Friday, January 18, 2008

Will the press, owned by the oligarchy, be able to undermine the popular revolution? (And, are they getting a little help from the CIA?)

“... private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult and in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions.”
– Albert Einstein,“Why Socialism,” Monthly Review, 1949

In the national and international press, President Hugo Chavez and his government of Venezuela are often accused of dictatorial tendencies even though there is little evidence to support that contention. Anyone who stays here for a considerable period of time will realize that this is one of the most open countries in the world, characterized by a friendly and outspoken population that isn’t hampered by rules and regulations, and by a press that is free to say anything it wants. Aside from the riches generated by the state-owned oil industry, the nation has a thriving economy with millions of small business people and a powerful capitalist sector that asserts oligarchic control over almost all other big business enterprises, including the press.

Most analysts here and abroad estimate that 90-95% of the newspapers in Venezuela support the opposition and are published by wealthy members of the oligarchy. Their papers and the types of information, or disinformation, that they circulate present a major challenge to the government and the two-thirds of the people that support Chavez. These media are located in every major city and are responsible for generating the usual staples required of regional papers: stories on local affairs, sports, business, culture, want ads, etc. Thus they reach an audience far greater than their opposition supporters, including many people who may dislike the anti-Chavista editorial line, but want access to local news and advertisements. This allows the papers to generate confusion by planting outrageous sentiments, some of them disguised as news.

Extreme examples of the outrageous were seen during the recent vote for constitutional reforms in December, when the opposition used their media tools to bombard the population with arguments against the reforms, and advertisers were free to say anything they wanted, even in the few major papers that maintain a stance of neutrality toward the government. For instance, the Cámara Industrial de Carabobo, an organization of industries which includes many subsidiaries of U.S. multinational companies, posted a giant two page ad in Ultimas Noticias, an even-handed paper with the largest circulation in the country. The industrialists told parents that the reforms would allow Chavez to steal their property and their children. The ad read, in part:

If you are a Mother, YOU LOSE! Because you will lose your house, your family and your children. Children will belong to the state.

To William Blum, U.S. expert on the CIA and its efforts to destabilize other countries, this sounded very much like efforts that were mounted against Salvador Allende in Chile in the 1960s and 1970s. Recently Blum described them in his Anti-Empire Report:
…one radio spot featured the sound of a machine gun, followed by a woman's cry: "They have killed my child -- the communists." The announcer then added in impassioned tones: "Communism offers only blood and pain. For this not to happen in Chile, we must elect Eduardo Frei president." Frei was the candidate of the Christian Democratic Party, the majority of whose campaign costs were underwritten by the CIA according to the US Senate. One anti-Allende campaign poster which appeared in the thousands showed children with a hammer and sickle stamped on their foreheads.

William Blum and I both spoke to audiences at the Book Fair in Caracas in November about what´s happening in the heart of the Empire (otherwise known as the United States.) Blum was also invited to appear on Venezuelan television because he has a special kind of expertise. He has written some of the most valuable books that you can find on the destabilizing and murderous activities of the CIA and the U.S. State Department, including Killing Hope, Rogue State, and Freeing the World. Blum once was employed by the U.S. State Department himself, but quit in disgust over the kinds of things he saw done in the name of U.S. democracy. Since the 1970s he has devoted himself to researching and writing about the foreign interventions that most U.S. citizens choose to ignore. Recently, in his e-mail newsletter, “The Anti-Empire Report,” he gave a brief review of the record since World War II:

Attempted to overthrow more than 50 foreign governments, most of which were democratically-elected; successful a majority of the time.

Grossly interfered in democratic elections in at least 30 countries.
Attempted to assassinate more than 50 foreign leaders.

Dropped bombs on the people of some 30 countries.

Helped to suppress dozens of populist/nationalist movements.
(In sequence, details of the five items can be found in Blum's books: "Freeing the World", chapter 15; "Rogue State", chapters 18, 3, 11, 17; see also "Killing Hope" for further details)

The Venezuelan press continues to serve daily doses of propaganda – who is producing it?

