The New York Times (4/7/13) reports that progress on the Iran nuclear negotiations appears rather bleak. But the piece, by David Herszenhorn, passes off a key fact as if it were a mere Iranian claim.
The article presents one take from Iran’s top negotiator, Saeed Jalili–along with a curt response from the U.S.:
“Of course, there is some distance in the position of the two sides,” Mr. Jalili said. But he said Iran’s proposals, which required recognizing “our right to enrich and ending behaviors which have every indication of enmity toward the Iranian people,” were designed “to help us move toward a constructive road.”
A senior American official called Iran’s demands unreasonable and “disproportionate.”
The piece elaborates:
Western countries fear that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, while Iran has insisted that its program is for peaceful purposes, including atomic energy and medical research, to which it claims a right as a signer of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
We’re accustomed to “Iran says X, the West says Y” in Iran coverage. But despite the evident confidence of the U.S., there is still no evidence that Iran is actually pursuing a weapons program.
But what of this idea that Iran “claims” a right to enrich uranium? That is, as Steve Rendall wrote for Extra! (9/05), a fact:
Under the NPT, non-nuclear-weapons countries agree not to pursue or possess nuclear weapons, while nuclear-armed countries agree to pursue disarmament and to share nuclear energy technology with the non-nuclear countries. (See Extra!, 7-8/05.) Under the agreement, non-nuclear-weapons states may develop nuclear programs, enrich uranium, etc., as long the programs are for non-military purposes and they are disclosed to the IAEA.
Another fact about the NPT that goes mostly unmentioned is that it calls on countries that possess nuclear weapons “to facilitate the cessation of the manufacture of nuclear weapons, the liquidation of all their existing stockpiles, and the elimination from national arsenals of nuclear weapons and the means of their delivery.”
But to the New York Times, Iran’s appeals to the treaty are “claims,” which can be challenged by anonymous U.S. officials (the “official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity,” which has become the State Department’s standard practice at the talks).
And while we’re on the subject of Iran, here’s a pretty revealing exchange from ABC‘s This Week (4/7/13)
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: The nuclear talks with Iran basically failed again. And you have to believe Iran is watching this as well, and says, ‘He’s got nuclear weapons, he has a stronger hand.’
MARTHA RADDATZ: Not only watching it, but I think there’s cooperation between North Korea and Iran. In fact, that’s something else General Thurman and other U.S. officials have told me.
STEPHANOPOULOS: What kind of cooperation?
RADDATZ: Cooperation on a nuclear program. Certainly North Korea wants money. And Iran wants nukes.
Huh. Anything else U.S. officials want you to share with the public, absent even a shred of skepticism?
TEHRAN – Pakistan rejected US media reports that the country has struck a deal with the CIA over a secret drone campaign in the tribal regions.
The New York Times has reported that Pakistan and the United States had signed the deal in 2004 and a US spy aircraft in its first strike had killed senior Pakistani Taliban commander Nek Muhammad in South Waziristan, Xinhua reported.
The CIA has since conducted hundreds of drone strikes in Pakistan that have killed thousands of people, Pakistanis and Arabs, militants and civilians alike, the paper said.
The Pakistan Foreign Ministry spokesman said that the story is baseless and a part of the propaganda to create confusion about the clear position of Pakistan on this matter.
“We have repeatedly affirmed that Pakistan regards the use of drone strikes as counterproductive,” the spokesman said while responding to a query regarding a story published in New York Times on an alleged deal on drones.
“It (drone strikes) violates Pakistan’s sovereignty and it violates International Law,” the spokesman said in a statement.
He said in a statement that there is now a growing debate in the international community to consider the legality and legitimacy of drone strikes.
The New York report claimed that Pakistan’s intelligence agency ISI and the CIA agreed that all drone flights in Pakistan would operate under the CIA’s covert action authority — meaning that the United States would never acknowledge the missile strikes and that Pakistan would either take credit for the individual killings or remain silent.
It should go without saying that all sides of any conflict should refrain from provocations. And when nuclear weapons are involved this rule becomes even more important. But judging from the decades-long conflict in the Korean Peninsula between North Korea and South Korea/U.S., it’s difficult to find this balanced view at The New York Times. In the more than one dozen NYT articles published in the last couple of months which were reviewed to analyze news coverage of the conflict the bias and disparity in language is quite revealing, though predictable (to this day readers will not find a NYT journalist who referred to America’s invasion of South Vietnam in 1963 as an “invasion”).
According to the “paper of record,” one thing stands out: only North Korea “threatens”:
- “North Korea Threatens U.S. Over Joint Military Drill” NYT, February 23, Choe Sang-Hun
- “North Korea Threatens to Attack U.S. With ‘Lighter and Smaller Nukes’ “ NYT, March 5, Choe Sang-Hun
- “South Korea Pushes Back on North’s Threats” NYT, March 6, Choe Sang-Hun
- “Threats Sow Concerns Over Korean Armistice” NYT, March 9, Rick Gladstone (The first sentence begins as such: “North Korea’s latest threats…” and nowhere in the article are threats attributed to South Korea, or the U.S.)
- “North Korea Threatens to Close Factories It Runs With South” NYT, March 30, Choe Sang-Hun and Gerry Mullany
- “North Korea Threatens to Restart Nuclear Reactor” NYT, April 2, Choe Sang-Hun and Mark Landler
The headlines jump out at you with the claim that we are threatened by a foe. The articles themselves hold true to these depictions, but anything “our” side has done, or is doing, does not receive similar treatment.
Massive military exercises in the Korean Peninsula by South Korea, along with 40,000 U.S. troops (BBC)? Apparently not a threat according to the NYT, but rather an “exercise.” In all but one of the six articles bulleted above—“North Korea Threatens to Restart Nuclear Reactor”—the NYT manages to acknowledge that North Korea is responding to these “war games,” in which “whenever they happen, North Korea warns of war,” but whether it is seen as a threat to the North is never considered, or explored.
