Credibility Chronicles

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Don’t-Be-a-Slave-to-Writer’s-BlockA fun digression on writing about Venezuela, from guest blogger Daniel Lansberg Rodríguez.

Everyone’s done it at some point – hitting send on a text message, email or — God forbid — Tweet only to stop dead: “Hmmm… maybe I shouldn’t have done that?”

Recently that sort of thing happened to me with an opinion piece that appeared on page 7 of the Financial Times. They had contacted me last minute (probably because Quico’s in Africa) and asked if I could write something (overnight) that I had pitched them a long time ago, something about the elections and Maduro’s erratic electioneering (bird, Macarapana et al.)

In one highly caffeinated all-nighter – – unhinging in a Jack Nicholson/The Shining sort of way — I put some thoughts to screen and hit send. It wasn’t until the next morning (late afternoon UK time) that it struck me: “Hmmm… maybe I shouldn’t have done that.”

Now FT has a paywall worthy of Hadrian but here’s a representative quote:

“In a slapdash election, compressed into mere weeks of formal campaigning, Mr Maduro the unassuming apparatchik has mutated into a ghoulish pantomime of Chávez himself, mimicking his invective and mannerisms, even sporting the same tricolour jacket. It is unnerving and more than a little sad.”

Admittedly, I can see how that might come across as not wholly unbiased. And I am thankful to the excellent editorial staff at the FT for having taken some of the more colorful words, such as “deranged”, and replaced them with more manageable alternatives. But it’s an opinion piece right? Isn’t opinionating the point? To what extent are we still allowed to be biased?

Well, it is an opinion piece, kind of.

Respectable publications expect you to maintain a neutral air (unless of course you are revolutionary, in which case all bets are off.) And while it can feel a bit silly, even hypocritical, it’s the price I’ve been assured one has to pay if you hope to be doing this long.

So yes, generally speaking, I have tried to preserve a semblance of detached professional equanimity when writing about Venezuela for international consumption. I’ve written pieces with names like “The Little that Hugo Chávez got Right,” and I’ve been careful to include rhetorical counterweights (usually some vaguely positivist platitude like: “Chavismo made the poor feel empowered” or “oil diplomacy that has made Venezuela internationally relevant”) even when discussing concepts that I find wholly indefensible on their face (e.g., “Lista Tascón” or “Afiuni”)

I wonder if this kind of toll-road mentality to publishing Venezuela pieces internationally is a good thing. While these types of qualified positive reinforcements may feel like little more than an empty formality when one writes them, might their use carry real costs?

Each new “credibility plug” perpetuates this expectation of balance for balance’s sake, and reinforces the idea that there are more shades of gray involved here than there actually are. Still, we dutifully brush off tired tropes as the obligatory “plus-side of Chavismo” angle lest people dismiss the rest of our message as the imbalanced rantings of some reactionary madman.

Yet after fourteen years of Bolivarian Revolution, can anyone who actually goes to the trouble of doing this sort of thing really claim to be a wholly unbiased observer? Does the government even pretend to claim that?

And yet we continue rushing about the Titanic, alerting people that the iceberg has done its worst, while qualifying that warning with something positive out of habit: “…but the ship does have some really nice features — excellent catering for one — and unlike boats twenty years ago, where a dozen third-class families would share one latrine, that number has now been reduced to a more manageable three.”

Meanwhile, the ship sinks on.

1 COMMENT

  1. IMO if the ask you to write an op/ed readers want your opinion, not just some washed down with jabón las llaves version. So don’t feel bad. Nobody could ask or expect any venezuelan op/ed to be completely objective after everything and all the things that have happened in these 14 years.
    Impossible!

  2. I don´t think it’s bad to be fair and impartial, which is negative I do think there is a need to be or regulate what is said and what is not. So self-censorship works. And these are mechanisms of control and repression and consequently, destroy civil liberties and human rights.

  3. Feeble attempt at damage control. But no cigar. Earlier angry and vengeance-filled posts from both Toro and Nagel demonstrated a lack of journalistic awareness, and detracted from building the maturity level of this blog. That’s my opinion. Click. Post.

  4. “Venezuela beyond the clichés”. And you’re equating Venezuela to the Titanic, which, if I recall correctly, did not take 14+ years to sink. It’s good no one reads your articles anyway, Juan.

