The National’s choice of which images and narrative to include and which to exclude created an unbalanced, inaccurate, pro-regime-change storyline.
No 2453 Posted by fw, March 31, 2019
Just to recap:
On February 18, 2019, Helga Wintal, (my partner), emailed her complaint to the CBC Corporation’s Ombudsperson regarding The National’s coverage of the Venezuelan crisis. With Helga’s consent, I posted a copy of her letter on this blog under the title: Letter of complaint to CBC Ombudsperson re CBC News – The National’s coverage of Venezuelan crisis.
The Ombudsperson responded promptly, noting that Helga’s letter had been forwarded to the Executive Producer of Network News, and that she could expect to receive a timely reply to her complaint.
The Producer’s email response to Helga, dated March 6, 2019, was received and posted on this blog under the title: CBC responds to Helga Wintal’s letter of complaint re coverage of Venezuelan crisis. In closing, the Producer noted: “… if you are not satisfied with my response, you may wish to ask Jack Nagler, CBC Ombudsperson, to review the matter.”
In recent weeks, Helga has been busy researching and composing a rebuttal letter detailing her counter arguments to the Producer’s defence of CBC reporting on Venezuela. Reposted below is a copy of Helga’s lengthy follow-up letter, dated March 31, 2019. It was emailed today to the Ombudsperson with a Cc: to the Executive Producer.
FYI — Helga Wintal, B.A. (Hon.), LL.B., is a retired public servant with extensive experience in federal, provincial and county governments.
Note: In preparing this letter, problems were encountered with the stability of the hyperlinks to The National’s programs. In one case the link to the February 25 News program appears to be permanently broken on both the CBC and YouTube websites. As well, searching for older programs using the CBC’s user-unfriendly search engine was particularly frustrating.
Helga’s letter follows.
March 31, 2019
Dear CBC Ombudsperson, Mr. Jack Nagler
c.c. Executive Producer of Network News
RE: Response to Executive Producer’s letter regarding the National’s Venezuelan coverage
I appreciated the Executive Producer’s (EP’s) March 6, 2019 response to my criticisms about the National’s Venezuela coverage. I disagree with his assertion that “there is no evidence to support the assertion that coverage has been inaccurate, unfair, lacking in balance or actively promoting one side over the other”. Therefore, in response to selected remarks made by the EP, I am providing additional comments for your review.
I intend this email as my final submission regarding this issue.
Please note that my complaint does not arise out of support for Nicolás Maduro or any particular political party in Venezuela; instead, it reflects the value I place on accurate, fair, balanced and impartial reporting.
Since this is a very long, detailed submission, I’ll begin with a Summary. The Summary uses the same headings that appear in the body of my submission below. They were also used in my February 18 letter of complaint to you. The Executive Producer also used these headings in his March 6 email to me.
1/ Mischaracterizing the persona and legitimacy of Juan Guaidó: Nicolas Maduro is the President of Venezuela. Although the CBC National’s broadcasts referred to Guaidó as the “self-declared interim president”, they created an appearance of legitimacy for him through extensive screen time, a flattering, uncritical interview with Adrienne Arsenault and frequent references to his international support. Nowhere did the broadcasts clarify the considerable internal and external support that Maduro enjoyed, or interview him personally or any of his senior officials.
2/ Ignoring independent observers’ assessment of 2018 election: The CBC cited the opinion of the opposition, and of countries that believe Maduro’s election in 2018 was illegitimate, without also citing the opinion of those who disagree – including 150 members of an international electoral accompaniment mission who filed four reports, all concluding the elections were free and fair.
3/ One-sided coverage of demonstrations: The CBC National’s broadcasts gave extensive coverage to demonstrations for Guaidó, but not to those for Maduro. The Producer argued that it was too dangerous to go into places where there was Maduro support, but in a broadcast aired on Feb. 5, 2019, Ms. Arsenault walked the streets of a “Chavista stronghold” without incident. Other reporters were able to interview pro-Guaidó and pro-Maduro supporters as well as government officials. These reporters painted a far different picture of the situation in Venezuela than that which emerged from anti-Maduro demonstrations in affluent sections of Caracas.