South Korea saying it will destroy the North’s “command leadership”? The NYT calls it “pushing back.”
South Korea “break[ing] a decades-old taboo by openly calling for the South to develop its own nuclear arsenal”? Why, that’s just harmless “flirting.”
The U.S. running “two nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bombers on a practice sortie over South Korea”? NYT journalists Thom Shanker and Choe Sang-Hun write that the act “showed the United States’ ability to ‘provide extended deterrence to our allies in the Asia-Pacific region’ and to ‘conduct long-range, precision strikes quickly and at will.’ ”
The U.S. pushing for new sanctions at the UNSC? Just an “order.”
In other words, the U.S. and South Korea can escalate a confrontation and then feign shock and outrage when the North responds with more escalation. Since nuclear weapons are involved the NYT should be devoting more space to the U.S.’s and South Korea’s reckless escalations than North Korea’s predictable reactionary saber-rattling, or at least provide balanced coverage of it.
The NYT regularly confirms that North Korea is being reactionary, though the disparity in language remains. While North Korea “threatens,” South Korea “flirts” and the U.S. “deters.” Readers of the NYT should be curious why it is that such dangerous escalations with “the most unpredictable country in Asia” gets such silent and biased coverage. If the NYT was doing their job the politics of this conflict would be closely considered and evaluated in their news coverage. There is nothing that North Korea has done, or is doing, that the United States does not support or tolerate with its allies. Human rights abuses and nuclear weapons programs are common in allied countries like Saudi Arabia, Colombia, Israel, Rwanda, India, and elsewhere around the world, yet it is North Korea, who is not aligned with the United States, that is singled out with sanctions and military threats (much like Iran).
That the United States would risk a possible nuclear war with a country it sees as “Blustering, Not Acting” is as reprehensible as North Korea’s behavior. And this observation deserves a place in news coverage, and if it were it is conceivable that public opinion would not only be better informed, but would turn against Washington over its actions and policies. Here is a thought: Perhaps the editors of the NYT know this and are acting as public relations consultants for Washington. If that’s not the case then readers ought to ask: Then what gives?
The New York Times coverage of Hugo Chavez’ death was a bunker buster of misinformation.
The socialist left was plunged into a state of crisis last week when its leading advocate was felled by cancer. The death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez dealt a potentially crippling blow to the Bolivarian revolution’s hold on the Venezuelan nation. With their leader gone, Chavistas are scrambling to align their ranks behind Nicolas Maduro, an unimposing background figure in the Chavez narrative. And despite the stunning successes of the Chavez government—from a vertiginous drop in poverty to an equally dramatic rise in literacy, the establishment of a legislative apparatus designed to benefit the nation’s majority, and the nationalization of Venezuelan oil—the opposition is poised to renew its attack on the socialist experiment of the last decade and a half. Furious over repeated humiliations at the ballot box, the Venezuelan right, led by Henrique Capriles, is anxious to steer the country back to failed prescriptions of neoliberal economics, hoping to seize on an unexpected election to reclaim the presidency.
Naturally, few if any of the Bolivarian triumphs were mentioned in The New York Times ungenerous lead on the demise of the Venezuelan leader. Already, our leading propaganda daily has begun its historical revision of Chavez’ legacy. Its prejudiced coverage of the El Commandante’s death was remarkable only it what it elided from view—namely any of the progressive transformations the Bolivarian socialist engendered. Regarding the state of the nation, only a few conditions were noted. While vague mention was made that Chavez had “empowered and energized” millions of poor people, the print edition headline said Venezuela was a nation in “deep turmoil.” The digital edition brusquely mentioned, “high inflation and soaring crime,” as well as, “soaring prices and escalating shortages of basic goods.” While there is some truth to these claims—particularly in relation to crime—none of Chavez’ achievements were noted, an astonishing array of programmatic successes that have dwarfed the failures of his tenure.
But before adding anything else, let’s briefly look at the indictments delivered by the Times:
- After devaluing its currency in 2010, pundits predicted massive inflation. Instead, inflation declined for two years, while economic growth topped four percent both years. This is ignored. Nor does the article note Venezuela’s spiraling rate of inflation before Chavez took office—or that he has actually significantly reduced it. While prices rise with inflation, the government offers subsidized goods through weekly Mercal and also regularly adjusts minimum wage to match or exceed inflation, which increases consumer purchasing power, which itself has increased 18 percent in Chavez’ first decade in office.
- In stark contrast to improving economic numbers, Venezuela’s murder rate increased threefold during Chavez’ three terms in office, now third highest in the Americas, calling into question the effectiveness of police training. A new training program was launched in 2009, but has yet to produce results. The Bolivarian National Police, also launched in 2009, has lowered rates where it is active, but chronic problems continue to plague the country, particularly Caracas, including police corruption, biased judiciaries, the likelihood of not being prosecuted, the presence of millions of weapons, and the fact that Venezuela is a main thoroughfare for illegal drugs on their way to the United States.
- Food shortages are also present, another surprising condition in a country of declining poverty. Western critics naturally point to price controls as the cause, providing a typically ideological explanation for a problem that appears to have a more nuanced answer. Food consumption in Venezuela has exploded since Chavez took office in 1999. The population consumed 26 million tons of food in 2012, double the 13 million tons they consumed in 1999. The government suggests the shortages are a consequence of rapidly increasing consumption. Food production is up 71 percent since Chavez took office, but consumption is up 94 percent.
Claims without Context
A day later, the Times decided that its stinting initial coverage was too generous: it had merely listed the flaws in Venezuelan society. What it had failed to do was pepper the pot with a heavy dose of falsification. It then released a factless catalogue of misinformation that, when it wasn’t quoting louche academics, was irrigating the column with toxic dogma. It began, in its home page tout, with a headline about “Debating Chavez’s Legacy,” by author William Neuman. The sub-line anxiously opened the festivities with an elephantine distortion: “Venezuela had one of the lowest rates of economic growth in the region during the 14 years that Hugo Chavez was president.”