    • In Juan’s defense. He did not write that. I did. That said, I salute you for what is a cogent, piercing criticism. One that expertly delves into the inherent relevance of temporal perception to the art of the modern deluvian metaphor — and shakes mine to its very core. Thank you.

      • The Titanic metaphore may be more apposite than appears at first glance , Long ago someone equated Venezuela to a reef stranded vessel that oil income kept afloat even where absent such income it would sink , but which could never break loose from the reef to allow it to proceed on its journey !!

    • You guys really are getting desperate, aren’t you? Instead of deflecting criticisms of the “revolution” by pointing at supposed successes you now are reduced to attacking the messenger, or in this case pathetically pointing out the process of failure has taken longer than that ill fated ship. I can’t blame you, given the shortages and fights that break out for basic goods, it isn’t really possible to claim success with a straight face. That leaves you with impugning the motives of your opponents and claiming good intentions on your part.

  5. Absolutely loooovee the titanic analogy! Recently started reading your blog Daniel and it´s also great. To be honest I needed my CC fix and CC wasn´t posting fast enough hahaha XD

  6. I maintain my opinion that an opinion editorial or blog has to reflect your opinion. You are not WALL-e and you do not come from Mars. You are venezuelan. Sooooo….2 y 2 son cuatro. I read CC because I am on the same page basically -except when the writers become self flagellating and/or patronizing, or the readers easily slip on the mango peels the trolls leave left and right. I don’t read aporrea because I am NOT on the same page as aporrea’s writers, or watch for instance, JVR’s show. I watch Teodoro’s. NYT is liberal, so is NPR. WSJ is not liberal. One reads op/eds that are basically in your same page. Sometimes I agree and sometimes I disagree with what I read or hear or watch. But… I tend to stay close to what reflects my feelings and/or reasoning.
    .
    My dad was a WWII veteran that left home at 14, to enroll and fight in la Legión Etranger, lost his family and all his posessions… He always used to say “Life is short and then you die” and when I was young- er I used tommake fun at him. now I realize he was right. it’s true. So I don’t want to waste precious time reading something that doesn’t resonate with my belief system. Embrace it.

  7. Once in a blue moon you can could say that you are fair and impartial like Fox News is, NOT!
    Tomorrow before sunrise,you will hear this sound all over Venezuela in a massive turn out and it will be all but over for y’all. You shall not return!

    There will be lots of crying in MUD-ville again, as the so called mighty Capriles strikes out…Then we will hear all kinds of excuses.

    “Chávez somos todos”
    Rojo Rojito
    Cort

  8. Daniel, I like this post and your questioning about your role as a writer. The thing about Venezuela is that there is still 50%+ of the people that have not thought that the country is a Titanic during 14 years! It is very bizarre for an opposition-viewed journalist to explain that to an international audience and yet write his mind upfront.

    I think there is a difference then between a journalist (or a writing professional) and a blogger. A blogger can speak his mind freely. A journalist or a professor must write in a way that people understand the context, even if he/she disagrees with that context.

    For instance, I am sure Moises Naim does not agree with chavismo. Nevertheless, since he is professional in his writing, he provides an analysis that makes us understand the economic perspective of the country in the most neutral manner he is capable of. He tries to make us understand why there is such a 50%+ people that believes in chavismo, without insults or ironies.

    The other thing, that you do not specifically underline, but it is worth noticing, is the need for the absence of personalization when writing/talking about issues. This is something very common in venezuelan media and politicians, no matter the ideological standing. And, in that respect, I englobe bloggers as well. If one is attacking a situation and an issue, one should not personally attack the individual. Doing so is unprofessional and ineffective. It may gain some short-term cheering from those that agree, but it lacks the long-term strength of serious analysis.

    Great post.

  9. I learned a lot reading this post and the comment section. Some very inciteful thinking regarding blogging vs journalism. Thanks

  10. Sorry, I meant to say thanks to all who contributed, starting with Daniel and Juan. An interesting aside is that Cort Greene’s contribution just brought us back to the reality of how dis-connected and irrelevant the trolls and PSF’s are when it comes to building a better world, let alone a better Venezuela!

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