One belief that many well-educated Americans have is that Venezuela's government controls its media. According to this belief, this is the reason why Hugo Chávez continuously wins elections. Since all the television channels and newspapers are pro-Chávez, the common people are "tricked" into supporting him.
In fact, this appears to be a completely false myth. On balance, Venezuela's media is anti-Chávez. A person who watches Venezuelan news coverage, listens to a Venezuelan radio program, or picks up a Venezuelan newspaper is more likely than not to hear bad things about Chávez.
There's a reason why Americans believe that Chávez controls the Venezuelan media; all the American media continuously publishes stories about media suppression undertaken by the Chávez government. (For examples, see here, here, and here.) These stories are not false in the sense that they describe events which actually happened (i.e. Chávez has taken action against anti-Chávez network RCTV). But they are very misleading.
Let's take a look at television. Venezuelan television is dominated by four networks: Venevisión, Televen, Globovisión, and Venezolana de Televisión (VTV). Of these four networks, Venevisión and Televen are moderately anti-Chávez, Globovisión is extremely anti-Chávez, and VTV is extremely pro-Chávez. Venevisión and Televen hold 60% of the TV audience in Venezuela. VTV appears to hold only 6% of Venezuelans.
According to this article (published by a pro-Chávez newspaper), during the first week of the presidential campaign three of these four channels gave more favorable coverage to Chávez's opponent Henrique Capriles Radonski. Televen gave 15 minutes of favorable coverage to Chávez but 28 minutes to his opponent; Venevisión gave 9 minutes of favorable coverage to Chávez but 75 minutes to his opponent; Globovisión gave 56 minutes of favorable coverage to Chávez but 8 hours and 38 minutes to his opponent; and only VTV gave 8 hours and 26 minutes of favorable coverage to Chávez compared with 3 hours and 23 minutes to his opponent.
American media outlets often claim that government television is overwhelmingly favorable towards Chávez. This is true but misleading. VTV, the government network, is biased for Chávez, as the statistics indicate. But only six percent of Venezuelans watch VTV. Another claim is that Chávez often interrupts news programming with hours of cadenas, which this Times article beautifully describes as "torrents of propaganda usually in the form of a speech delivered to a handpicked audience of Chávez loyalists." But are the cadenas enough to outweigh the 23 other hours of anti-Chávez broadcasting?
Let's take a look at print media. Venezuela has three major newspapers: Últimas Noticias, El Nacional, and El Universal. Últimas Noticias is pro-Chávez; El Nacional and El Universal are anti-Chávez. El Nacional is owned by Miguel Henrique Otero, a founder of the anti-Chávez organization Movimiento 2D. As for El Universal, this is what it published during the failed 2002 coup d'état against Chávez:
Note that ¡Un Paso Adelante! means "A Step Forward!" in English.
Finally, let's look at radio coverage. While some American media articles indicate that it's getting harder and harder to find anti-Chávez radio stations, other sources are more skeptical. For instance, Mark Weisbrot - whose article was actually the inspiration for this post - writes:
According to CONATEL data, only about 14 percent of radio is publicly owned; and since there is more strongly anti-government radio in Venezuela than TV, the opposition almost certainly has more advantage in radio than in other media.Indeed, it seems that the Venezuelan media played a major role in supporting the failed 2002 coup d'état against Chávez. Coup plotters collaborated with Venezuelan media figures before the coup. The media refused to show statements by officials condemning the coup d'état. When the coup d'état failed, the private Venezuelan networks refused to broadcast the news that Chávez had returned to power.
Since the failed coup, the tone of the media - especially Televen and Venevisión - has become less anti-Chávez. Nevertheless, most Venezuelan media is owned by right-wing business elites who loathe Hugo Chávez. Most Venezuelan media played an active part in in the failed 2002 coup d'état against him.
In writing this post, I should note that I am not a supporter of Hugo Chávez; indeed, I have previously criticized his failure to reduce inequality in Venezuela. If I were Venezuelan, I would vote against Chávez and for the opposition.
But one's personal dislike of Hugo Chávez has nothing to do with the bias of Venezuela's media. It's fair to say that, on balance, Venezuela's media is biased against Hugo Chávez. Unfortunately, too many journalists writing in too many American media sources have let their dislike of Chávez blind them to the truth. This has left too many intelligent Americans badly misinformed.