March 19, 2007
Barbara Walters and Hugo ChavezBy A.M. Mora y Leon
Last Friday, Barbara Walters embarrassed herself conducting a fawning interview with Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's Marxist budding dictator. This is a more serious mortification than Rosie O'Donnell spouting nonsense on ABC's The View, which Walters hosts and partly owns. Not since Herbert Matthews of the New York Times wrote about the Fidel Castro the humanitarian, just as his fortunes were flagging in the late 1950s, have we seen a major American journalist go so gaga over a would-be Latin dictator.
Walters' offering on Hugo Chavez on ABC's 20/20 went far beyond the garden-variety media bias seen so abundantly in print news coverage of Latin America this past week. It looked far more like modern propaganda.
Walters is more attuned to marketing than journalism, and famous for going all out to get the biggest interview 'catches' of the day. She's written about how she begs and pleads for her catches, and how her persistence pays off. But because she has more interest in ratings than the basic mission of journalism, which is to illuminate the truth, she's very vulnerable to dictators with agendas. What's bad is that she doesn't seem to care. Friday night Walters presented her big 'scoop' with Hugo Chavez, explaining how warm and different he was from his self-created sulphurous image. It was pure spin and a disgrace.
For starters, Walters did it on extremely peculiar timing. Walters' 'catch' came through on short notice, but right when Hugo Chavez needed political help. He rarely does interviews, but this week he was trying to repair his image. Walters didn't say so, but the backstory to her interview is that Chavez has lost tremendous political capital in the hemisphere in the wake of President Bush's Latin American tour and is actively trying to regain lost ground.
Investor's Business Daily chronicled Chavez's troubles from the Bush tour, first describing Chavez's early effort to hit Bush with nasty street protests in a bid to direct cameras away from the visiting U.S. president, and 'seize the message. That didn't work, so his next move was to launch of a 'shadow tour' to his allies, in a further effort to draw attention from Bush. The 'shadow tour' didn't go according to plan and worse yet, made him look ridiculous. Instead of getting spontaneous adoring masses and media coverage, Chavez was repeatedly described - from Argentina to Mexico - as a spurned boyfriend stalking Bush, unable to handle his quiet rejection. After that, Chavez watched as his own allies distanced themselves from him, just as it was getting obvious that success was building in President Bush's own tour.
As Bush warmed the hearts of Latin Americans and accomplished real diplomacy, Chavez became a laughingstock and apparently knew it. He reversed course and started a new soft approach (a first for him), mimicking Bush as now a nice guy, not a firebrand. He said he didn't really mean anything personal in his Bush insults, despite calling Bush a ‘donkey,' a 'drunk' and a 'political corpse' throughout the week. In fact, not only was it nothing personal, he added he'd like to play dominoes with Bush and laugh over old times when the two of them eventually retired. Meanwhile, back in Caracas, his ministers repeatedly denied that Chavez's shadow tour of Bush was really that. They emphasized it was "only a coincidence," not a stalking. Obviously, the Venezuelan dictator was in trouble.
In waltzed Walters, possibly ignorant of all this going on (to be charitable), and just thrilled to crow to U.S. viewers about her new interview 'catch.' But not only did Walters give Chavez a platform to improve his image - something Chavez had been trying hard to do in the last few days, she piled on the usual claptrap from the Chavez propaganda machine about Chavez's wonderful generosity to the poor in both Venezuela and the U.S. To illustrate that point, she took a dog-and-pony show tour of the Caracas slums showing an obviously staged performance from a Chavista political operative praising Chavez's largesse. Then she played long segments from Joe Kennedy's pro-Chavez television ads for Citgo heating oil handouts, showing testimonials from satisfied recipients.
As for Venezuela's battered citizens who have borne the brunt of Chavez's disastrous dictatorship, Walters had only a brief, terse segment showing three unnamed (why?) young men seated against a hard wall, trying to explain that their future had been robbed, their security was at stake, their democracy had become dictatorship and their only recourse was to flee the country. Only two spoke, and between them, got about two sentences in to Walters' interviewer. However, the sloppy cutting of the filmed segment showed they had tried to elaborate but were cut off. Walters quickly shot past the few seconds of that segment, never returning to it, to move on to much longer and far more colorful spreads about the wonders of chavismo, calling Venezuela "a land of contrasts."
Between these nods to Chavez's key causes, Walters interviewed the dictator. Naturally, she focused on the trivial, explaining that "in person, he's really warm and friendly." She said he grew up "poor and powerless," a flat-out lie, given that Chavez's father is now the richest man in Barinas state, and began his career as an officious village schoolteacher much better off than most in his community. She ran flattering photos of Chavez with his two daughters, but provided no reporting about the bitter family relations that plague Chavez's own clan.
