Media Downplay Danger of Hugo Chavez

The pounding waves and 165-mph winds announced the arrival of Hurricane Hugo in September 1989. Hugo battered the East Coast, costing $8 billion and taking 50 lives.

Now a new Hugo is threatening the U.S. — with far more force than his predecessor. This storm is smaller and filled with hot air, but it’s a bigger danger. Meet Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, whose career has been filled with human rights violations, radical rhetoric, crackdowns on the free press and an attempted coup that cost dozens of lives. While broadcast reporters have worried 24-7 about dangers of foreign firms running American ports, they have paid little attention to Chavez and his latest threats to the United States.

According to the Feb. 21, 2006, Financial Times, Chavez “insisted the U.S. would receive ‘no more oil’ if it ‘crossed the line’ in its supposed efforts to undermine his ‘revolution.’” That new threat went unreported on ABC and NBC. In fact, since Chavez took power in 1998, all three broadcast networks have minimized the dangerous truth about his regime and his control of the second-largest oil supply in the Western Hemisphere.

The Media Research Center’s Free Market Project (FMP) tried to get to the bottom of how the networks have covered Hugo Chavez, and the bottom was easy to find. FMP looked at all 139 stories on ABC, NBC and CBS news programs about Chavez since he took power in 1998, and results showed the media downplaying any danger from a leader even some in the media recognized was “anti-American.”

Network reporters described Chavez with squishy terms — the same terms they applied to almost anyone on the left. Rather than giving an accurate portrayal of his politics, both NBC and CBS called Chavez “left-leaning,” a term “CBS Evening News” reporter Byron Pitts used for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in a 2004 campaign story and ABC’s Terry Moran recently used for Oscar-nominated films like “Brokeback Mountain” and “Syriana.”

To its credit, CBS acknowledged both recent times Chavez made his ominous vow to cut off oil to America. The “CBS Evening News” noted the danger on Feb. 24, 2006, as reporter Anthony Mason admitted Chavez posed “a significant threat because 15 percent of our energy imports come from Venezuela.”

But the network gave the topic just a small mention on two separate newscasts in two months. Meanwhile, CBS has been all over the ports controversy — every single day for the last week. So, admitting Chavez is a dangerous is like a weatherman warning it might rain while 20-foot waves are already flooding the town. It’s too little and too late.

The media called Chavez “anti-American,” but he is much more. He is working to become his generation’s Fidel Castro. Even in admitting that, the media treat Castro more like a quaint relic of the Cold War than the murdering thug history would indicate.

Why should we care about a new Castro? For starters, Chavez is in charge of the one of the world’s largest oil producers and the third-largest oil importer to the United States. In addition, he controls the Venezuela-owned oil company that, in turn, runs Citgo.

Yes, Citgo — a name that conjures up about a century of serving the car-driving public from the Model T to the SUV. The same Citgo that baseball fans think of with a sign looming over the left field wall at Boston’s Fenway Park. Today, there are roughly 13,500 Citgo service stations around the United States — or an average of more than 260 for each and every state and the District of Columbia.

But while many individual gas stations remain unchanged, little else about the firm has. Chavez has already exported his “revolution” to that company, replacing executives and board members and using hundreds of millions in profits to help fund his friends — like Castro. You might have read about this in your newspaper, but the broadcast news has been too busy elsewhere to give this issue the coverage it deserves.

Not all oil men were as well-treated by the media as Hugo Chavez. Big profits for Big Oil were big news in the past year. Network reporters couldn’t muster enough hyperbole to describe the success of the other major energy companies. But for all the networks’ complaining about “jaw-dropping profits” and comparing oil executives to the heads of the tobacco industry, the one oil man they should have scrutinized was largely overlooked.

Americans are supposed to count on the media to serve as a barometer of what is really going on in the world. With Hugo Chavez, the network news shows don’t see the coming storm.