The headline of last Sunday’s Observer article on Venezuela set the tone for the slanted and opportunistic piece of political ‘reporting’ that followed:
‘Noam Chomsky denounces old friend Hugo Chávez for “assault” on democracy’.
And then the opening line launched into a barrage of spin:
‘Hugo Chávez has long considered Noam Chomsky one of his best friends in the west. He has basked in the renowned scholar's praise for Venezuela's socialist revolution and echoed his denunciations of US imperialism.’
The ironic sneer directed at the Venezuelan president apparently basking in Chomsky’s ‘praise’, and the sly hint of robotic ‘echoing’ of his buddy’s rants, were indicative of the bias, omissions and deceptions to follow.
Reporter Rory Carroll, the Guardian’s South America correspondent, had just interviewed Chomsky and set about twisting the conversation into a propaganda piece. (For non-UK readers who may not know: the Observer is the Sunday sister publication of the Guardian newspaper).
Carroll’s skewed view was clear and upfront in his article:
‘Chomsky has accused the socialist leader of amassing too much power and of making an “assault” on Venezuela's democracy.’
As we will see shortly, this was a highly partial and misleading account of Chomsky’s full remarks, leading him to declare afterwards that the newspaper had displayed ‘extreme dishonesty’ and that Carroll’s article was ‘quite deceptive’.
The news hook was the publication of an open letter by Chomsky pleading for the release of Venezuelan judge María Lourdes Afiuni who is suffering from cancer. Afiuni, explains Carroll, ‘earned Chávez's ire in December 2009 by freeing Eligio Cedeño, a prominent banker facing corruption charges.’ After just over a year in jail, awaiting trial on charges of corruption, the Venezuelan authorities ‘softened her confinement to house arrest’.
In the open letter, prepared together with the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University, Chomsky says:
‘Judge Afiuni had my sympathy and solidarity from the very beginning. The way she was detained, the inadequate conditions of her imprisonment, the degrading treatment she suffered in the Instituto Nacional de Orientación Femenina, the dramatic erosion of her health and the cruelty displayed against her, all duly documented, left me greatly worried about her physical and psychological wellbeing, as well as about her personal safety.’
He concludes with the plea:
‘I shall keep high hopes that President Chávez will consider a humanitarian act that will end the judge's detention.’
Towards the end of Carroll’s article, the journalist injected some token balance:
‘The Chávez government deserved credit for sharply reducing poverty and for its policies of promoting self-governing communities and Latin American unity, Chomsky said. “It's hard to judge how successful they are, but if they are successful they would be seeds of a better world.” ’
But the blatant spin of the headline and the article’s lead paragraphs had already done the required job – President Chávez is so extreme that even that radical lefty Noam Chomsky, one of his best friends in the West, has now denounced him.
Chomsky Responds: ‘Extreme Dishonesty’ And A ‘Quite Deceptive’ Report
Activists and bloggers were quick to email Noam Chomsky to ask for his response to Rory Carroll’s article in the Observer. In particular, Chomsky replied as follows to one aggressive challenger who made a series of personal attacks on him:
‘Let’s begin with the headline: complete deception. That continues throughout. You can tell by simply comparing the actual quotes with their comments. As I mentioned, and expected, the NY Times report of a similar interview is much more honest, again revealing the extreme dishonesty of the Guardian.
‘I’m sure you would understand if an Iranian dissident who charged Israel with crimes would also bring up the fact that charges from Iran and its supporters cannot be taken seriously in the light of Iran’s far worse abuses. If you don’t understand that, which I doubt, you really have some problems to think about. If you do understand it, as I assume, the same is true. That’s exactly why bringing up [the jailed US soldier Bradley] Manning (and much more) is highly relevant.’
Joe Emersberger, an activist based in Canada, also approached Chomsky for a reaction to the piece:
‘The Guardian/Observer version, as I anticipated, is quite deceptive. The report in the NY Times is considerably more honest. Both omit much of relevance that I stressed throughout, including the fact that criticisms from the US government or anyone who supports its actions can hardly be taken seriously, considering Washington’s far worse record without any of the real concerns that Venezuela faces, the Manning case for one [Manning is the alleged source for huge amounts of restricted material passed on to WikiLeaks], which is much worse than Judge Afiuni’s. And much else. There’s no transcript, unfortunately. I should know by now that I should insist on a transcript with the Guardian, unless it’s a writer I know and trust.’ (Joe Emersberger, ‘Chomsky Says UK Guardian Article "Quite Deceptive" About his Chavez Criticism’, Z Blogs, July 4, 2011)
In fact the very next day after Carroll's article appeared, and no doubt stung by the rising tide of internet-based criticism, the Guardian took the unusual step of publishing what is presumably a full transcript of the interview. (Also unusually, the Guardian did not allow reader comments to be posted under the transcript.)
But the transcript only served to prove Chomsky’s point about the ‘deceptive’ nature of the printed article. His comparisons to the justice system in the United States – in particular, the torture and abuse of Bradley Manning – were edited out. Carroll had asked him about the intervention of the Venezuelan executive in demanding a long jail sentence for Judge Afiuni. Chomsky replied:
‘It's obviously improper for the executive to intervene and impose a jail sentence without a trial. And I should say that the United States is in no position to complain about this. Bradley Manning has been imprisoned without charge, under torture, which is what solitary confinement is. The president in fact intervened. Obama was asked about his conditions and said that he was assured by the Pentagon that they were fine. That's executive intervention in a case of severe violation of civil liberties and it's hardly the only one. That doesn't change the judgment about Venezuela, it just says that what one hears in the United States one can dismiss.’
‘Venezuela has come under vicious, unremitting attack by the United States and the west generally – in the media and even in policy. After all the United States sponsored a military coup [in 2002] which failed and since then has been engaged in extensive subversion. And the onslaught [...] against Venezuela in commentary is grotesque.’
Nothing of that appeared in the published Observer article. [* See Update below]
Also given scant notice were Chomsky’s observations about positive developments in Venezuela and Latin America generally in trying to overcome the horrendous impacts of over five centuries of European, and latterly also US, colonialism and exploitation:
‘I think what's happened in Latin America in the past 10 years is probably the most exciting and positive development to take place in the world. For 500 years, since European explorers came, Latin American countries had been separated from one another. They had very limited relations. Integration is a prerequisite for independence. Furthermore internally there was a model that was followed pretty closely by each of the countries: a very small Europeanised, often white elite that concentrated enormous wealth in the midst of incredible poverty. And this is a region, especially South America, which are very rich in resources which you would expect under proper conditions to develop far better than east Asia for example but it hasn't happened.’
The above quotes by Chomsky are only extracts of the longest answers, by far, that he gave in his interview with Carroll. But they didn’t fit the journalist’s agenda of setting up Chomsky in ‘denouncing’ Chávez's supposed ‘assault’ on democracy.
Carroll once accurately declared that he is ‘not a champion of impartiality’. Indeed, Joe Emersberger has done much sterling work, exposing and challenging Carroll’s biased journalism from Latin America. Carroll and his editors clearly have supreme difficulty in answering Emersberger's cogent emails, judging by their repeated failure to respond.
Readers may recall that the Guardian has a dubious track record in recording and accurately reflecting the views of Noam Chomsky; that is, when it doesn’t conform to the usual pattern of completely ignoring him. The Guardian’s smear of Chomsky in 2005 marked a real low in the history of this ‘flagship’ newspaper of ‘liberal’ journalism. See 'Smearing Chomsky - Guardian in the Gutter', 'Smearing Chomsky - The Guardian Backs Down' and the external ombudsman’s report.
Perhaps what is most noteworthy about this whole episode is best summed up by Emersberger:
‘This is not the first time Rory Carroll has taken a highly selective interest in Chomsky's views on Latin America. When Chomsky signed an open letter in 2008 critical of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, Rory Carroll also jumped all over it. At about the same time, Chomsky signed an open letter to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe about far more grave matters but it was ignored by the Guardian. At the time, I asked Rory Carroll and his editors why they ignored it but they never replied to me. They also ignored an open letter to Uribe signed by Amnesty International, Human Rights watch and various other groups. I asked Carroll and his editors why that open letter was ignored and - as usual - no one responded.’
Noam Chomsky was once famously described by the New York Times as ‘arguably the most important intellectual alive’. And yet, as mentioned earlier, the Guardian is normally happy to ignore him and his views. But when Chomsky expresses criticism of an official enemy of the West, he suddenly does exist and matter for the Guardian. That indicates what we already knew: that the liberal press is perfectly aware of the importance of Chomsky's work. They just ignore it because it undermines the wrong interests.
Rory Carroll's article is a wonderful glimpse of the kind of status Chomsky would enjoy if he promoted the myth of the basic benevolence of the West, and focused on the crimes of official enemies. He would be feted as one of the most insightful and brilliant political commentators the world had ever seen. He would be far and away the world's number one political talking head. His face would be all over the Guardian, the Observer, the Independent, the BBC, the New York Times and so on.
There is a humbling lesson here also, of course, for those people who are all over the media. In important ways, the media is a demeritocracy.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Rory Carroll, the Guardian's South America correspondent
Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor
Please blind-copy us in on any exchanges or forward them to us later at:
July 4, 2011
Dear Rory Carroll,
Hope you’re well there.
Noam Chomsky says your Observer piece yesterday was ‘quite deceptive’ and ‘omit[s] much of relevance that I stressed throughout’.
What’s your response, please?
David Cromwell and David Edwards
Co-Editors, Media Lens