Walters asked Chavez how he would rate Bush's tour, on a scale of one to ten, as if Chavez were some objective outside observer analyzing the scene. Naturally, Chavez exploited that easy propaganda opportunity, declaring Bush's tour a failure - "a minus five" - and thus got a golden opportunity to frame and spin the tour issue as Bush's 'failure.' In this, he regained ground on the public perception front.
Then Walters asked Chavez what all his name-calling of Bush accomplished, explaining to him that he was "a dignified man." Chavez grabbed more propaganda points by driving home that Bush was a killer but he trafficked only in harsh words. "Do I do any harm because I call Bush a devil?" the dictator asked. He then said Bush was out killing people and wreaking destruction, a contextless observation that should have been challenged. Walters didn't probe that, but as before allowed Chavez to change the frame of perception. Then Walters went on to some cursory questions about Chavez's oil cutoff threats, ignoring the fact that Chavez's 'revolution' depends on squandering those oil revenues for his social programs.
Then she moved on to queries about Chavez's love life.
Walters noted that Chavez was single and asked whether he would marry again, or if he was married "only to the revolution." Chavez clarified that he had been divorced twice and the rest of his non-answer was treaclly, if not quite within the U.S. Oprah-confession template: "It's very hard to be married," Chavez replied. "I've got a heart. I've got blood through my veins." Anyone following Venezuelan affairs would immediately snicker at that last remark, because his relations with various actresses have been reported in the Venezuelan press. Walters missed that too, allowing Chavez to appear as only a lonesome family man. Chavez sighed that being president meant he rarely saw his kids.
Chavez also railed about something that was bugging him - news photos abundant in the blogosphere showing his embraces of various odious dictators. It's interesting that Chavez seemed most bothered by the photos of himself with Saddam, probably a sign he feels as though he's on the losing side. Walters didn't bring up that Chavez was the last and only world leader to visit Saddam during his final open confrontation with the U.S. before the war. Then Chavez got his propaganda licks in, citing his photo-op meetings with Pope John Paul II, and Walters helpfully ran one photo. What she didn't do was ask about the credible reports that the pope had harsh words for Chavez in those visits.
Walters ended her interview on a particularly disgusting note, asking Chavez to address the American people in English. Here, some real scripting went on, with Chavez declaring "I love you" to the American people and launching into a verbal essay about his admiration for Martin Luther King. That choice of topics was an interesting one, given Chavista operatives' effort to woo and penetrate the U.S. black community through cheap heating oil and other means of outreach. It's a key strategy. It also was interesting because Chavez, back in Argentina on March 9, had denounced George Washington, calling him a slaveholder and an Indian killer, in a clear reflection of his desire to manipulate American minorities. It was hardly the speech of someone who approves of America's founding. Walters missed all of this and accommodated Chavez on his own terms. Chavez signed off, saying "thank you very much" in English.
Afterward, Walters gushed about her discovery that Chavez drank 26 cups of coffee a day, proudly stating the exact number. Even if Walters had been trying to accent the human interest aspect of Chavez's caffeine habit by emphasizing his consumption, she missed the boat by failing to ask about the ongoing coffee shortages in Venezuela due to his Marxist collectivization of the economy, which has caused coffee to disappear from shop shelves throughout the country. It is not quite the same as Kim Jong-il growing a pot belly while North Koreans starved to death, but the difference is of degree, not substance.
Chavez has openly stated he is a Marxist-Leninist and a communist, but now that he's in damage-control mode, with Walters a willing dupe in front of him, that critical aspect of the effects of his 'revolution' didn't appear at all in Walters' report. Yet it is the central reality of what Chavez is doing to Venezuela right now. She could have at least asked him why he had so much daily coffee in a country where Venezuelans can buy none.
What does this mean for the rest of us? It shows that Barbara Walters is not only ignorant of what's going on in Venezuela, her superficial, packaged reporting obscures hard realities. Instead of real answers from real questions, we got trivia. Network airtime was a golden window for Chavez and his propaganda machine to deceive the U.S. public. Instead of illuminating truth, Walters allowed Chavez to obscure it.
What's truly appalling is that Chavez is already exploiting the interview back home in Venezuela. Daniel Duquenal of the blog Venezuela News and Views features an advertisement paid for by the Venezuelan government appearing in Caracas newspapers, with pictures of Chavez and a smiling Barbara Walters, and a caption reading [translated from Spanish],
The program will be run on all state-controlled television channels as well as on radio, demonstrating that Chavez regards it as a propaganda coup handed to him by an American television icon.
Barbara Walters has made herself a shill for Hugo Chavez, a Marxist ally of Iran, now ruling by decree in what was once a parliamentary republic. And for that her interview brings more shame on American journalism.