Well, after that opener, why bother writing a column? The case has already been made. Best to have the tout lead to a broken link, or redirect to Thomas Friedman hyperventilating about the glories of globalization on display in Indonesian sweatshops. But no, the Times were out for blood. This was no ordinary socialist. Chavez deserved a double-barreled dose of disinformation.
Regarding its initial claim that Venezuela had one of the “lowest rates of economic growth in the region during the 14 years that Hugo Chavez was president.” This statistic is taken from the World Bank. It is true. What it fails to mention is the nosedive the Venezuelan economy fell into when U.S.-backed, right-wing elites overthrew the democratically-elected Chavez in 2002. The economy fell at nine percent into 2003. Then there were devastating oil production shutdowns engineered by the same cadre of oppositionists when Chavez moved to nationalize the oil industry.
Despite this and other opposition attempts to sabotage the economy through food hoarding, price speculation, and other noble measures, the Times neither bothers to contextualize their claim nor balance it against the significant achievements of the Bolivarian government. If elements of socialism actually work, don’t the Times readers deserve to know about them? Evidently not, according to the editors, who see it as their duty to shelter their gullible readership from the facts. But consider these facts about Venezuela’s socialist experiment:
- Per capita GDP in Venezuela is up 50 percent since the coup.
- The Venezuelan economy was among the fastest growing Latin nations in 2012.
- Its economy has grown steadily for nine consecutive quarters.
- Inflation has been cut nearly in half since Chavez took office, when it was spiraling out of control thanks to the ever-efficient neoliberal private sector leadership.
A Legacy Belittled
The article then claims that Chavez’ massively attended funeral was “a tribute to the drawing power of the charismatic leftist leader, although perhaps not to the lasting influence of his socialist-inspired policies.” This line nicely inverts the obvious truth—the masses turned out precisely because of Chavez’ socialist-inspired policies. The policies the paper had given an unfair drubbing in the opening tout have driven consistent growth in society’s most impoverished sectors. Poverty has been reduced by 70 percent since Chavez won the presidency. Nutritional measures among the poor are up across the board, while strengthened pension programs, freely available healthcare, and an inflation-linked minimum wage are helping produce a viable workforce with growing purchasing power—a prerequisite of demand and economic expansion.
The paper then says Chavez’ revolution “remains more limited than he would have liked,” a spurious attempt to cast the Bolivarian revolution as a failure, when in fact, against most significant social and economic metrics, the socialist experiment exceeded itself. To reinforce this portrait of another foreclosed attempt to establish a socialist state, the Times trots out Alejandro Toledo, a former president of Peru. Toledo replaced the Peruvian strongman Alberto Fujimori, and was so unpopular—even though he succeeded one of the continent’s most vile authoritarians—that his approval rating dropped to six percent in 2004, when street rioting briefly paused to permit the survey. Here is Toledo:
“The important thing is that Mexico has not followed his example, Chile has not followed his example, Peru has not followed his example, Colombia has not followed his example, Brazil has not followed his example. I’m talking about big countries with large, sustained economic growth.”
Toledo, like the paper, obviates Chavez’ stunning impact on continental politics, an influence that has encouraged similar leftist triumphs in Ecuador, Argentina, Paraguay, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and others. Chavez convinced many of his regional colleagues of the dangers of forging discrete trade agreements with the United States—with NAFTA as the ne plus ultra in the category—and then promoted regional agreements among his Latin counterparts. Chavez worked to expand Mercosur into a continental trade platform, not simply that of South America’s southern cone. Then he established such inter-continental co-operatives as Telesur, PetroCaribe, and Petrosur, as well as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA).
With little left to criticize, and plenty of column width to fill, the author resorts to repetition and veiled attacks on socialism. The claim about Venezuela’s low rates of growth is repeated. Then the social flaws from the previous day’s coverage are hurried back into commission: high inflation, shortages of basic goods. High crime, bitter political divisions.
Then, in a turn both sour and childish, the Times concedes that “poverty went down significantly,” but quickly adds that, “other countries…made progress in reducing poverty while following paths very different from that of Mr. Chavez.”
A Brazilian academic then claims that governments in countries like Brazil have “a more balanced position” and that unnamed left-leaning governments are looking to its model and not Venezuela’s for guidance.
No evidence is offered for this claim. Nor does the Carioca academic mention what precisely is “balanced” about a Brazilian society in which the household income of the top one percent is equal to that of the bottom 50 percent of society.
After a short series of additional points—including the passing notation that masses of citizens marched for hours alongside Chavez’ casket—much is made of Chavez’ use of oil resources to build relations with other South American governments. The unstated claim: that Chavez bought his friends. An “energy fellow” at the Council on Foreign Relations, notes rather peevishly that “Venezuela’s influence in Latin America was built on the back of oil exports,” as if it is somehow bad form to play one’s cards in international affairs. And as if the United States hadn’t been bribing its way across the Middle East for the last decade.
There you have it: the disingenuous reality of The New York Times, a paper that disguises its bias behind a thin veneer of cool detachment and a studied use of non-inflammatory language, much like the paper’s bedmate in neoliberal apologetics, The Economist. The lengths to which the paper will go to discredit the creditable would be laughable if the paper weren’t so popular among self-proclaimed progressives. It is a powerful tool by which corporate power softens the blunt edges of austerity and disarms mainstream liberals with soothing messaging about good intentions and “balanced” approaches to economic development.
By rehearsing the standard refrains of American exceptionalism—a love of democracy, an abiding concern for the voiceless inhabitants of the developing world and the scourge of tyrants that seem forever to afflict them, and a noble need to extend our love of freedom to points south as well as the backward caliphates of the East—the Times tranquilizes would-be progressive protestors with the gentle rationalizations of corporate life—the ultimate virtue of which is the appearance of even-handedness. The kind of professorial restraint best represented by Obama, a façade the opposite of which—the dangerous passions of the oppressed—is frowned upon as “counterproductive” and known to be the bane of respectable men. And by respectable one may read fatally compromised.
