Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Robert Samet's "Deadline: Populism and the Press in Venezuela"

Robert Samet is assistant professor of anthropology at Union College in New York.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Deadline: Populism and the Press in Venezuela, and reported the following:
Deadline is based on fieldwork with crime reporters in Venezuela during the Hugo Chávez era. It began with a seemingly simple question. Why was urban violence out of control? The question was complicated by an atmosphere of extreme political polarization that pitted the private press against the Chávez government. Page 99 lays bare this dynamic. Readers who open to this page find themselves in the middle of a murder mystery. At the center is Jorge Tortoza, a crime photographer killed during the failed April 11, 2002 coup d’état against President Chávez.

I’ll admit that I breathed a sigh of relief when I realized page 99 was occupied by the intertwined stories of Tortoza’s death and the failed coup against Chávez. These materials encapsulate the substance of the book. No episode in recent Venezuelan history has been more closely scrutinized than April 11. On page 99 I am explaining what is widely known among Venezuelan journalists—the private press openly supported the coup.
In the months leading up to April 11, news coverage returned time and again to two subjects: the president’s declining popularity and loud rumblings of discontent within the military. Press elites fanned rumors of a coup, and in at least one important case these elites actively and intentionally planted them. The press also played a pivotal role in promoting the march. The time and place of the demonstration were a relatively last-minute decision and it took a Herculean effort on the part of the private television and radio stations to get the word out. Without the massive pro bono publicity campaign, it is unlikely that anyone would have showed up on the morning of April 11. In addition to promoting the march, some of the more radical news outlets pushed it toward a confrontation. For example, on the morning of April 11 the headline of El Nacional read, ‘The Final Battle Will Be at Miraflores.’ It is not simply that this headline used combative imagery. It seemed to publicly proclaim intent to violate the marching permit by crossing into chavista [i.e., Chávez’s supporters] territory.
April 11 is crucial evidence for the book’s argument. For half a century, the private press has been the main channel for populist mobilization in Venezuela. This point may surprise some readers. Most discussions of Venezuelan politics cast Hugo Chávez as the populist and his opponents in the press as liberal democrats. Working with crime reporters revealed to the contrary the logic of populism suffused everything in Venezuela.

There are parallels between the Venezuelan case and events unfolding in the United States. Chávez’s feud with the Venezuelan press echoes the war of words between our president and the Washington news corps. Conservative media outlets propelled this rising tide of rightwing populism and mainstream journalism has adopted an increasingly populist tone.

It would be a mistake, however, to blame the media for our predicament. This is exactly what happened among Chávez’s supporters in Venezuela. They came to see journalists like Jorge Tortoza as the enemy. His fellow crime journalists believe that his press credentials made him a target. After his death it became known that Tortoza supported the Chávez government. Eventually, both sides of the political aisle—chavismo and the opposition—claimed him as a martyr for their cause. None of this benefited Tortoza, his family, or his fellow crime journalists. Instead, it shows how the spiral of polarization dehumanizes people who might otherwise be allies. As I conclude:

“Setting aside the question of responsibility, there is no doubt that Venezuela’s main media outlets threw their weight behind the effort to oust Chávez. If the people driving these efforts were owners, high-ranking editors, and opinion makers, it was beat journalists like Tortoza who were literally and figuratively caught in the crossfire.”
Learn more about Deadline at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue