Those of us who listen to NPR largely to monitor the bias in the publicly-funded network’s news programming were treated to a whole series of stories about Hugo Chavez and Venezuela this week in advance of that country’s election on Sunday. While it is easy for NPR to downplay the bias in its reporting on North Korea since few on the American left are foolish enough to openly praise Kim Jong-un, reporting on Chavez and Venezuela poses a large number of challenges for the network, as it tries to appear “balanced” while still advancing its agenda.
When I woke up on Wednesday morning, for instance, I heard part of this interview and couldn’t believe what I was listening to, as NPR’s Steve Inskeep interviewed Rory Carroll, a correspondent for The Guardian who has written a book about Chavez. The interview began with Carroll making an observation about Chavez’s strong support among poor Venezuelans:
I would say about a third of Venezuelans adored him right through everything. From the beginning, right until the end. And, it’s impressive. I mean, for a guy who’s in power for 14 years? And you would tramp up the barrios — these hillside slums were his bedrock of support — and these people felt that down below in the palace, in Miraflores, there was a guy who was on their side — that he was their champion. He looked like them, he spoke like them. He was them. And that was an incredibly powerful connection that Chavez was able to maintain all through his 14 years in power.
In a subsequent exchange, Carroll related the story of a “clash” he once had with Chavez on television where Chavez responded to the question in part by deploying the rhetoric of race and class which is so popular on the left. Summing up the encounter, Carroll made it clear he thought Chavez had made a valuable point: “I was a perfect fall guy or rhetorical punch bag, in the sense that, yes, I’m Irish, freckly and blond, or ginger, if you like — I was in that sense a perfect foil as a stand-in agent of imperialism.”
As the interview continued, though, Carroll acknowledged that the longer Chavez remained in power, the less enthusiastic he and the staff at The Guardian felt about Chavez’s reign. Carroll talked about economic stagnation in Venezuela, the rising crime rate, and the fact that the failure of many of Chavez’s policies disproportionately affected the poor. Carroll answered a question about his declining enthusiasm for Chavez as follows:
Well, it’s a good question. Yes, at the beginning — and I think most liberals and right-thinking people would have been, in his first couple of years in power. There was plenty of reason to give him any benefit of the doubt. Now, over time, when he became a bit more oppressive, shutting down television stations, and when the wheels were kind of beginning to come off the economy in some ways, I, in my own reporting, became very critical, just reflecting what I saw on the ground. And this prompted quite a debate, internal debate, in my newspaper, because a lot of editors then and to this day feel and felt that we should have supported Hugo Chavez because he was a standard-bearer for the left. Whereas I, very close up, I thought, well, no, actually. Because sadly, he’s running the country into the ground and we have to report that.
In other words, even a reporter for The Guardian feels compelled to actually practice journalism once in a while. And it was at this point when this interview–and other stories like it during the week–started to get very challenging for NPR and its listeners.
My reaction to the interview–and other stories like it during the week–was rather like Tim Graham’s take at Newsbusters: “Thatcher, Schmatcher. NPR is still obsessing over its loss of leftist Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez.” But when I actually looked up the interview on the NPR website, I saw something else completely. Even when normally far-left NPR decides to air a mostly positive story about Chavez, it is still not positive enough for its left-wing listeners.
Many listeners were voicing their anger at NPR for daring to mention any of the negative realities of life under Chavez. One listener wrote:
The tone of this article is most disappointing. Where do I start and is it worth it, given that NPR has become a mouthpiece for North American pursuit of control over everyone, starting from its docile citizens? Or are they simply immoral and prefer to ignore military intervention so they can continue to shop and charge everything on their US bank-issued Chinese-funded credit cards? Just a couple of examples: one is the implication that Chavez acted out of desire and love of power, so he “used his racial heritage to connect with the populace”. Never considered is the possibility that he desired to improve the people’s condition.
It is disturbing that Steve Inskeep, the host of NPR’s flagship Morning Edition program, is being advised in his reporting on Venezuela by NPR reporter Juan Forero (former NY Times and Washington Post reporter) and Rory Carroll of the The Guardian. Both have a long history of anti-Chavez (and, in the case of Forero, anti-left) reporting. It will be interesting to see if Inskeep can find his way free of these two “minders” to report objectively on the Venezuelan elections.
One decided to employ identity politics to find fault with the interview: “Rory Carroll isn’t even Venezuelan, yet he gets the first interview with Morning Edition WTF is that about? The guy is a European reporter, so he wrote a book about Hugo Chavez – from a Euro-centric perspective and that is suppose to help us understand what???” And yet another lamented that we don’t have a Chavez in the U.S.: “I wish we had a leader like him who had the courage to take on the corrupt business interests can to support the poor and the common people.”
If you check out the other stories in the series, you see the same thing, over and over again, listeners complaining that Steve Inskeep and the others dared to report anything negative about Chavez and his legacy. So while I listened to some of the stories and thought, “there NPR goes again, praising Chavez,” a highly vocal group of the network’s audience was infuriated that there was actually a bit of reporting mixed in with all of the hagiography. And that tells us something about NPR and its core audience.
NPR’s leftist bias is well-known and has been quite obvious for many years, but reporting on Chavez exposes one of the key fault lines on the American left. Many of NPR’s listeners consider themselves “liberals” and like to believe that they are open-minded enough to appreciate the “good things” that they think Chavez did while acknowledging that as a leader he was a bit heavy-handed in some respects and ineffective in others. Those sorts of listeners sympathize with the left, but flatter themselves into believing that they don’t fully identify with it. Other listeners, though, are unapologetic leftists, and they become infuriated every time NPR makes any sort of accommodation to the “liberals”–or worse, to the “moderates”–in the listening audience.