Jason Hirthler is a writer, strategist, and 18-year veteran of the communications industry. He lives and works in New York City. He can be reached at email@example.com.
- “Humanity Has Lost a Titan”: Interview with William I. Robinson on the Legacy of Hugo Chavez (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Venezuelan Post-Chavez Roadmap to the Middle East (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- In the End, Awful Journalism (alethonews.wordpress.com)
Some days the Newspaper of Record says a lot–not always in ways you might expect.
Today (3/21/13) a story by Mark Landler and Rick Gladstone about allegations of chemical weapons in Syria includes something you see often–anonymous government sources. That can often be a bad thing; but today it’s pretty useful:
Two senior Israeli officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak, said that Israel was sure that chemicals were used, but did not have details about what type of weapons were used, where they came from, when they were deployed, or by whom.
A third senior official, also refusing to be identified, said, “It is possible that chemical weapons were used, or some concoction of chemical substances,” but he said he had not “seen clear confirmation.”
Why is this helpful? Because other Israeli officials, speaking publicly and for attribution, pretended to be more certain. From the very same Times piece:
Two senior ministers in Israel’s new cabinet said publicly on Wednesday that chemical weapons had been used, and several government officials said in interviews that Israel had credible evidence of an attack. The ministers, Tzipi Livni and Yuval Steinetz, were among those who met with Mr. Obama here on the first day of his trip.
Israeli officials provided no proof of their assertions but appeared more confident that chemical weapons had been used.
Ms. Livni, the new Israeli justice minister, said in an interview with CNN, “It’s clear for us here in Israel that it’s being used,” adding, “This, I believe, should be on the table in the discussions.”
Mr. Steinetz, the minister for strategic affairs, said on Israel’s Army Radio, “It’s apparently clear that chemical weapons have been used against civilians by the rebels or the government.”
So is the Times, in its own way, telling us not to trust the officials speaking on the record? That’s certainly one way to read the piece.
Elsewhere in the paper we learn that part of Barack Obama’s visit to Israel includes a look at the country’s “Iron Dome” missile defense system, which is funded by the U.S. government. In one story, by Mark Landler and Jodi Rudoren, we read this:
Mr. Obama was driven across the tarmac to inspect a battery of the Iron Dome air-defense system. The system, built by Israeli companies but financed by the United States, is credited with intercepting more than 400 rockets fired from Gaza at Israeli towns….
Israeli officials say that Iron Dome has been a huge success, intercepting 86 percent of the 521 incoming rockets it engaged in the Gaza conflict. Some American missile-defense experts have questioned that figure, putting the hit rate at closer to 10 percent.
So they either knock down almost every rocket, or almost none. That’s pretty unhelpful; but the Times has another piece that actually digs into the evidence (“Weapons Experts Raise Doubts About Israel’s Antimissile System”). According to this account, “a growing chorus of weapons experts in the United States and in Israel…suggest that Iron Dome destroyed no more than 40 percent of incoming warheads and perhaps far fewer.”
One former Pentagon official says there’s no system that is 90 percent effective. And the article, by William Broad, includes this:
Theodore A. Postol, a physicist at M.I.T. who helped reveal the Patriot antimissile failures of 1991, analyzed the new videos and found that Iron Dome repeatedly failed to hit its targets head-on. He concluded that the many dives, loops and curls of the interceptors resulted in diverse angles of attack that made it nearly impossible to destroy enemy warheads.
“It’s very hard to see how it could be more than 5 or 10 percent,” Dr. Postol said.
Mordechai Shefer, an Israeli rocket scientist formerly with Rafael, Iron Dome’s maker, studied nearly two dozen videos and, in a paper last month, concluded that the kill rate was zero.
Reading all of that, it’s hard to imagine anyone could really believe the Israeli claims about Iron Dome’s success rate.
So if you want to get a handle on Iron Dome, ignore the story on page 10 and pay attention to the story on page 11. And if you’re trying to figure out which Israeli officials to trust on the Syria chemical weapons story, the unnamed sources seem to be the ones who are more forthright about what they know.
That’s a lot to ask of readers, isn’t it?
The performance of the corporate media is one of the principal failures of the Iraq War. There are almost too many examples to name; but most critics agree that one of the most instrumental single pieces that made the false case for war was the front-page New York Times story (9/8/02) hyping the idea that Iraq was trying to procure special aluminum tubes for its nuclear weapons program.
Last night in its 10-years-later segment, the PBS NewsHour (3/19/13) made a rather stunning judgment: One of the two expert journalists was the guy who co-authored that piece.
New York Times reporter Michael Gordon was the lead author on that infamous tubes article, but his record goes deeper than that. A few days into the U.S. bombing (3/25/13), Gordon appeared on CNN to endorse the bombing of Iraqi TV’s offices, calling it “an appropriate target,” since “we’re trying to send the exact opposite message.”
When U.S. politicians began to seriously consider a withdrawal of U.S. troops, Gordon criticized that policy, especially in one article (11/15/06) headlined, “Get Out of Iraq Now? Not So Fast, Experts Say” (FAIR Media Advisory, 12/4/06). He went on the Charlie Rose show (1/18/07) to endorse a troop surge. (Even the Washington Post admits that the idea that the surge succeeded is a “myth”–3/15/13.) And in early 2007, Gordon wrote articles, relying heavily on anonymous U.S. sources, alleging that the Iranian government was sending weapons into Iraq (Action Alert, 2/16/07).
So why would Gordon be someone you’d want to listen to about the Iraq War? That’s hard to say, really. But Gordon had plenty to tell PBS viewers. He complained that the Obama White House wasn’t interested enough in Iraq–leading to “the decline of American influence.” As he put it:
I think they view Iraq as just another country. They don’t have the same emotional or psychological or even foreign policy stake in it that the previous administration had.
