I have written before in these pages about what I call the “Reversing the Headline Trick.” It actually goes beyond headlines, since it applies to any idea in the news that involves a relationship between “us” and “them.” The trick is simple: You just take a news story in the U.S. press and reverse the names (and associated labels) to see how it sounds.
This week I want to use a story about Venezuela to illustrate how useful this trick can be. But first, a little background on Venezuela as it is in 2005:
The current president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, was democratically elected in 1998 and re-elected overwhelmingly in 2000. A right-wing coup in April of 2002 forced Chavez out of office but, after only two days, a massive popular uprising brought Chavez back to his elected position. This past August (2004) the same opposition groups that were behind the coup forced a presidential recall referendum and, again, the Chavez presidency was affirmed, receiving the support of 60 percent of the voters.
Chavez's popularity is not really in doubt. For example, here's the entire text of a one-paragraph news brief that appeared in the New York Times on May 3rd of this year:
“President Hugo Chavez's popularity rating is at 70 percent, among the highest of any Latin American leader... [This] indicates that the leftist leader's focus on social spending programs has paid off for his six-year-old government, even after an opposition movement tried to remove him from office last August through a recall referendum. He now appears poised to win re-election easily next year, political analysts say.”
Exactly five months earlier, on December 3rd, the Times reported that “The Central Intelligence Agency was aware that dissident military officers and opposition figures in Venezuela were planning a coup against President Hugo Chavez in 2002, newly declassified intelligence documents show. But immediately after the overthrow, the Bush administration blamed Mr. Chavez ... for his own downfall and denied knowing about the threats.”
So, get the picture? A phenomenally popular, democratically-elected leader of a sovereign nation was the victim of an attempted military overthrow at least tacitly supported by the U.S. government. If you know all of this, then the “Reversing the Headline Trick” will be easy to do. Watch.
An April 26th headline in the New York Times read: “Venezuela's Leader Takes Tough Stance Toward U.S.; Bush Finds No Allies Against Chavez.” Here's the lead paragraph:
“As President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela veers toward greater confrontation with Washington, the Bush administration is weighing a tougher approach, including funneling more money to foundations and business and political groups opposed to his leftist government, American officials say.”
Translation: The U.S. government is publicly considering intervening in the internal affairs of a democratic country, and one that just happens to it provide 15 percent of American oil imports.
Turn It Around
OK, now let's try the “Reversing the Headline Trick,” which really should be called the “Reversing the Names and Labels Trick.” Let's reverse the names and labels in that first paragraph from April 26th, and see what happens:
“As President GEORGE BUSH of the UNITED STATES veers toward greater confrontation with VENEZUELA, the CHAVEZ administration is weighing a tougher approach, including funneling more money to foundations and business and political groups opposed to his RIGHTIST government, VENEZUELAN officials say.”
Sounds a little different, doesn't it?
And that's just the first paragraph. It goes on and on, in this article as in many others. In the third paragraph the Times refers to “Mr. Chavez's strident anti-American outbursts.” In the fourth paragraph the Times reminds us that “the United States tacitly supported a coup that briefly ousted Mr. Chavez in April 2002.” If there were a coup mounted against the U.S. government with the “tacit support” of a government 100 times more powerful, would any subsequent “outbursts” against that country by Mr. Bush be described as “strident?”
Also in paragraph three, the Times refers patronizingly to Chavez pursuing “policies that seem intended to fly in the face of Washington.” Of course, they might be intended to meet the needs of the majority of the Venezuelan people, and may not revolve around the needs of the United States at all. But this radical idea is never entertained by the New York Times. Such ethnocentrism is truly startling – even for someone who reads the papers as much as I do!
The Times quotes “a high-ranking Republican aide on Capitol Hill,” who frankly lays out the motivation for the planned U.S. intervention in the internal affairs of a sovereign country: “The United States, [the aide] said, is particularly concerned because Venezuela is one of four top providers of foreign oil to the United States. ‘You can't write him off,' the aide said of Mr. Chavez. ‘He's sitting on an energy source that's critical to us.'” Or, to put it another, unthinkable, way: He's the president of a country that has the right to control its own natural resources.
One final mind-boggling comment, this one from the twelfth paragraph: “A main problem for the United States is that Washington has little, if any, influence over Caracas. The high price of oil has left Venezuela with no need for the loans or other aid that the United States could use as leverage.” What a novel definition of “aid!” What could it possibly mean to use “aid” as “leverage?” Well, what the Times calls “leverage,” most of the world would call “extortion,” involving as it does the threat of economic strangulation, a standard way for the U.S. to project its immense power against weaker countries. Again, imagine a news report characterizing as a “problem” the inability of Venezuela to use its “leverage” to change U.S. policies. Outrageous, when the power relations are turned upside down.
The idea that a foreign leader might be considering “funneling” money to opposition groups in the U.S. would seem completely scandalous to most United Statesians, and it should. Yet the fact that the U.S. is considering doing this very thing in another, far weaker, country, doesn't seem like such a bad idea, apparently. While the Times managed to find a few people in this country who think “a more aggressive approach” to Venezuela is “a counterproductive strategy,” no domestic expert or politician was quoted as having a problem with such an approach in principle.
Framed as it was – as a routine decision about a foreign policy “problem” – this article probably deserved no better than page 9, which is where the Times put it. Framed differently, however, it might take on more importance. Here's a Nygaard Notes Alternative Headline: “U.S. Considers Intervention in Venezuela; Extortion Planned Against Neighboring Democracy.” Now, that looks like front-page news.
There are two things that we might learn when we use the “Reversing the Names and Labels Trick.” First, we might be able to see a moral or ethical dimension to a news story that wasn't clear upon first reading. The second, and perhaps more important, thing is what we might learn about ourselves. If a news story does not upset us as it is written, but it does upset us when we reverse the roles, then we might begin to understand the power of the media to reinforce an ideological system that can make a disturbing double standard seem normal.