4/ Appeal to emotions without explaining the reasons for the economic collapse: The CBC National’s coverage of a poorly-equipped hospital to expose the suffering caused by a shortage of medicines and supplies did not mention the devastating impact of US sanctions which limited the government’s ability to import food, medicine and basic supplies. Nor did the broadcast mention the UN resolution condemning economic sanctions against Venezuela. Although the sanctions are briefly described elsewhere, not mentioning the sanctions when images of shortages are shown prevents viewers from appreciating the impact of the sanctions, and leaves viewers with only one person to blame – namely, Maduro.
5/ Total misunderstanding of the use of food as a political weapon: The CBC National’s coverage of the attempted delivery, on Feb. 23, of aid supplied by the US to Guaidó did not place enough emphasis on the origin of the aid, nor did the coverage mention that the Red Cross and the UN had specifically warned the US not to use aid as PR. By showing dramatic scenes of skirmishes and aid being burned — the fire was actually started by a pro-Guaidó opposition protester — and introducing the coverage by stating that forces loyal to Maduro had physically blocked aid and fired on opposition protesters, the CBC shifted viewers’ perception of blame to Maduro’s forces instead of on the US for ignoring warnings from the Red Cross and the UN.
6/ Why the US support for regime change under Guaidó: The strong US interest in regime change in Venezuela, by any means necessary, underlies much of the recent turmoil in that country. Yet the CBC National’s coverage relied on images of shortage, hardship, protests and skirmishes to construct a story supporting the need for regime change while omitting or glossing over inconvenient facts which drew attention to the US government’s destabilizing actions.
Before turning to my 6 complaints, I will address two comments made by the Executive Producer, which are of a general nature. He writes:
Re his first remark about “your interpretation”, in most cases, I am referring to factual information that was omitted from the National’s coverage of events in Venezuela. (Although I often cite alternative sources, this does not make facts — such as statements by public officials, the text of the Venezuela Constitution, written declarations and reports, etc., — any less true.) As for his dismissal of “your…opinion about it”, what I am describing is the overall impression created by the content of the National News broadcasts which I viewed. There appears to be a double standard here: as I mention in my first complaint, elaborated below, Ms. Arsenault is free to express her opinion on the basis of one or two casual encounters with Venezuelans.
Re the EP’s second remark, in selecting what to include and what not to include in a televised news broadcast, the CBC does not, in practice, avoid “advocating any particular point of view”. In my view, the CBC is, either deliberately or inadvertently, shaping the message received by its audience. Just to be clear, my primary focus is the National news broadcasts, and images can, by themselves, advocate for a particular point of view.
Here is the format for the body of my letter: the headings of my six original complaints; my selected excerpts from the Producer’s letter of response to me; my answers to those selected excerpts.
1/ Mischaracterizing the persona and legitimacy of Guaidó
Executive Producer’s (EP’s) Response:
>> Adrienne Arsenault (AA): “As Ottawa hosted the Lima Group of countries dedicated to stabilizing Venezuela and establishing free elections, they recognize opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the legitimate interim president … Today 13 European countries also lined up behind Guaidó.”
Upon reviewing the February 5, 2019 broadcast, I did not find any reference to the Lima Group or to the above quotation attributed to Ms. Arsenault. I would make just one observation – the partial transcript cited by the EP provides information on the number of countries that support Guaidó – information which, again, creates an appearance of legitimacy. In the broadcasts I viewed, I did not hear any references to the external support for Maduro. Yet Maduro enjoys significant support. The latest figures I have seen are that approximately 50 countries continue to support Maduro, versus 65 for Guaidó. Why is this fact omitted?
In its National News coverage of Venezuela, the CBC refers correctly to Guaidó as the self-appointed interim president, or the would-be president. However, it is not words alone, but the combination of images, narrative and facts in the CBC’s TV coverage that promote an appearance of legitimacy for Guaidó.