Gordon added that the U.S. military “see a lot of early mistakes in the first years” of the war, but that “I do think the surge, as a military operation and military strategy, was effective and was essential.”
When one of the hosts, Judy Woodruff, asked about the war’s legacy, he replied: “Well, I think the military learned how to do counterinsurgency. The public opinion may no longer support that, but forever is a long time. And I think you can’t say we won’t have to do that again at some point in the future.”
And if there is ever another moment that requires reporters to faithfully record the views of anonymous U.S. officials as they make their case for war, it’s a safe bet that Michael Gordon will be there to do that job.
News organizations have lost a significant share of their audience due to budget cuts that have impacted the quality and quantity of reporting.
A new poll from the Pew Research Center found that 31% of respondents said they had stopped using a particular news outlet because it was no longer providing the same kind of news and information as in the past.
Pew researchers said that those most likely to stop using news sources were better educated, wealthier and older than those who still used them—“in other words, they are people who tend to be most prone to consume and pay for news,” Pew’s The State of the News Media 2013 read.
Losses of subscribers and ad revenues have negatively impacted many news organizations in recent years, forcing layoffs and reduced coverage. Most of the people to whom Pew researchers talked were either largely or entirely unaware of this situation, the survey revealed.
There is, however, a glimmer of hope for the embattled newspaper industry, which has been under financial duress since the onset of the recession in 2007 and growing competition from online news services. The Pew study reports that a trend of stabilizing revenue is evidenced by news organizations’ use of social media to support advertisers, digital pay plans, increased investor interest, and across-the-board advertising growth attributed to a modestly improving economy.
The Pew authors concede, however, that these positive signs “are, for the time being, mostly promise rather than performance,” and that the overall prognosis still appears grim.
- U.S. news industry unprepared to uncover news and challenge claims, report says
- In the End, Awful Journalism
- On Venezuela, The New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson Fails at Arithmetic
- Chavez Is Dead, the Media Are Alive and Kicking
- Time’s Ticking Clock on War With Iran
- AP: Chavez Wasted His Money on Healthcare When He Could Have Built Gigantic Skyscrapers
Only a few years ago, analysts were warning that Mexico was at risk of becoming a “failed state.” These days, the Mexican government appears to be doing a much better PR job.
Despite the devastating and ongoing drug war, the story now goes that Mexico is poised to become a “middle-class” society. As establishment apostle Thomas Friedman put it in the New York Times, Mexico is now one of “the more dominant economic powers in the 21st century.”
But this spin is based on superficial assumptions. The small signs of economic recovery in Mexico are grounded largely on the return of maquiladora factories from China, where wages have been increasing as Mexican wages have stagnated. Under-cutting China on labor costs is hardly something to celebrate. This trend is nothing but the return of the same “free-trade” model that has failed the Mexican people for 20 years.
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which was ratified in 1993 and went into effect in 1994, was touted as the cure for Mexico’s economic “backwardness.” Promoters argued that the trilateral trade agreement would dig Mexico out of its economic rut and modernize it along the lines of its mighty neighbor, the United States.
The story went like this:
NAFTA was going to bring new U.S. technology and capital to complement Mexico’s surplus labor. This in turn would lead Mexico to industrialize and increase productivity, thereby making the country more competitive abroad. The spike in productivity and competitiveness would automatically cause wages in Mexico to increase. The higher wages would expand economic opportunities in Mexico, slowing migration to the United States.
In the words of the former President Bill Clinton, NAFTA was going to “promote more growth, more equality and better preservation of the environment and a greater possibility of world peace.” Mexico’s president at the time, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, echoed Clinton’s sentiments during a commencement address at MIT: “NAFTA is a job-creating agreement,” he said. “It is an environment improvement agreement.” More importantly, Salinas boasted, “it is a wage-increasing agreement.”
As the 20th anniversary of NAFTA approaches, however, the verdict is indisputable: NAFTA failed to spur meaningful and inclusive economic growth in Mexico, pull Mexicans out of unemployment and underemployment, or reduce poverty. By all accounts, it has done just the opposite.
The Verdict Is In
Official statistics show that from 2006 to 2010, more than 12 million people joined the ranks of the impoverished in Mexico, causing the poverty level to jump to 51.3 percent of the population. According to the United Nations, in the past decade Mexico saw the slowest reduction in poverty in all of Latin America.
Rampant poverty in Mexico is a product of IMF and World Bank-led neoliberal policies—such as anti-inflationary policies that have kept wages stagnant—of which “free-trade” pacts like NAFTA are part and parcel. Another factor is the systematic failure to create good jobs in the formal sectors of the economy. During Felipe Calderon’s presidency, the share of the Mexican labor force relying on informal work—such as selling chewing gum and other low-cost products on the street—grew to nearly 50 percent.
Even the wages in the manufacturing sector, which NAFTA cheerleaders argued would benefit the most from trade liberalization, have remained extremely low. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Mexican manufacturing workers made an average hourly wage of only $4.53 in 2011, compared to $26.87 for their U.S. counterparts. Between 1997 and 2011, the U.S.-Mexico manufacturing wage gap narrowed only slightly, with Mexican wages rising from 13 to 17 percent of the level earned by American workers. In Brazil, by contrast, manufacturing wages are almost double Mexico’s, and in Argentina almost triple.
Mexico’s stagnant wages are celebrated by free traders as an opportunity for U.S. businesses interested in outsourcing. According to one report by the McKinsey management consulting firm, “for a company motivated primarily by cost, Mexico holds the most attractive position among the Latin American countries we studied. … Mexico’s advantages start with low labor costs.”
But even as the damning evidence against NAFTA continues to roll in, entrenched advocates of the trade agreement have been busy crafting new arguments. In his recent book, Mexico: A Middle Class Society, NAFTA negotiator Luis De la Calle and his co-author argue that the trade agreement has given rise to a growing Mexican middle class by providing consumers with higher quality, U.S- made goods. The authors proclaim that “NAFTA has dramatically reduced the costs of goods for Mexican families at the same time that the quality and variety of goods and services in the country grew.”