The anti-Chavez propaganda attacks continue to appear regularly in the Venezuelan media, which are allowed, and rightfully so, to express these opinions on their editorial pages. The commentators’ rhetoric is overblown and seldom accompanied by rational arguments or a careful exposition of the faults of the government.

The problem is that this kind of heavy-handed indoctrination has spread throughout the news sections of the papers. Last week I perused one of the two major newspapers, both backing the opposition, that are published in Barquisimeto, the city of one million that is the capital of the State of Lara. I wasn’t looking for the worst, since I bought El Informador, the more moderate of the two papers; it allows an occasional pro-Chavez editorial to appear alongside the conservative columnists on its opinion page.

On pages A3 and A4 of El Informador, in the regular news section, I found various articles prepared by news organizations without attribution to individual writers. One of them had a particularly inflammatory headline:

El plan fue diseñado en conjunto con Fidel Castro
Desabastecimiento forma parte de un plan estratégico de Chávez
Intopress, Caracas, febrero 7

The plan was designed with the help of Fidel Castro
Food shortages form part of Chavez’s strategy

This entire article was devoted to repeating, without any analysis or response from other sources, a diatribe circulated by Johnson Delgado, president of the COPEI party in the state of Tachira the previous day. Delgado claimed that the food shortages experienced in some stores in the country were planned by Chavez in conjunction with Fidel Castro in order to create so much chaos and unhappiness among the populace that the government could declare martial law and impose a dictatorship on the Venezuelan people. (The COPEI party, by the way, was once a major party, but was discredited by corruption years ago and has only received a tiny fraction of the national vote in the past decade.)

[By the way, food shortages of particular items, such as powdered milk, are real, and a nagging problem right now. But this should not be confused with a lack of food in general, since Venezuelans, particularly the lower classes, are consuming a lot more food than ever before due to vastly increased wages, low cost markets at Mercal, and a variety of government nutrition programs. And the supermarkets in middle class areas are overflowing with food, just like in the U.S. One factor that is getting no attention from the opposition, and possibly not enough attention from the government, is the huge jump in prices of basic food commodities on the world market.]

This article devoted to Johnson Delgado was generated by a news agency named Intopress that seems to specialize in anti-Chavez articles lacking any factual content. Three other pieces on the page were more conventional reporting concern regional elections, the resignation of a Supreme Court judge, and a debate over hoarding food in the National Assembly. A fifth article, supplied by a news agency called AMM, was similar in tone to the article from Intopress, and also read like an opposition opinion piece – it simply quoted at length the rather wild opinions of Jorge Montoya, a leader in the Un Nuevo Tiempo opposition party, who ranted about Chavez’s ego, and the “fact” that Venezuelan ports are now “the principal points of departure for drugs in the whole world.” There was, of course, no evidence at all presented to back up this assertion.

Another similar article on the previous page was generated by AMM was devoted to quotations from Manuel Rosales, the losing presidential candidate in 2006 (63% to 37%) and governor of the state of Zulia. He claimed that the current national “government is dedicated to the destruction of the country’s economy and values.” Since real economic growth in Venezuela, after subtracting for inflation, has been 8% to 9% per year for several years (the highest in Latin America), it would have been nice if Rosales, or perhaps a reporter, had produced some numbers in support of his argument.

The media strategy is reminiscent of Chile in the 1970s, when the CIA was not content merely with financing anti-Allende political campaigns. It also worked hand in hand with the private media in Chile and flooded the newspapers and radio with negative stories about President Allende’s government and the government. Not only that, but other funds from the CIA were used to create negative events, as when it paid for a massive trucking shutdown by the owners of the transport industry, thus creating shortages of foods and other necessities among the general population.

Can we prove that the CIA or other U.S. organizations are directly manipulating and financing the press in Venezuela? No. But past history, and the direct help the U.S. is giving to the political opposition in Venezuela, suggest that they have some role in the current disinformation campaign being waged against the Bolivarian Revolution.

