Friday, June 16, 2006

CNN--Biased News on Venezuela?


By Charlie Hardy,
Posted on Thu Jun 15th, 2006 at 10:50:45 PM EST

Four years ago a Catholic priest in Venezuela said that if the press were the lifeblood of democracy, then Venezuela needed a transfusion.

Today I saw a segment of the June 7 edition of Lou Dobbs Tonight on CNN. If this program is representative of news reporting in the U.S., I would have to say the same about the state of democracy in the United States.

Where I live in Venezuela, I do not receive CNN news in English nor in Spanish. When I am traveling, I seldom see it. However, a friend sent me a link to the Lou Dobbs report on the Smartmatic voting machines that were used in the Venezuelan presidential recall referendum in 2004 and that were also used recently in Chicago and New Mexico.

First of all, some thoughts on voting machines. Computer results can be manipulated. Voting machines could be manipulated. But so can hand counting of ballots be manipulated. My mother taught me as a child that when a person voted it was important to make the “X” touch each corner of the square. This was necessary, she said, so that an election official couldn’t throw out the ballot as invalid because it wasn’t marked properly. In the recent elections in Peru, over a million ballots were thrown out for one reason or other.

It seems to me that the perfect answer for the twenty-first century is a combination of the two processes. Machines and computers are used to give quick results. But a paper trail is also established so that the computer results can be verified.

That is the process that is used in Venezuela. The voter uses a machine and is then given a printout of how the ballot was cast. This is then deposited in a box that can later be checked to verify the computer tally.

It is the process that was used for the presidential recall referendum in 2004. Both the Carter Center and the Organization of American States were pleased with the process and saw no reason to question the results favorable to President Chávez. The opposition, however, immediately cried that the results were invalid and that they had proof. No proof has ever been presented.

However, Lou Dobbs does have proof. His correspondent, Kitty Pilgrim, cites the Penn, Schoen & Berland polling firm as evidence. They said, hours before the polls closed, that Chávez lost 41 percent to 59 percent. Miss Kitty said, “But the next day, Chávez declared victory, reversing the score, saying he won 59 percent of the vote.” It was not Chávez but the National Electoral Commission that said that.

And if you want to check out an extensive evaluation of Penn, Schoen & Berland, read the Narco News report on them. The firm was working in collaboration with Sumate, the so-called “NGO” that received money from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), funded by the U.S. Congress.

So the Dobb’s report gives credibility to a shoddy work done by a biased polling firm and never mentions anything about the evaluation of the Carter Center or the OAS.

To back up Penn, Schoen & Berland’s questionable work, the program interviews Gustavo Coronel and Ricardo Hausmann. Coronel didn’t like Chávez even before Chávez was born. Hausmann, who landed a job at Harvard, was minister of planning in Venezuela in 1992. That was a bloody year in Venezuela, not so much because of Chávez’s short-lived coup attempt, but because of the number of people shot on the streets by the government of Carlos Andrés Pérez, Hausmann’s boss.

Not one voice favorable to the Venezuelan voting process was presented—a fine example of un-balanced reporting. For this Dobbs complimented Pilgrim with, “Kitty, thank you very much. Remarkable. Terrific reporting.”

There was a scene in the segment that I found hilarious and put the poor quality of the whole report in perspective for me. It presented the hands of someone rapidly dishing out 500 bolivar bills to show how much the Venezuelan government poured into the financing of the voting machines. Only one problem: 500 bolivars are worth less than twenty-five cents! Imagine a responsible television newscast showing someone counting out quarters to indicate how much the U.S. spends each hour in its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The 500 bills are no longer in circulation in Venezuela. They have been replaced by coins. CNN used old film or else has a store of bills that are no longer available here.

The counting quarters image would have been appropriate for a report on slot machines. Maybe Miss Kitty and Mr. Lou just got their stories mixed up. Unfortunately, this kind of reporting mixes up minds in the United States about what is happening in Venezuela.

Can anyone recommend a hospital in the U.S. for CNN? One that gives blood transfusions to news networks?

(Charles Hardy is author of a forthcoming book on Venezuela to be published by Curbstone Press. Other essays by Hardy can be found on his personal blog . You may write him at