Most of the economic indicators included in the book conveniently fail to account for the 2008-2009 financial crisis, which hit Mexico worse than almost any other Latin American country. The result has been skyrocketing inequality. As the Guardian reported last December, “ever more Mexican families have acquired the trappings of middle-class life such as cars, fridges, and washing machines, but about half of the population still lives in poverty.”
The indicators of consumption that suggest the rise of Mexico’s middle class also exclude the dramatic increase in food prices in recent years, which has condemned millions of Mexicans to hunger. Twenty-eight million Mexicans are facing “food poverty,” meaning they lack access to sufficient nutritious food. According to official statistics, more than 50,000 people died of malnutrition between 2006 and 2011. That’s almost as many as have died in Mexico’s drug war, which dramatically escalated under Calderon and has continued under President Enrique Peña Nieto.
The food crisis has coincided with the “Walmartization” of the country. In 1994 there were only 14 Walmart retail stores in all of Mexico. Now there are more than 1,724 retail and wholesale stores. This is almost half the number of U.S. Walmarts, and far more than any other country outside the United States. The proliferation of Walmart and other U.S. big-box stores in Mexico since NAFTA came into effect has ushered in a new era of consumerism—in part through an aggressive expansion built on political bribes and the destruction of ancient Aztec ruins.
The arguments developed prior to the signing of NAFTA focused primarily on the claim that the trade agreement would make Mexico a nation of producers and exporters. These initial promises failed to deliver. Throughout the NAFTA years, the bulk of Mexico’s manufacturing “exports” have come from transnational car and technology companies. Not surprisingly, Mexico’s intra-industry trade with the United Sates is the highest of any Latin American country. Yet the percentage of Mexican companies that are actually exporters is vanishingly small, and imports of food into Mexico have surged.
Same Snake Oil, Different Pitch
Because their initial promises utterly failed to deliver, the NAFTA pushers are now hyping “consumer benefits” to justify new trade agreements, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership. One of the most extreme examples of this spin is an article in The Washington Post that celebrates a “growing middle class” in Mexico that is “buying more U.S. goods than ever, while turning Mexico into a more democratic, dynamic and prosperous American ally.” Devoid of all logic, it goes on to say that “Mexico’s growth as a manufacturing hub is boosted by low wages.” How can low wages make people more prosperous?
The Post also boasts that in “Mexico’s Costco stores, staples such as tortilla chips and chipotle salsa are trucked in from factories in California and Texas that produce for both sides of the border.” Is this something to celebrate? The influx of traditional Mexican food staples, starting with maize, and goods from the United States has displaced and dislocated millions of Mexican small-scale farmers, producers, and small businesses. And not only that, Mexicans’ increasing consumption of processed foods and beverages from the United States has made the country the second-most obese in the world.
In essence, NAFTA advocates have been reduced to saying: “so maybe NAFTA didn’t help Mexico reduce poverty or increase wages. But hey! At least it gave it Walmart, Costcos, and sweat shops.”
The bankruptcy of NAFTA’s promises is only compounded by the poverty of this consolation.
- Facing the Threat of the Trans-Pacific Treaty (ips-dc.org)
The New York Times (3/8/13), writing about Korean tensions, reported:
The North said this week that it considered the 1953 armistice agreement that halted the Korean War to be null and void as of Monday because of the joint military exercises. The North has threatened to terminate that agreement before, but American and South Korean military officials pointed out that legally, no party [to an] armistice can unilaterally terminate or alter its terms.
“Nonsense,” says Francis Boyle, professor of international law at the University of Illinois (Institute for Public Accuracy, 3/13/13):
An armistice agreement is governed by the laws of war and the state of war still remains in effect despite the armistice agreement, even if the armistice text itself says additions have to be mutually agreed upon by the parties. Termination is not an addition.
Boyle pointed to both U.S. military regulations and international law as evidence that the Times’ claim was wrong:
Under the U.S. Army Field Manual 27-10 and the Hague Regulations, the only requirement for termination of the Korean War Armistice Agreement is suitable notice so as to avoid the charge of “perfidy.” North Korea has given that notice. The armistice is dead.
An armistice suspends military operations by mutual agreement between the belligerent parties. If its duration is not fixed, the belligerent parties can resume operations at any time, provided always the enemy is warned within the time agreed upon, in accordance with the terms of the armistice.
The New York Times should let its readers know that it allowed anonymous officials to mislead them.
You could almost hear the sigh of relief coming out of Washington at the news of Hugo Chavez’s death on March 5.
President Obama issued a brief statement that failed even to offer condolences, forcing a senior State Department official to patch over the evident callousness and breach of diplomacy by offering his personal condolences the following day.
Within moments of Chavez’s death, commercial media and mouthpieces for the U.S. government were verbally dancing on his grave and predicting the imminent demise of Chavismo—Chavez’s political legacy in Venezuela and abroad.
Time headlined its article “Death of a Demagogue.” The New York Times, which bent over backwards to minimize Chavez’s overwhelming victory in Venezuela’s October elections—and later to portray his battle with cancer as a cover-up, mimicking opposition claims—proclaimed that Chávez’s death“casts into doubt the future of his socialist revolution” and “alters the political balance not only in Venezuela, the fourth-largest supplier of foreign oil to the United States, but also in Latin America”—and this in a news article with no sourcing provided.
The Inter-American Dialogue, a U.S. think tank, concluded that “Chavez’s legacy, and the damage he left behind, will not be easily undone,” and predicted that the social gains and regional institutions Chavez built over his political lifetime will soon fall apart and things will soon return to normal—that is, with the United States back in the hemispheric driver’s seat.
