Why We Need the New Yorker to Correct Its Error on Venezuelan Inequality

My hat is off to Keane Bhatt, NACLAblogger and occasional Extra!contributor, for his tireless efforts to prod one of the United States' most prestigious media outlets to live up to their professed standards of accuracy. The outlet is the New Yorker, a magazine whose name is practically synonymous with factchecking. It's a tradition there; they brag about how seriously they take checking the facts.

Which makes you wonder how Keane was able to find the glaring, major errors in the New Yorker's recent coverage of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, all perpetrated by longtime contributor Jon Lee Anderson.

First, in an online piece (10/7/12) previewing the 2012 Venezuelan presidential elections (originally titled "The End of Chavez?" but renamed "Chavez the Survivor" after Chavez won by a 10 percentage point margin), Anderson asserted that "Venezuela leads Latin America in homicides." Actually, as can be easily ascertained, Venezuela has half the homicide rate of Honduras, and is below El Salvador as well.

Still, it is true that Venezuela has a high murder rate, even if it's not the highest. And the online editors did post a correction when Keane brought the mistake to their attention (NACLA, 10/8/12). That is, more than a month after Keane brought it to their attention-and after Anderson admitted it needed to be corrected.

Then came Anderson's massive 11,000-word piece in the print edition, "Slumlord: What Has Hugo Chavez Wrought in Venezuela" (1/28/13-subscription required), which claimed that Chavez was intent on "preventing a coup like the one that put him in office."

No. Chavez had earlier led an attempt to overthrow the Venezuelan government in 1992, in the wake of government massacres that had killed hundreds if not thousands of protesters. The coup failed and Chavez was imprisoned; he was released by a new government after the president he tried to overthrow was impeached. Chavez ended up coming into office in 1998 in the usual way, via an election, which he won with 56 percent of the vote.

By asserting that Chavez took power through violence, Anderson seems to be trying to call into question the legitimacy of Chavez's tenure in office. But what he's really doing is casting doubt on the legitimacy of the New Yorker's reporting and factchecking process. How do you write 11,000 words on a political figure without knowing how they got to their position? It's like writing a long profile on Gerald Ford that refers to that time when he was elected president.

And how does a libel like that get through the magazine's vaunted factchecking process? One begins to suspect that, as with most of the corporate media, the New Yorker has a different standard when it comes to accusations against an official enemy.

The magazine did correct this mistake as well, again after Keane brought it to public attention. Here's how Anderson acknowledged he was wrong (Twitter, 3/20/13): "U r right. Now being fixed. Thx x pting out. Not intentional, obv; fctcking errors. U may stop vilifying me now." Charming.

But in the meantime, the magazine's website (3/5/13) had published Anderson's commentary after Chavez's death, which asserted that in some ways Chavez left behind "the same Venezuela as ever: one of the world's most oil-rich but socially unequal countries."

This is wrong in two important ways: One, Venezuela is not particularly unequal in global terms, and is the least inegalitarian country in Latin America; and two, inequality decreased remarkably under Chavez.

This error the New Yorker has so far refused to correct. In correspondence with Keane, the magazine has maintained, improbably enough, that the passage should be construed as meaning that Venezuela is one of the world's most oil-rich-but-socially-unequal countries; in other words, that it's one of the most unequal oil-rich countries. I don't think that's how an English-language speaker would actually parse that phrase, but it doesn't matter: Venezuela is not particularly unequal even if you look only at countries with a lot of oil.

For his part, Anderson defends himself by saying (Twitter, 3/21/13), "I do my own reporting, and form own impressions." Really? Did the New Yorker's factcheckers accept that when you cited that as your source? Does factchecking at the New Yorker really consist of confirming that writers actually claim to have the "impressions" that they write about having? Hard to see why you'd need much of a factchecking staff to do that.

This is the exact opposite of a trivial error; inequality is one of the defining issues of our time. In the United States, over the past 30 years, the share of income going to the top 1 percent has soared, while the income share for the bottom 80 percent has fallen. The increasing concentration of wealth can be blamed for virtually every domestic problem we have, from economic stagnation to the debt crisis to unaffordable healthcare to educational disparities. And it's not just a U.S. problem: As some recalled at the death of Margaret Thatcher, inequality has risen sharply in Britain as well.

Meanwhile, in Venezuela-and Latin America in general, particularly in countries that have followed Venezuela's policy lead-inequality has decreased dramatically. Not according to Anderson's "impressions," but according to economists who make a serious study of these things. (This is, by the way, why Chavez was hated so much by upper-class Venezuelans-including the journalists and academics whose point of view dominates Anderson's reporting: Few people enjoy seeing their standard of living decline, even relatively.)

How does the New Yorker deal with this remarkable fact? Through denial. By pretending that Chavez has not, in fact, done anything to alleviate inequality, and by pretending that is one of the reasons one should reject him. It's a neat trick.

Venezuelans likely don't read the New Yorker much, and in any case can form their own judgment of Chavez's policies. In the United States, we have no comparable movement to reverse the devastating shift of wealth to the wealthiest-and we desperately need one. In other words, we need the New Yorker to get the facts right about Chavez-not for Chavez, but for us.

You can write to New Yorker editor David Remnick at David_Remnick@newyorker.com and ask him to prove that factchecking at his magazine is more than just branding by issuing a long overdue correction.

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