When Is a Coup a Coup?

Article excerpt

Cold war journalism made a comeback last month. On April 11 Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was ousted in an ill-fated coup attempt. On April 14 he returned in triumph to the presidential palace. During the interregnum, the New York Times published an editorial celebrating the dethroning of a "would-be dictator." In what the Times called "a purely Venezuelan affair," Chavez, "a ruinous demagogue," stepped down "after the military intervened and handed power to a respected business leader, Pedro Carmona." The editorial itself was news in Latin America. The next day, the Mexico City daily La Jornada's front-page headline read, The New York Times Celebrated the Fall of a 'Would-Be Dictator.'

When Chavez, riding a wave of populist fury, reclaimed the presidency, the Times backpedaled, confessing on April 16 that it had "overlooked the undemocratic manner in which he was removed. Forcibly unseating a democratically elected leader, no matter how badly he has performed, is never something to cheer." Replying to a critical e-mail from Jules Siegel of Cancun, Mexico, editorial page editor Gail Collins admitted, "You're right, we dropped the ball on our first Venezuela editorial."

The Times was not the only US newspaper to drop the ball. On April 13 Long Island's Newsday published an editorial headlined Chavez's Ouster Is No Great Loss. Four days later, another editorial acknowledged, "Like him or not, Chavez had won his post in a free election and should be removed only by constitutional means." Few newspapers matched the rhetorical venom of the Chicago Tribune, which lashed Chavez on April 14 for "toasting Fidel Castro, flying to Baghdad to visit Saddam Hussein, [and] praising Osama bin Laden." When Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting asked the Tribune to document its assertion that Chavez had praised bin Laden, the editorialist admitted he had "misread" his source--a Freedom House report. (The Tribune printed a correction on April 20.)

The journalistic missteps were numerous. Newspapers tended to accept the legitimacy of the short-lived provisional government of Pedro Carmona--"a mild-mannered businessman," "slight and meek," according to the Times. The Economist's characterization of Carmona's government as "a cabinet full of conservative fanatics which excluded labour" was closer to the truth. In addition, the initial editorials in the Times, Washington Post, Newsday and Chicago Tribune--along with many news articles and commentaries in publications including The Nation--blamed Chavez and his supporters for the gun violence that killed seventeen on April 11, whereas subsequent dispatches from Caracas have portrayed a firefight between pro- and antigovernment forces.

Most newspapers simply parroted the White House, which welcomed Chavez's overthrow and insisted that a "coup" had not taken place. "That is not a word we are using," an unnamed official told the Post on April 12. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer announced on the same day, "Chavez resigned." Leading newspapers were quick to embrace the official rhetoric. "President Hugo Chavez...resigned this morning," Scott Wilson wrote in the April 13 Post. Writing from Caracas, Times reporter Juan Forero avoided the word "coup"--except to note, ominously, that the Cuban government was using that term to define Chavez's ouster.

What to call it, then? Within the pages of the Times, a lively debate ensued. Writing from Santiago on April 13, Times correspondent Larry Rohter expressed satisfaction over Chavez's ouster ("Chavez was a left-wing populist doomed by habitual recklessness") and argued that Chavez's fall cannot "be classified as a conventional Latin American military coup. …