What should the Chavez government do in response?

Venezuela’s borders are open; its commerce with the rest of the world, especially the United States, is extensive; and there is complete freedom to travel within the country. Thus there are innumerable ways that money and agents from abroad could be at work generating disinformation that is harmful to the government and the populace in general. [There is even the possibility that the hoarding of food by some wholesale food businesses who hope to reap extra profits by forcing prices higher - a practice that has been documented by government raids on a limited number of warehouses - is also being encouraged by economic saboteurs.] The Venezuelan government is not being paranoid to suspect that the CIA and the U.S. State Department, and perhaps, some new “private contractors” are active behind the scenes.

The question for the government is: How to combat this pernicious influence?
One way of dealing with abuses in the press and other media, of course, is to follow the money. The National Assembly is currently putting pressure on the most notorious of the TV broadcasters, Globovision, to open its financial books and demonstrate the true sources of its funds. This may be helpful, but since many of the media-owning members of the oligarchy have substantial business holdings outside of Venezuela, it may be very difficult to show where personal finances end and contributions from foreign “friends” begin.

Another, more positive approach, was talked about last week at a national meeting of the PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela) that was held in the State of Bolivar. In order to counteract opposition/imperialist propaganda, the PSUV activists talked about creating competing news outlets at the state and local levels throughout Venezuela. This probably a very good idea, but – how can it be achieved? And how long will it take?

Perhaps we can talk about the possibilities in a later post.

And now, a brief flashback to another time and another country, where the freedom of information is much more endangered by the corporate oligarchy.

An excerpt from Chapter 15 of my book, Robbing Us Blind: the Return of the Bush Gang and the Mugging of America, Common Courage Press, 2004

Murdocracy in America

John Ellis is George W. Bush’s first cousin and his very close friend since childhood. He was hired by Fox News to be a head honcho on their “Decision Desk,” sitting at the center of election night coverage in November 2000. During the broadcast he periodically took a break from his desk and telephoned George W and Jeb Bush about the progress of the vote counting. He made his fifth call at 2 a.m. and told his cousins,
“Our projection shows that it is statistically impossible for Gore to win Florida.”

He then returned to his desk and made “The Decision” at 2:16 a.m. He called the election for his cousin. Ellis later bragged to a reporter, Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, “It was just the three of us guys handing the phone back and forth – me with the numbers, one of them a governor, the other the president-elect. Now, that was cool.”

John Ellis was the first television announcer to declare George W. Bush the winner of the presidency. Then all the other networks followed suit. Even though the victory declarations at Fox and every other network were later rescinded, many television viewers were left with the impression that having a recount in Florida was unfair to Bush. How could the vote be determined to be too close to call? Hadn’t Bush already been declared “Winner in Florida?”

Some time later Ellis admitted, "I am loyal to my cousin.... I put that loyalty ahead of my loyalty to anyone else."

This explains why John Ellis called the election for the Bush Gang. But the real question is: Why was Fox able to install Ellis as the man in charge of election night reporting – manning the main desk just like Dan Rather at CBS – without revealing to the public that he was the cousin and very close friend of one of the candidates? John Ellis had not been signed on to give occasional right-wing opinions, nor to give political commentary as a family friend – in short, he was hired to report the news. Why didn’t the other news media scream to high heaven before, during, and after the Election night broadcasts? And who placed Ellis in that position on TV and how could they get away with it?

The puzzle fits together quickly. Ellis had been hired on a 30-day contract and worked for Roger Ailes, the director of Fox News and Republican media genius who brought Richard Nixon back into politics in 1968. Ailes was responsible for revving up the campaign of George Bush I in 1988, and later produced the Rush Limbaugh radio show for a while. Ailes was at Fox News because Rupert Murdoch, the Australian-born, multi-billionaire media baron, asked him to run the network.

