Mayday – Latin dictator has seized control of American oil fields owned by Chevron, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil and is about to take over the media.
That’s exactly what happened May 1 in Venezuela under Hugo Chavez, but viewers of ABC, NBC and CBS News haven’t heard about it. Instead, Chavez has received flattering coverage from the big three networks since January.
“President Hugo Chavez is so beloved by some of his supporters that they hang pictures of him in their living rooms in the poor barrios that ring the city,” Barbara Walters gushed on ABC’s “Nightline” March 16.
Despite the fact that Chavez seized power and shut down his opposition in Venezuela, the media rarely portray him as a dictator, preferring kinder words like “controversial” and “populist.” Walters even called him “dignified,” “warm” and “friendly” in a recent interview.
The news media love bashing Big Oil, alleging price gouging and complaining about oil executives’ pay, but Chavez is one oil man who doesn’t get beaten up by the networks. The media frequently portray him as President Bush’s “critic” rather than a threat to American businesses and the United States.
A Socialist by Any Other Name
Although Chavez is openly socialist, journalists on ABC, CBS and NBC barely used the word in reports since January 1. ABC’s John Stossel was the only one to tell the truth, describing Chavez as a “destructive menace” on “20/20” March 16.
Network journalists also barely reported on Chavez’s seizing control of oil companies and the news media in Venezuela. One would think American media would be angered by Chavez’s decision to take over Venezuelan media and squelch freedom of the press.
According to Nexis transcripts, “CBS Evening News” was the only broadcast to mention the announcement, on January 13, but the East Coast feed was preempted for sports broadcasting that evening.
CBS did not follow up on that report since the seizures began on May 1. Chavez’s timing of the takeover was particularly significant, as May Day is an international socialist and anarchist holiday. But the networks have failed to cover affected American businesses, including ExxonMobil, Chevron and ConocoPhillips.
Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) has bluntly said what the networks have not. He told the Business & Media Institute that Chavez is harming American businesses.
“Certainly it’s happening. He’s using basically, blackmail and trying to extort American businesses and stealing American property for his own ambitions,” said Mack.
Walters’ and Chavez’s Coffee Talk
The most egregious example of network coverage was Barbara Walters’ lengthy interview with Chavez that was broadcast in part on “Nightline,” “World News with Charles Gibson,” “20/20” and “Good Morning America” on March 16.
According to GMA anchor Robin Roberts, “She [Walters] pulled no punches.”
That description was absurd. In reality, the interview coddled Chavez and downplayed his threat to United States interests. Walters asked Chavez to clear up American “misconception[s]” about himself. She also asked about how much coffee he drinks and whether he wants to marry.
“You are not married now. Are you, do you want to marry or are you married to the revolution?” asked Walters.
After the clip ended, Walters told Roberts that Chavez is intelligent and “he cares very much about poverty.” Walters also credited Chavez with “selling cheap oil in this country through Citgo, which they own,” to poor Americans in the winter.
But that cheap heating oil “came as a result of overall higher oil prices  Mr. Chavez obtained by prodding fellow OPEC members to limit production,” according to Stephen Johnson, a senior policy analyst with The Heritage Foundation.
Walters deflected criticism of Chavez’s PR move by saying, “oil is oil.” In the clips shown, Walters did not press Chavez on any hard topics like human rights, seizing assets or nationalization.
On “20/20” Walters simply toed Chavez’s line, seemingly unaware of the ridiculous irony in her statement: “Chavez says private property is safe, but he’s already nationalized some major corporations,” said Walters.
Chavez told Walters, “My line is humanism, respect for human rights.” The veteran interviewer did not ask him to explain how controlling the media or changing the constitution to remain in power was respectful of his citizens’ rights.
No Friend of Freedom
The American media love freedom of the press, yet apparently not in Venezuela. None of the networks has covered Chavez’s media takeover.
“Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez late Tuesday announced he has selected the members of the board of directors that is to conduct a new ‘public’ television channel that will replace Caracas-based private TV network RCTV as of May 28,” eluniversal.com reported on May 9.
Yet none of the three networks had reported the announcement as of May 13, much less criticized Chavez’s restriction of freedom.
Chavez is not only poised to assume control of RCTV; he has already “seize[d] majority equity share and operational control of four heavy-oil joint ventures” and bought out CANTV, a large telecom company, and a private electricity company, according to The Economist.
The oil projects seized by Chavez were controlled by U.S. companies ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Chevron, and foreign-based companies BP (U.K.), Statoil (Norway) and Total (France).
In the 2006 Economic Freedom of the World index, Venezuela ranked 126 out of 130, a dramatic decline from the 75 spot in 1995. Richard W. Rahn of the Center for Global Economic Growth predicted in a Washington Times commentary that Chavez’s actions will eventually cause an economic collapse in his country.
Same Oil Story
Network journalists have gone easy on Chavez for the most part, rarely criticizing him at all and even using him to criticize President Bush.
ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” on March 18 featured remarks by Chavez to begin a discussion highly critical of the president.
On “Good Morning America” Jessica Yellin said, “Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez did not mince words. At a rally across a river from Mr. Bush, he called the U.S. president an imperialist and declared him politically dead.” That was March 10.
Being uncritical of Chavez is nothing new for the networks. In March 2006, the Business & Media Institute analyzed all the news stories on ABC, NBC and CBS since Hugo Chavez took power in 1998.
BMI found that the media downplayed Chavez’s radical politics by labeling him “left-leaning,” the same word they used to describe Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. Only 3 percent of stories mentioned Chavez’s connection to Citgo, and none mentioned the many human rights abuses of his regime.
The threat to cut America off from Venezuelan oil was also ignored by ABC and NBC.
Even since Jan. 1, 2007, as the media have hyped the threat of rising gas prices, they have not mentioned how Chavez’s threats and destabilizing influence can contribute to rising costs.
That threat is very real, according to some. If Chavez closed Citgo’s refineries, “He’d only have to do that for 90 days, and he’d destroy our economy,” one energy investment banker told USA Today.