Congressman Ed Royce (R-CA) came right out and said “Hugo Chávez was a tyrant who forced the people of Venezuela to live in fear. His death dents the alliance of anti-U.S. leftist leaders in South America. Good riddance to this dictator.”
So why did Washington hate this guy so much?
It never helped that the South American president had a penchant for insulting his adversaries personally. But one supposes that diplomacy rises above name-calling, even if the other guy did it first. The anti-Chavez current in Washington goes far deeper than personal enmity or even political differences.
What scared Washington most about Chavez was not his failures or idiosyncrasies. It was his success.
The official reasons given for demonizing Hugo Chavez don’t hold water. Chavez is accused of restraining freedom of the press in a nation known for its ferociously anti-Chavez private media. And while his Yankee critics called him a dictator, Chavez and his policies won election after election in exemplary electoral processes. You can disagree with his reform to permit unlimited terms in office, but this is the practice of many nations deemed democratic by the U.S. government and considered close allies. And the criticisms of Chavez’s social programs as “patronage” cannot ignore the millions of lives tangibly improved.
Before Chavez turned Venezuela away from the neoliberal model, the nation was a basket case. But throughout his tenure, social indicators that measure real human suffering showed steady improvement. Between 1998, when he was first elected, to 2013 when he died in office, people living in poverty dropped from 43 percent of the population to 27 percent. Extreme poverty dropped from 16.8 percent of the population to 7 percent. According to UNESCO, illiteracy—nearly 10 percent when Chavez took office—has been eliminated. Chavez also reduced childhood malnutrition, initiated pensions for the elderly, and launched education and health programs for the poor.
Venezuela’s human development ranking subsequently climbed significantly under Chavez, reaching the “high” human development category. The programs that Washington scorned as “government handouts” made people’s lives longer, healthier, and fuller in Venezuela.
Now that Chavez is dead, the U.S. press has revived the State Department’s practice of designating the “good left” and the “bad left” in Latin America. Chavez, of course, embodied the “bad left,” while Brazil’s Lula was unilaterally and unwillingly designated the “good left”.
Yet it was Lula da Silva who defended his friend and made the case for Chavez’s lasting positive legacy in the pages of the New York Times. He eulogized the leader and predicted, “The multilateral institutions Mr. Chávez helped create will also help ensure the consecration of South American unity.”
In fact, Chavez’s success in building institutions for alternative regional integration is one of the big reasons Washington hated him. The self-declared anti-capitalist led Venezuela as it joined with regional powerhouse Brazil and other southern cone countries to make a bid to crack the Monroe Doctrine. Along with Andean nations, they also sought, in varying degrees, to wrest control of significant natural resource wealth from transnational corporations to fund state redistribution programs for the poor.
In 2005, Chavez helped scuttle the U.S. goal of a Free Trade Area of the Americas. Later he spearheaded the formation of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) in 2008. As a Latin American alternative to the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States, the 12-member Unasur proved its value by successfully mediating the Colombia-Ecuador conflict and the Bolivian separatist crisis in 2008. In 2010, Chavez again played a major role with the creation of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, made up of hemispheric partners, excluding the United States and Canada.
The Bank of the South, also promoted by Chavez, seeks greater South-South monetary and financial autonomy. As Lula writes in his editorial on Chavez´s death, the Bank offers an alternative to the World Bank and IMF, which “have not been sufficiently responsive to the realities of today’s multipolar world”.
With stops and starts, these initiatives have moved regional integration forward outside the historic model of U.S. hegemony.
U.S. Moves and the Principle of Self-Determination
What happens next? Venezuela held an emotional funeral on March 8 and is planning for April elections. Most predict that Vice President Nicolas Maduro, selected by Chavez as his successor, will win easily. He has the advantage of Chavez’s blessing: a common slogan in Caracas these days is “Chavez, te juro, que voto por Maduro” (“Chavez, I swear, my vote is for Maduro”). Another sign that Chavismo lives on was the thousands of people at the funeral chanting “Chavez didn’t die; he multiplied.”
The State Department views dimly the prospect of an improved U.S.-Venezuela relationship under Maduro. On March 6, the State Department held a press call on which “Senior Official One” (a State Department practice for “background” when its officials apparently don’t want to be identified with their own public statements) said the department was optimistic following Chavez’ death, but that “yesterday’s first press conference, if you will, the first address, was not encouraging in that respect. It disappointed us.”
He referred to a 90-minute address by Maduro, stating that “the enemy” attacked Chavez’s health. The Venezuelan government also announced the expulsion of two U.S. military personnel in Venezuela, allegedly for having contacted members of the Venezuela military to stir up an insurrection.
The State Department noted that it plans “to move ahead in this relationship” by holding conversations in areas of common interest, citing “counternarcotics, counterterrorism, economic or commercial issues including energy.” It added, “We are going to continue to speak out when we believe there are issues of democratic principle that need to be talked about, that need to be highlighted.”
During the Chavez years, U.S. officials and the press went into contortions to avoid congruency with the basic principle that democracy is measured by elections. With Chavez having indisputably won some thirteen elections, the U.S. government applied new criteria to Venezuela along the lines of “democracy can be wrong.” Despite his broad-based support, many went so far as to dub Chavez a “dictator.”
The U.S. government’s commitment to democracy falters when Washington doesn’t like the results. It supported the failed coup against Chavez in 2002 and blocked the return of Honduras’s elected president after the 2009 coup there.
Now all eyes will be on Washington to see whether it upholds another value reiterated by President Obama—the right to self-determination. Will U.S. “democracy-promotion programs” under NED, IRI, and other regime-change schemes resist the temptation to meddle in Venezuela’s April 14 elections? Venezuela without Chavez will be a test of moral and diplomatic integrity for the second Obama administration and John Kerry’s State Department, and a challenge for Congress and the citizenry to monitor and prevent covert activities that interfere with the exercise of democracy.