Take, for example, the CBC’s coverage of Guaidó in the National’s Feb. 6, 2019 broadcast. A video clip showed Guaidó working a crowd of his admirers, with Arsenault providing an accompanying commentary. She described him as the “selfie king” and compared him to Barack Obama based on how he moved and how the crowds responded to him. Interspersed with her comments were several shots of huge crowds, some chanting his name, or “yes, we can.” The viewers were left with the impression of a smiling, confident, hopeful, and hugely popular would-be President, trying to bring aid into the country.
Included in this segment was Arsenault’s face-to-face, 4:13-minute interview with Guaidó as part of a 6:21-minute segment, which then switches to the Trump administration’s cessation of US purchases of Venezuelan oil. Arsenault asked Guaidó three questions: 1) whether he was afraid; 2) why he thought he had not been arrested; and 3) how he was planning to get humanitarian aid into the country.
She did not ask him any difficult questions – such as, on what basis was he claiming to be interim president of Venezuela, given that he was not a candidate in the 2018 presidential election, and the fact that his party holds only 14 out of 167 seats in the National Assembly.
Contrast the above introduction of Guaidó to the viewing audience with the image of Maduro conveyed by the National’s broadcast on the preceding day. Arsenault began the February 5, 2019 broadcast by setting the stage: “Venezuela on the brink. Ottawa warning Canadians to stay out. So, how is Nicolas Maduro clinging to power. The fear of [US] invasion that’s gripping these streets”.
Maduro was described as “raising the spectre of foreign invasion.” One man offered the following comment: “In this moment,” this man said, “I feel that the greatest difficulty is that the threat is real, and Donald Trump is at the front of the threat.” As proof of “the fear of invasion that’s gripping these streets” a short clip of Maduro talking on TV was shown, followed by a brief quote from one man who feared invasion, and a conversation with a woman, talking from a window, who did not believe the US would invade. From just two encounters, Arsenault generalized to form an opinion of a population living in fear. Significantly, any fear that may indeed exist among the population, might reasonably be traced to a well-founded fact — omitted by Arsenault – Trump’s widely televised, repeated threat: “All options are on the table”.
Ms. Arsenault characterized both Guaidó and Maduro as “…playing to their strengths” which, for Maduro, was to invoke fear and patriotism, whereas for Guaidó – who was shown in a short clip — it was renewing “his call for aid to be let into the country, already on its way from the US”.
Notably, Arsenault had not interviewed Maduro nor any of his officials, and the clip chosen for Maduro showed him with a group of saluting soldiers behind him. So, based on the CBC’s presentation, which person – Guaidó or Maduro – would appeal more to viewers?
Subsequent CBC National News broadcasts continued to feature dynamic images of Guaidó — addressing crowds, meeting with international supporters or trying to bring US aid shipments into Venezuela.
As an objective measure, comparing the TV time that Guaidó and his supporters were shown, with the time that Maduro and his supporters were featured, Guaidó clearly got far more exposure. Guaidó also had frequent opportunities to convey his message, whereas this opportunity was not provided for Maduro. In the images selected by the CBC to portray each man, Guaidó was the clear winner.
So, has the CBC National News met its journalistic standards of fair, balanced and impartial reporting?
2/ Ignoring independent observers’ assessment of 2018 election as free, fair and transparent
Executive Producer’s (EP’s) response:
Since opinions on the legitimacy of the election differ, I would have expected the CBC to reflect this difference. Otherwise, the reader is left believing that the election was widely condemned, when in fact, it was narrowly condemned by countries with their own agenda, including regime change.
I agree that former President Carter was not among the independent observers for the May 2018 vote. However, in 2012, Carter said Venezuela’s electoral system was the “Best in the World.
In fact, documented evidence exists that independent international observers were on hand for the May 2018 election. More than 150 members of an international electoral accompaniment mission monitored the elections and submitted four independent reports. All found that the elections were free and fair. The monitoring groups were: a Caribbean Mission of representatives from four countries; the Council of Electoral Experts of Latin America (CEELA); an African Mission; and a group of international accompaniers from diverse countries, such as Russia, Palestine, China, Spain, UK, Ireland, USA, Australia, Syria, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, the Philippines, Indonesia, France, etc.