Fox News is but one part of Murdoch’s world-wide empire, which began when he inherited his father’s newspapers in Australia. There he controls more than 60 percent of the country's metro, regional, and suburban press, which range from a sophisticated national paper, The Australian, to mass-market daily tabloids. The pattern of Murdoch’s scheme for global conquest under the flag of the News Limited, or the News Corporation, became apparent when he went to Great Britain. In the 1970s and ‘80s he accumulated 40% of the English newspaper readership. According to Russ Baker of the Columbia School of Journalism, “During the regimes of Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major in Britain, Murdoch ventures -- especially his purchase of newspapers and the launch of his BskyB service -- were repeatedly favored with easing of regulations and with government failure to invoke monopoly oversight. Murdoch's papers, in turn, played a central role in bolstering Thatcher's career and virulently attacked her opponents.”

Murdoch finished circumnavigating the English-speaking world by landing in the United States, where he later assumed American citizenship. He took over print media such as HarperCollins publishers, TV Guide, The New York Post, and The Weekly Standard, as well as 20th Century Fox films. Most of his money and energy, however, went into buying and expanding his American and international TV holdings.

Murdoch has corporate subsidiaries in over 50 countries, but his primary interest has been in dominating the press, TV, and politics of the Anglo-American world. His political preferences are right-wing, even ultra-right, but he does not let politics interfere with his business expansion plans. Murdoch "is far more right-wing than is generally thought," according to Andrew Neil, who used to edit Murdoch's London Sunday Times. "In the 1988 American presidential election his favorite for the Republican nomination was Pat Robertson," Neil wrote in his book Full Disclosure. "Dole is far too moderate a conservative for his tastes."

While Murdoch was living in Britain, he was the major backer of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, and then gave her a $5.4 million book contract when she left office. Once settled in the U.S., Murdoch became one of the biggest contributors to the Republican party, giving them about $1 million in 1996. The year before, while he was trying to get Congress to deregulate media laws that restricted his business expansion, he needed the help of Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich. He offered Gingrich a $4.5 million advance for his book, To Renew America. The Speaker was ready to accept, but the House Ethics Committee forced him to give up the contract because it was such a blatant conflict of interest.

Rupert Murdoch is not averse to political flexibility, however, when it serves his business interests. His newspapers have tended to be quite tolerant of China, sometimes publishing very favorable articles, especially at those times when his companies were negotiating for major access to the Chinese television market, the largest in the world. To sweeten the deals, he arranged for HarperCollins, his big publishing house, to print a book by Deng "Maomao" Rong, the daughter of the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. The advance, for a volume The New Yorker called "a turgid, barely literate piece of propaganda," was rumored to be $1 million.

Murdoch has also sided with Labor Party governments in Australia and Britain when he thought he could push them rightward on a range of issues. This was the case with Tony Blair, who traveled to Australia to confer with Murdoch and gain his favor before his first election as Prime Minister. The rightward shift of liberals and labor parties has suited two of Murdoch’s business objectives, namely to ease controls over monopoly ownership and to lower corporate taxes. Murdoch’s giant umbrella corporation, the News Corporation, has been a real pioneer in international tax evasion and the invention of new tax havens. It has woven a web of more than 800 subsidiaries which continually transfers profits from different operations in different countries until they find the safest – that is, tax free or nearly tax free – home. The Economist reported in 1999 that “The most profitable of News Corporation's British operations in the 1990s was ... News Publishers, a company incorporated in Bermuda. News Publishers has, in the seven years to June 30th 1996, made around £1.6 billion in net profits. This is a remarkable feat for a company that seems not to have any employees, nor any obvious source of income from outside Mr. Murdoch's companies.”

While the Bermuda angle is great scam for Murdoch, just as it is for U.S. multinational firms, there was a better place for Murdoch to set up shop. As far as the interests of the News Corporation are concerned, it had to be a country where rampant deregulation and a favorable tax atmosphere allowed corporations to overwhelm democracy in a big way. Murdoch decided that the United States fit the bill, especially once the first Bush Gang let the deregulators loose and opened up the country for merger mania in the 1980s.

Something else to consider: Rupert Murdoch now owns The Wall Street Journal.

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