- Unprecedented Show of Support and Honor at the Historic Funeral of Hugo Chávez (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Chavez Is Dead, the Media Are Alive and Kicking (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- U.S. and Canada Isolated as Latin American Leaders Acknowledge Chávez’s Regional Leadership (venezuelanalysis.com)
On Tuesday 5 March, at the age of 58, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez lost his almost two-year battle with cancer and passed away. Within seconds of the news being announced, the wheels of the global media bandwagon went into overdrive, with largely unsurprising results, in both the US and British media. At the most distasteful end of the spectrum was the headline in the New York Post, the paper with the 7th highest circulation in the US, that read ‘Off Hugo! Venezuela bully Chavez is dead’.
New York Post Cover on Chávez
Other US media followed closely behind. ‘Death of a Demagogue’ ran a headline on the website of Time, the world’s biggest selling weekly news magazine. These and other US media reaction were included in a piece by the US media watchdog Fair and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) that also examined the distorted, often hysterical, US media coverage of Chávez during his presidency. It’s worth recalling that following the 2002 US-supported coup that briefly removed Chavez from the presidency the New York Times declared that Chavez’s “resignation” meant that “Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator.”
Following Chávez’s death, the antipathy towards a president that had so vehemently challenged the actions and interests of the United States was also evident in the British media. Rightwing outlets displayed the usual cynical disdain that had characterised their reporting of Chávez’s presidency, although Nicolas Maduro, Chávez’s former vice-president, the current interim president and the government’s candidate for the April 14th presidential election, was also now in the firing line. In the UK’s biggest selling broadsheet, the rightwing Daily Telegraph, its chief foreign correspondent David Blair described Maduro’s role as foreign minister under Chavez in the following terms: “Mr Maduro was the obedient enforcer of his master’s highly personal foreign policy”. For Blair, Maduro, rather than responsibly representing his government’s foreign policy, was “a loyal purveyor of ‘Chavismo’ around the world”.
The ‘liberal’ left in Britain
Britain’s liberal-left media also offered a timely reminder of where their loyalties lay in relation to Chavez, whose democratic mandate included presiding over 15 national elections since he took office in February 1999, a greater number of elections than were held during the previous 40 years in Venezuela. In a remarkable editorial, The Independent newspaper opined:
“Mr Chavez was no run-of-the-mill dictator. His offences were far from the excesses of a Colonel Gaddafi, say. What he was, more than anything, was an illusionist – a showman who used his prodigious powers of persuasion to present a corrupt autocracy fuelled by petrodollars as a socialist utopia in the making. The show now over, he leaves a hollowed-out country crippled by poverty, violence and crime. So much for the revolution.”
This from a newspaper that in June 2009, following a military coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of President Manuel Zelaya in Honduras, ran an editorial that included the following:
“The ousting of the Honduran President Manuel Zelaya by the country’s military at the weekend has been condemned by many members of the international community as an affront to democracy. But despite a natural distaste for any military coup, it is possible that the army might have actually done Honduran democracy a service.”
The Independent’s competitor in the UK’s liberal-left newspaper market, The Guardian, showed a similarly hostile stance towards Chavez during his presidency. In a piece on the New Left Project website examining the critical UK media coverage of Chavez following his death, Josh Watts noted how the anti-Chavez bias of Rory Carroll, a Guardian journalist and its former Latin America correspondent, “has been extensively documented”. As Samuel Grove noted in a damming 2011 article, Carroll’s Latin America coverage “has attracted widespread criticism for its selectivity and double standards, brazen anti-left bias, and above all slavish loyalty to Western interests”. There is now surely a book’s worth of material exposing Carroll’s distorted Venezuela coverage.
Carroll has managed to take his agenda beyond the confines of The Guardian. For example, in an Al Jazeera English debate on the continued demonisation of Chavez by the Western media that took place three days after Chavez’s death, Carroll repeatedly tried to present Venezuela under Chavez as an economic failure. He repeated this line of attack in a BBC 3 radio interview in late February, where he accused the Chavez government of being responsible for “decay, ruin, waste” in relation to the economy. Contrast this with the rigorous reports on the socio-economic changes under the Chavez presidency by the Washington-based think tank, the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), which completely undermine Carroll’s narrative of economic failure.
This fact-based approach to appraising elements of the Chavez legacy has not been lost on The Guardian’s associate editor Seumas Milne, who referenced CEPR’s latest report when he tweeted: “Media claims #Chavez ruined #Venezuela‘s economy absurd: here are the facts on growth, unemployment, poverty http://bit.ly/13Nnwno @ceprdc”
It was precisely these socio-economic gains, especially for those in the low-income neighbourhoods known as barrios that encircle Caracas and other Venezuelan cities and who formed Chávez’s support base, that lay behind his popularity and his repeated electoral victories.
Focus on denigrating the individual
Rather than try to explain Chávez’s appeal to large sectors of the Venezuelan population or understand the process of radical change underway in the country, the West’s media class preferred to focus almost entirely on the figure of Chávez. It was precisely this narrative that was so effective in discrediting the Venezuelan process through concealing the role of collective agency, silencing the people from below, and rendering them insignificant. While the mainstream media routinely ignores the voices of the government’s grassroots supporters, they have been instrumental in driving the Venezuelan process forward and should be at the centre of the story.
Thus, when we contrast Chávez’s popularity at home with the open hostility with which Western political elites viewed him, we’re left questioning the motivation behind the anti-Chávez mass media campaign that has systematically misrepresented events in Venezuela.
John Pilger is right when he writes:
“Never has a country, its people, its politics, its leader, its myths and truths been so misreported and lied about as Venezuela.”
Even though Chávez is dead, his vilification by the US and UK media is alive and kicking.
Pablo Navarrete is a LAB correspondent and a PHD student at Bradford University in the UK, researching the political economy of the Chavez presidency. He is also the director of the documentary ‘Inside the Revolution: A Journey into the Heart of Venezuela’ (Alborada Films, 2009). You can watch the documentary online here.