As further evidence, a letter penned by international observers in response to criticism from the EU reiterates that the elections were conducted fairly, and that every stage was conducted in the presence of representatives of the contending parties.
3/ One-sided coverage of demonstrations
It puzzles me that the Executive Producer states that CBC’s reporting team was advised against visiting places where there is Maduro support. In fact, in the National’s February 5, 2019 broadcast, Arsenault visited a neighbourhood described as a “Chavista stronghold”. She was shown walking down the street, commenting on what she saw and having brief conversations with a few pro-Maduro supporters. It is unfortunate that she did not ask their opinion on what would prompt people to join a pro-government demonstration.
Fortunately, other reporters were successful in gaining access to both pro-Guaidó and pro-Maduro supporters. To give just two examples:
Dimitri Lascaris, a Canadian lawyer and journalist, visited Caracas from Feb. 1-8. He spoke to right- and left-wing Venezuelans and witnessed a pro-government mass rally and opposition rally.
And Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers, co-directors of Popular Resistance Organization, recently led a week-long peace delegation to Venezuela. They spent time in the barrio’s, shantytowns, on the streets, in food cooperatives and at rallies, and talked with many Venezuelans. Significantly, the delegation also had a 90-minute private meeting with President Maduro, as well as meetings with the National Electoral Council and four government Ministries.
Lascaris, Zeese and Flowers paint a more positive picture of life in Venezuela than that which emerges from CBC scenes of largely pro-Guaidó rallies, and, occasionally, of pro-Guaidó supporters begging for foreign aid and intervention.
4/ Appeal to emotions without explaining the reasons for the economic collapse
Where the cause is obvious, or where no further information is available at the time, merely showing scenes of suffering may be appropriate. However, in the Venezuelan situation, the CBC’s video clip of heartbreaking Caracas hospital scenes might, by themselves, lead viewers to blame the Maduro regime for permitting this tragedy, especially if viewers rely on the National News as their primary news source.
In the context of those heartbreaking hospital scenes, in my February 18 letter of complaint to your office, I raised the point that the breakdown in health and other services is causally related to US economic sanctions. In response, the Producer defends the CBC by stating that it is unreasonable and impractical to … go in depth into the long-running internal and external events that brought us to where we are today. Without going “in depth”, in the National’s hospital segment, there was no mention at all of US sanctions and seizure of Venezuelan assets, which are severely eroding the ability of the Maduro regime to import food, medicine and other needed supplies.
Balance in reporting is not solely about depth of coverage, it’s also about balance and fairness in presentation.
Turning now to the CBC’s coverage of the sanctions, I watched the three programs mentioned by the Executive Producer as evidence the CBC had covered the importance of the sanctions: programs which aired on Feb. 6, Feb. 22 and Feb. 25.
The Feb. 6 program was already partially described at point 1 of this reply. Here’s a content analysis breakdown of the Venezuelan segment of the National News that begins about 1:00 minute into the program, and ends at the 7:21-minute mark.
1:00 to 5:13 – AA’s positive portrait of Guaidó, including her interview.
5:14 to – 5:28 — AA introduces the subject of Trump administration’s cessation of US purchases of Venezuelan oil, and then calls on Peter Armstrong to explain the impact.
5:30 – 7:05 – In his 1:35-minute piece, Armstrong states that the US “sanctions were biting deeper and more quickly than anyone expected, in large part because the Venezuelan economy is in such total disarray.” He also mentions that “Venezuela’s economy has been in shambles for years.” And he says that oil money pays for the vast majority of the nation’s food supply. “So, US officials knew they were hitting Maduro where it counts.” An inserted video clip shows John Bolton announcing the amount of Venezuela’s lost revenue: “Today’s measure totals $US7B in assets blocked today, plus over $US11B in lost export proceeds over the next year.”
