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electoral controversy in Venezuela: can elected officials campaign? (part 2b)

September 23, 2010

[This is the third installment of this article. You may wish to read Part 1a Part 1 and/or Part 2 before proceeding.]

My previous post received a thoughtful and much appreciated reply from Francisco Suárez, who wrote (I trust) on behalf of Súmate, whose press release I had cited. He helpfully enumerated his concerns, so I’ll reply to them in turn, in three separate posts (2b, 2c, and 2d). Then – hopefully – I’ll continue with the planned third part of this article, regarding the specific legal context of Venezuelan electoral propaganda.

In the first section of his comment, Francisco wrote:

The problem of taking information on wikipedia is that nobody assumes the responsibility of the information published in it. In fact, that’s why journalist schools and colleges ban students form posting information found in wikipedia. In this context, it is incorrect to write that we are biased against the President of Venezuela, just because that’s your conclusion on reading wikipedia. We are a human rights NGO directed at promoting political (human) rights provided in the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the Venezuelan Constitution. The fact that the Venezuelan government systematically violates Venezuelans political rights as found by our investigations and reports, does not create a biased opinion against it.

As for Wikipedia, I agree that it’s not an appropriate reference for academic work, nor for certain styles of journalism. But I referenced Wikipedia in a blog post directed to a broad audience that may have little prior knowledge of  the situation in Venezuela. There has been significant and prolonged debate regarding Súmate’s role in Venezuela. As an advocate of media literacy, I feel it appropriate to alert my readers to that history before presenting them with data provided by Súmate. I pointed them to Wikipedia precisely because it is open to contributions from the public. In this case, I did not want an authoritative statement issued under the “responsibility” of a single entity. Instead, I wanted a dynamic record of an open debate about the subject, so that my readers could access information from both sides. Wikipedia offers that potential, if not always the reality. I actually find the english Wikipedia entry on Súmate (as of this writing) to be quite fair.

In any case, as I said in my post, the Wikipedia article is “a good place to start” – in part because it currently contains over 60 links to articles and documents for which authors and organizations do take full responsibility. Anyone wanting to learn more can and should follow some of those links. I did not say that Wikipedia is a good place to finish (it’s not). I also included a link to Súmate’s website, so that readers could easily include Súmate’s self-presentation in their evaluation. Moreover, I did not say that Wikipedia was the basis for my interpretation that “it’s fair to say that most observers would acknowledge that Súmate, for better or worse, carries a prejudice against the Chávez administration.” I think the Wikipedia article indicates this by pointing to statements carried in the NY Times, the BBC, and El Universal, but my opinion is the result of broader observation.

I do not believe, however, that data and analysis produced from a prejudiced perspective is necessarily untrue or less valid than information from some other non-prejudiced source. I said as much in the previous post, but I didn’t write further about my reasoning; I’m happy to have the chance here. Practicing media literacy means recognizing that all sources have some sort of prejudice – even if that is a prejudice for a certain type of “objectivity” (such as that taught in professional journalism schools in the US since the early 20th century). The trick is reading material from any particular source with a critical attitude that weighs the information presented against one’s understanding of the context in which that information was produced.

My goal was to convey to my readers that Súmate exists in a specific political context and that they should take that into account when reviewing Súmate’s information (and my interpretation of it, of course). Súmate is distinct from other potential sources of electoral observations, such as the Carter Center or the Organization of American States (OAS). As a Venezuelan watchdog group, Súmate expects the Chavez administration to violate established law. Francisco indicates this in his own comment: “… the Venezuelan government systematically violates Venezuelans [sic] political rights …”. This is a much different statement than “the government has violated some rights in the past”. The use of the qualifier “systematically” in conjunction with the present tense (“violates”) indicates that these violations are ongoing, even though there is no direct evidence for them. This strikes me as a very real prejudice (ie. a judgment formed prior to the case or event).

Just because it’s a prejudice, however, doesn’t mean it’s not true. (That’s why I said “for better or worse.”) To a certain extent, we should want our watchdog groups to be prejudiced. It helps them see all the angles and anticipate the actions of the groups and institutions that they monitor. The Chavez government may very well be systematically violating rights, but we need evidence to substantiate the claim. I appreciate that Súmate compiles and provides evidence in their press releases and other statements. That doesn’t mean I’m going to accept it without consideration. Since I know that Súmate carries the expectation that the Chavez administration is violating the law, I will use the weight of my reason to leverage the argument in the other direction until I am satisfied that it the evidence is strong enough to hold. In the same manner, when I read an article from a source with a prejudice in favor of the government, I use the weight of my reason to weigh the scales in the other direction, until I trust the strength of the argument.

I will gladly acknowledge that some of my favorite media outlets and content creators are prejudiced in one direction or another, for or against one issue or another, toward or away from a particular ideology, etc. I don’t think that makes them bad. In fact, I appreciate them for it all the more. It’s a testament to their integrity and it helps me comprehend their message. But to fully comprehend the message, I must keep in mind the source’s prejudices (whether structural or political). In short, being prejudiced is ok with me. What’s not ok is lying, faulty logic, hypocrisy, political censorship, fear mongering, etc. (To be clear, I do not mean to imply here that Súmate engages in any of these practices.)

I hope that sufficiently addresses Francisco’s first concern. In any case, I’m happy to have the opportunity to touch on the larger point that the Modern idea of perfect objectivity (ie. freedom from prejudice) is unattainable. As media literate citizens in the 21st century, we should not expect this type of objectivity from our information sources. This is not to say that there is no value in the professional objectivity of US journalism, but that we should recognize that perspective as one on a spectrum of important voices that we must evaluate in context and in conjunction.

Now to take it a few steps further (for those who are still paying attention): H.G. Gadamer pointed out half a century ago that Modernity (ie. the Enlightenment) sought to abolish “prejudice” (eg. religion and superstition), in favor of objective, empirical science. In the end, however, Modern thinkers (like Kant and today’s positivists) clung to one final prejudice: the prejudice against prejudice. Struggles over this conundrum lay at the heart of  the “Postmodern” fervor. I suspect it’s resolution will be the kernel of new forms of democratic communication and organization.

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