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Bob Naiman on the NY Times Venezuela/Iraq comparison

August 29, 2010

I’d be a fan of Bob Naiman’s even if I hadn’t met him when he was organizing labor locals and co-founding new chapters of Jobs With Justice. Now he’s in DC, with Just Foreign Policy, writing critical accounts of foreign reporting. His take on Simon Romero’s unfavorable comparison of violence in Venezuela to violence in Iraq makes quite a few good points. It’s hard to argue with Naiman’s reaction to the nonsensical email he received from the editors in which they claim that the Iraq Body Count figure is “official” (not true) and “subject to debate”. As Naiman says:

It is reasonable to expect that the overwhelming majority of people who saw and will see the front-page story in the New York Times won’t be aware of any of this. They will see the headline “More Killings in Venezuela Than in Iraq,” complete with a huge color photo of a funeral with grieving relatives of a murder victim. This will go all over the world, and many people will think, “Isn’t that amazing! More killings in Venezuela than Iraq! That Hugo Chavez has really made a mess out of the country.”

Arguably, that is the point of such an article, to produce this result.

If you believe that civilian deaths in Iraq have been relatively low, and if you also believe that Chávez is, in fact, responsible for the increase in murders Venezuela, then you will deem this good journalism. I don’t believe the former, and I haven’t seen a good argument from either side as to why the murder rate in Venezuela is so high. But it is high – higher than in Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico – and the government, whether responsible or not, needs to act even more decisively. I suspect that whatever legitimate opportunities are being provided by the government do not lead to the outcomes that many young, impoverished men have in mind. Social programs must become even more inviting and inclusive, and they need to enmesh individuals in emotional and economic networks. Always easier said than done, but I believe community media can play an important role by offering alternative understandings of what it means to live well.

That said, the statistics I’ve seen regarding apprehension and prosecution of criminals is alarming. The police and judiciary are failing the population and in need of reform. The politicized disbursement of federal funds to states and municipalities, whether or not the cause of those failings, is certainly not helping the reform process. The government needs to stop playing politics with public resources. It’s costing them support at the polls. More importantly, it’s undemocratic and a discredit to socialist ideals.

I’m especially glad that Naiman pointed out the ridiculousness of this observation: “Reasons for the surge [in homicides] are complex and varied, experts say. While many Latin American economies are growing fast, Venezuela’s has continued to shrink.” As he says:

This could possibly explain some of the crime of the first quarter of 2010, in which the Venezuelan economy did shrink. But Venezuela’s economic growth was the fastest in the hemisphere from 2003-2008, so the fact that there was one quarter where most of Latin America was growing and Venezuela was not doesn’t explain a ten-year trend [in homicide rates].

It’s troubling to think that the NY Time’s Venezuelan correspondent wasn’t able to figure this out for himself. Either he was ignorant of Venezuela’s economic performance over the last decade, unable to usefully apply that knowledge, or willfully withholding it in order to misrepresent the situation. Any of those alternatives is unacceptable.

Finally, while I’ve got mostly praise for Naiman’s analysis, I agree with the comment that it doesn’t make much sense to say “most of the Venezuelan media, as measured by audience, is controlled by the opposition”. Control of a national media system, from a political-economic perspective, isn’t best measured by audience share. Ownership is primary. So, while it’s wrong for the mainstream US press to continuously suggest that there is only one non-government TV station left in Venezuela, it’s also wrong to imply that the opposition is in control just because the audience prefers commercial outlets. Instead of bemoaning the audience’s preference, public and community media workers should take the situation as a challenge to produce more compelling material. For public and community media alike, greater citizen participation is one of the keys.

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