However, at no point does Armstrong back up his allegations that the Venezuelan economy is in “such total disarray” and has been “in shambles for years.” Nor does he mention the devastating impact on Venezuela’s economy of the 2014 sharp drop in oil prices.
7:06 – 7:21 – AA then concludes the segment by mentioning that the US sanctions targeted Maduro, not Guaidó, who was trying to open a fund to accept payment for oil.
Although Armstrong’s explanation is adequate, albeit brief, its placement at the tail end of a segment on Guaidó is curious. Viewers won’t remember important details such as confiscated assets from one broadcast to another, so to reinforce viewer awareness, brief repetition of sanctions information could be included when scenes of inadequate food and medical supplies are featured.
The National’s Feb. 22 broadcast (beginning at 7:52 minutes, ending at 11:54 minutes) focused on the turmoil preceding the arrival of foreign aid at the border. Not until the very end of this 4-minute segment were sanctions mentioned — “the latest US sanctions will surely bite, as oil represents 90% of the country’s export revenue”.
Note: For unknown reasons, the CBC and You Tube links to the National’s Feb.25 broadcast are no longer available at this time. Nevertheless, the following content analysis for this program still applies.
The National’s Feb. 25 broadcast, 3:50 minutes long (beginning at 15:24 minutes, ending at 18:14 minutes), focused on the meeting between Mike Pence and Juan Guaidó, in which the US announced new sanctions on officials close to Maduro. As Pence stated, “Nicolás Maduro must go.” Although this may have clarified the US intentions, the CBC failed to link the sanctions with the suffering of the Venezuelan people. Would this not have been an ideal time to show the clip of the hospital that had so precious few supplies?
None of the three broadcasts referenced above mentioned that on March 19, 2018 the United Nations Human Rights Council (OHCHR ) adopted resolution A/HRC/37/L.34 condemning economic sanctions against Venezuela by the United States, Canada, the European Union and their allies, stating that economic sanctions “disproportionately” affect “the poor and most vulnerable classes,” threatening the realization of human rights”, and “threaten the sovereignty of states.”
5/ Total misunderstanding of the use of food as a political weapon
Executive Producer’s (E.P.’s) Response:
I read the “Fight over food” article cited by the Producer. As he states, his referenced CBC article does have a link to another article that confirms UN approval of health and nutritional aid for Venezuela. However, my original complaint dealt with facts omitted in the National’s news coverage, not in its articles. Mentioning that Maduro has previously received aid from the UN as well as the Red Cross is relevant because it indicates that neutral sources of aid are acceptable to the Maduro government, but politically-charged aid from the US, delivered by the opposition politician Guaidó, is not acceptable to the Maduro government. Given the number of National Broadcasts devoted to aid and its delivery, as I describe below, how could the CBC have missed such a key fact?
The CBC National News has devoted at least four broadcasts to aid and its delivery: February 9, February 12, February 22 and February 24. In addition, in other CBC broadcasts, Guaidó has been linked to aid delivery, including:
The US aid, as one commentator observed, will only feed one block for a few days. Contrast this with the 6 million Venezuelans that receive monthly food rations from the Maduro government! The importance placed on the delivery of US aid, based on the CBC coverage it received, masks the real story that appears solely as a footnote in the CBC coverage. The real story is the devastating impact of US sanctions, particularly those since 2017, on the Venezuelan economy. And nowhere does the CBC coverage mention that the US is using its aid shipments as a political weapon, disregarding warnings from the UN and the Red Cross.
A content analysis follows for the broadcasts of February 9, 12, 22 and 24.
