NPR's weekly show On The Media routinely tilts strongly to the left. On the January 26 version, it includes a segment with ex-Greenpeace researcher/Washington Post writer William Arkin denouncing the Iraq surge as a worthless political smokescreen, and an analysis of the Bush State of the Union address with former Clinton speechwriter Michael Waldman (exaggerating the negative reviews Clinton received for his annual yawnfests). But the real eye-opener of the show was a segment defending Hugo Chavez for censoring opposition media outlets. What? An NPR segment with only one guest, making the case for censorship? Yes.
The guest arguing from deep inside the Hugo tank was Larry Birns of the Council for Hemispheric Affairs, a long-standing cheereleader for Latin American dictators and revolutionary guerrillas of the Left. NPR host Bob Garfield noted that a number of establishment newspapers editorialized against Chavez, and asked Birns skeptical questions about setting a bad precedent. But there was no defender of RCTV, the banned media outlet. So it's not a debate about Chavez, but a one-sided defense of his dictatorial move.
Garfield: "Chavez's former communications minister has referred to the move as 'the leading edge of the information hegemony of the state,' and RCTV says it has been denied due process. But to Larry Birns of the Liberal Council on Hemispheric Affairs, the underlying facts betray anti-Chavez editorializing as one-sided and simplistic."
Larry Birns: "RCTV is arguably the most scabrous example of yellow journalism in Latin America. It's an advocacy outfit, and it was one of the major plotters of a coup against Chavez back in April of 2002. This station engaged in trick photography and all sort of scandalous behavior in order to advance that coup."
Garfield: "Does not the principle of free speech, even of, you know, sort of obnoxious critics trump the history of RCTV's behavior? Is Chavez not setting a very bad precedent by silencing his most vocal critic?"
Birns: "This is a situation where RCTV uniquely was shouting out the word "fire" in a crowded theater. Ninety-five percent of the media in Venezuela is controlled by the anti-Chavistas, and they have their knives out for Chavez. So talking about constitutional guarantees, you may be talking to the wrong bunch."
Garfield: "Last month, Chavez was reelected in a landslide with 63 percent of the vote in an election with the highest voter turnout in Venezuelan history. Isn't that ample evidence that RCTV and anyone else in the right-wing media represent no great threat to his government?"
Birns: "Well, perhaps at this moment, no. But if you are using lies, distortions, prevarications, at some point your influence may prevail."
Garfield: "I want to ask you about what I referred to in the introduction, and that's the media coverage in the United States about Chavez's so-called Bolivarian Revolution. It's pretty close to being unanimous in denouncing Chavez's tactics, if not necessarily his goals. These editorial boards are not populated by know-nothings. In your view, they've all gone wrong. Why do you suppose that is?"
Birns: "Well, it was said of The New York Times that The New York Times will do everything for Latin America except visit it. It happens that most of the journalists, the correspondents give measured and fair and balanced treatment. But I do think that these editorials are simply scurrilous. It's basically an issue probably more of style than substance. I mean, Chavez is the kind of fellow that you don't find at Eton – bad instincts for public relations, bizarre antics. But this is Chavez's playful style. That has nothing to do with the quality of his thinking and the proposals that he's made. He is not a cruel, heartless man. He is not a Pinochet. He's anything but a Pinochet."
Garfield said the U.S. editorialists were worried he would become not a Pinochet, but a Castro. Birns concluded that Venezuela has always been a "faux democracy," that is, until Hugo came along: "Today, Venezuela is not only a formal democracy, a constitutional democracy, but it also is a real democracy in that people have the right to more than just starve. They also have the right to access to an education, to medical help and so forth."
You can tell Birns is on the hard left because NPR's Garfield says he has a "liberal group," which is not a label they would use for a liberal group, but only for a group that's liberal when compared to the liberal "mainstream." Why couldn't NPR also allow the counter-argument from RCTV?