interregnum, the New York Times published an editorial celebrating the dethroning of a "would-be dictator." In what the Times called "a purely Venezuelan affair," Chávez, "a ruinous demagogue," stepped down "after the military intervened and handed power to a respected business leader, Pedro Carmona." The editorial itself was news in Latin America. The next day, the Mexico City daily La Jornada's front-page headline read, The New York Times Celebrated the Fall of a 'Would-Be Dictator.'
When Chávez, riding a wave of populist fury, reclaimed the presidency, the Times backpedaled, confessing on April 16 that it had "overlooked the undemocratic manner in which he was removed. Forcibly unseating a democratically elected leader, no matter how badly he has performed, is never something to cheer." Replying to a critical e-mail from Jules Siegel of Cancun, Mexico, editorial page editor Gail Collins admitted, "You're right, we dropped the ball on our first Venezuela editorial."
The Times was not the only US newspaper to drop the ball. On April 13 Long Island's Newsday published an editorial headlined Chávez's Ouster Is No Great Loss. Four days later, another editorial acknowledged, "Like him or not, Chávez had won his post in a free election and should be removed only by constitutional means." Few newspapers matched the rhetorical venom of the Chicago Tribune, which lashed Chávez on April 14 for "toasting Fidel Castro, flying to Baghdad to visit Saddam Hussein, [and] praising Osama bin Laden." When Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting asked the Tribune to document its assertion that Chávez had praised bin Laden, the editorialist admitted he had "misread" his source–a Freedom House report. (The Tribune printed a correction on April 20.)
The journalistic missteps were numerous. Newspapers tended to accept the legitimacy of the short-lived provisional government of Pedro Carmona–"a mild-mannered businessman," "slight and meek," according to the Times. The Economist's characterization of Carmona's government as "a cabinet full of conservative fanatics which excluded labour" was closer to the truth. In addition, the initial editorials in the Times, Washington Post, Newsday and Chicago Tribune–along with many news articles and commentaries in publications including The Nation–blamed Chávez and his supporters for the gun violence that killed seventeen on April 11, whereas subsequent dispatches from Caracas have portrayed a firefight between pro- and antigovernment forces.
Most newspapers simply parroted the White House, which welcomed Chávez's overthrow and insisted that a "coup" had not taken place. "That is not a word we are using," an unnamed official told the Post on April 12. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer announced on the same day, "Chávez resigned." Leading newspapers were quick to embrace the official rhetoric. "President Hugo Chávez…resigned this morning," Scott Wilson wrote in the April 13 Post. Writing from Caracas, Times reporter Juan Forero avoided the word "coup"–except to note, ominously, that the Cuban government was using that term to define Chávez's ouster.
What to call it, then? Within the pages of the Times, a lively debate ensued. Writing from Santiago on April 13, Times correspondent Larry Rohter expressed satisfaction over Chávez's ouster ("Chávez was a left-wing populist doomed by habitual recklessness") and argued that Chávez's fall cannot "be classified as a conventional Latin American military coup." The next day, Times Mexico correspondent Tim Weiner ridiculed that claim in a pungent "Week in Review" article. "When is a coup not a coup?" asked Weiner. "When the United States says so, it seems." Rohter later reversed himself and used the word "coup" in his story about Chávez's resurrection, while also reassuring his readers that "there were no obvious American fingerprints on the plot that unseated Mr. Chávez."
On April 16, however, the Times published a front-page story by Christopher Marquis titled Bush Officials Met With Venezuelans Who Ousted Leader, in which a Defense Department official noted, "We were not discouraging people. We were sending informal, subtle signals that we don't like this guy." In a follow-up article on April 17, Marquis outlined a web of connections between US officials–including Otto Reich, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs–and the men who ousted Chávez. And on April 24 Marquis reported that the United States provided funds to the Venezuelan opposition through the National Endowment for Democracy. The Post's Scott Wilson subsequently noted that coup plotters Vice Adm. Carlos Molina and Col. Pedro Soto had "each received $100,000 from a Miami bank account for denouncing Chávez." By and large, though, news organizations have been slow to follow up on these revelations.
What explains the media's shoddy performance? Some see laziness and ignorance. "These people weren't thinking!" said Arturo Valenzuela, senior director for western hemispheric affairs in the second Clinton Administration. "Even if you're not really familiar with the situation in Venezuela, you ask yourself: Where did Carmona come from? Is he the vice president? Did the Senate appoint him?" Others see a deferential attitude toward the Bush Administration. "There is no love for Chávez among most policy-makers, and it spills over into the editorial pages, I think," says Marquis of the Times, whose articles enraged the White House. For Valenzuela, the press's timidity had much to do with the war on terror: "The newspapers have been pulling their punches on anything that could be viewed as going against national interests after September 11," he says. Marquis himself, who is based in Washington, feels the chill. "I think you perhaps run your story ideas through an additional filter: Will this somehow compromise national security? Is this going to jeopardize American interests?"
Some news organizations, in their initial response to the Venezuela situation, didn't allow "national security" concerns to stand in the way of criticism. A San Francisco Chronicle editorial affirmed that "Chávez was…occasionally a bully. But he repeatedly won democratic elections. The United States must stay true to its principles and condemn his overthrow." The Los Angeles Times, which waited until the dust settled before passing judgment, spoke with cool-headed authority on April 17: "The United States, proclaimed champion of democracy, embarrassed itself by not denouncing the coup and was further shamed by the revelation that Bush Administration officials had talked to the Venezuelan opposition for months before the coup." Concluded the LA Times, wisely: "Whatever its intentions, the White House failed to stay on the side of democracy."