A 4:34-minute YouTube video clip from The National’s Feb. 9 broadcast had, as its theme, whether desperate hunger is being leveraged for political support. It showed trucks delivering US aid to the Colombian side; Guaidó was shown in prayer, with AA’s commentary that Guaidó’s opposition had appealed to the soldiers to let the aid pass; Maduro was shown on a plane, with AA’s commentary that Maduro dismissed the aid as part of a US invasion plan, and he was collecting 10 million signatures to show that Venezuelans didn’t want American help. Arsenault then commented that some suspected how those signatures were being collected – “Hunger possibly leveraged for political support”. Her evidence was based on a visit with an unidentified woman who was afraid she would not get her monthly food bag, distributed by the government to 6 million Venezuelans, if she did not sign “something curious”. The woman commented that the bag was thinner now – no protein, milk or sugar. A second woman indicated that she had refused to sign, but still got her bag of food. She feared that she was taking a chance by speaking out. AA commented, “food has been weaponized”. Arsenault then interviewed an opposition politician, Maria Corina Machado, who asserted that if there was even minimum suspicion that the person was not loyal, they would stop getting the food.
My criticism of The National’s February 9 broadcast:
The National’s Feb. 12 broadcast focused on the rallies held by the opposition and by those supporting the government. Arsenault once again described aid as ‘a political weapon”, and that Guaidó was going to continue using it. At his rally, Guaidó announced that more waves of aid were coming to Venezuela’s borders, declaring that Feb. 23 would be the day that the aid comes in.
The National’s February 22 broadcast focused on the turmoil preceding the arrival of foreign aid at the border, mentioning that a husband and wife had been killed, and 15 reportedly wounded; that whoever can feed, can lead, which is why Maduro was keen to keep the aid out; that the Red Cross and the UN refused to take sides; that 3.4 million Venezuelans had already fled the country; and, at the very end, mentioning the impact of the sanctions.
My criticism of the National’s February 22 broadcast:
The National’s Feb. 24 broadcast focused on Guaidó’s attempted delivery of aid on Feb. 23. It opened with scenes of violence, with the CBC’s Andrew Chang declaring that forces loyal to Maduro had physically blocked aid and fired on opposition protesters. Then followed a scene of burning aid, with the CBC’s Lindsay Duncombe asserting that it wasn’t clear who had torched the aid, claiming Maduro’s refusal to let in the aid had escalated tensions. Guaidó was then shown stating that the burning of the aid was an “unprecedented crime”.
My criticism of the National’s February 24 broadcast:
6/ Why the US support for regime change under Guaidó?
Executive Producer’s Response:
First, to clarify: in my original complaint, I never suggested that oil was “the only reason” for US support of Guaidó, I simply cited two recent statements related to oil, which, to my knowledge, were not covered in The National News broadcasts.
Second, without reviewing the specific references alluded to but not cited by the Executive Producer, it is difficult for me to form any conclusions on the accuracy and impartiality of the CBC’s coverage of “factors which underlie the positions of governments which support Juan Guaidó.”
I do, however, take exception to the characterization of some “factors” which are claimed to underlie support for Guaidó. To take the first two factors — the reference to humanitarian and democratic factors” ventures on the incredible. Is it “humanitarian” to exacerbate the suffering of Venezuelans with sanctions to push them to demonstrate for regime change? And what does setting in motion the conditions to bring about regime change in a country with a duly elected President have to do with democracy?
The strong US interest in regime change in Venezuela, “with all options on the table,” underlies much of the recent turmoil in that country. Yet the CBC National News relied on images of shortage, hardship, protests and skirmishes to construct a story supporting the need for regime change while omitting or glossing over inconvenient facts (sanctions; using aid to generate violence despite UN and Red Cross warnings) which drew attention to the US government’s destabilizing actions. What clearer expression of US interests than the statement of John Bolton which I cited in my original complaint: “It will make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies really invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela”.
To conclude —
In the National News broadcasts covering the evolving situation in Venezuela, the choice of which images and narrative to include and which to omit, created an unbalanced, inaccurate, pro-regime-change overview. Contrary to the CBC’s journalistic standards and practices, the CBC’s National News broadcasts, specifically mentioned in this email, can and do advocate for a particular point of view.
As I mentioned at the outset, this email is my final submission regarding the CBC’s Venezuelan coverage.
I would respectfully ask you, Mr. Nagler, to look into my complaints to determine if they are valid. I thank you in advance for doing so.
Helga Wintal, B.A. (Hon.), LL.B. etc.
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