Credibility Chronicles

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.

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