‘Golpes’ and the Gray Lady: The New York Times’ Troubling Record on Political Coups

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It has been a little over a month since Bolivia’s contested election, and about two weeks since Evo Morales, its longest-serving president and first indigenous leader, escaped to Mexico under threat from his own military. A major newspaper like The New York Times holds an enormous responsibility in relating this historic series of events to American and international audiences, and so far, its coverage has proven problematic on multiple fronts. Looking back at the Times’ reporting in cases similar to Bolivia today, this is unfortunately typical of our paper of record.

I looked at NYT articles from around the time of Morales’ departure, between November 10th and 12th. First detail of note was the multiple references to the “fraud-marred” Bolivian election, without further explanation. We’re not on solid ground here: allegations of election fraud in Bolivia have yet to be proven in any substantive way that could justify casually throwing in that framing. The first and most widely circulated claim of fraud came from the Organization of American States (OAS), which released a statement on October 21st expressing “deep concern and surprise at the drastic and hard-to-explain change in the trend of the preliminary results revealed after the closing of the polls.” Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) has challenged the OAS’s statement, as their allegations came without any supporting analysis. Weisbrot pointed out that swings in vote leads are totally within the norm during an election, as different reporting times from pro- and anti-Morales areas will swing the tally as it comes in. Indeed, Morales’ largely rural support plausibly explains why his votes would be counted later. Nothing about CEPR’s initial analysis, nor any mention of the OAS, make it into the articles taken from those dates. (A further analysis from the CEPR published November 19th finds that “Morales’s first-round victory was not just possible, but probable” according to the publicly available election data.)

An article from November 12th debating whether to call Morales’ departure a coup was also tricky. On the one hand, I want to commend the writer for tackling a thorny question. Numerous experts and academics quoted in the article go back and forth on what this transition of power means and how to define it. I read on thinking that an appropriate journalistic ethic was at work here, even though I disagreed, until it ended with comments from former and current Presidents of Brazil, Lula da Silva and Jair Bolsonaro, whose competing perspectives on Bolivia were essentially treated as equally valid. Bolsonaro’s remark, a barb about supposed double standards of leftists, is actually the closing line of the article.

Bolsonaro’s status as head of state grants him the credibility due to the office, but that being said, his history in relation to Lula and his career as a politician are at issue when their comments appear together. Bolsonaro has advocated for violence throughout his political life, and has indeed been linked with the assassination of vocal political rival Marielle Franco. Lula has never embraced such extremes in deed or word (a standard one would hope all politicians could meet). By all accounts Bolsonaro won his office in a fair election, but Lula was jailed during the campaign based on the recently-revealed corruption of the judge in his case, Sergio Moro, who is now Bolsonaro’s justice minister. Lula was considered the main obstacle to then-candidate Bolsonaro’s shot at the presidency, and was the most popular politician in the country when he was jailed. A number of organizations deemed Lula a political prisoner, and the Brazilian Supreme Court just recently freed him after ruling his imprisonment unconstitutional. Isn’t this history pertinent when assessing these two politicians’ opinions on transfer of power? The Times calls Bolsonaro a “far-right president,” but that doesn’t even begin to properly contextualize him.

With this last example we’re starting to cut to the core of what’s problematic about the New York Times’ coverage: a general lack of context and history. Dubious claims flow right past the casual eye because the knowledge needed to properly frame them is never provided, or worse, denied. Take this November 11th article, where Evo Morales is described as a “radical” for viewing the United States as a “scheming, colonialist actor” in South America. Unflattering as it may be for us, Morales’ assessment of our foreign policy is not radical, but historically accurate. The United States, through government agencies and corporate entities, has a well-documented record of fomenting coups and supporting dictators in Latin America and beyond to further its interests. It’s an undeniable part of our history, and the NYT’s aggressive posture towards such a claim borders on disinformation.

Comparing the case of Bolivia to the Times’ coverage of coups past, what emerges is that their contemporaneous reporting generally fails to live up to what is revealed with historical distance; not that the framing is incomplete and needs filling in, but that the initial impression, though still just an outline, is already deeply misleading. Take the 1953 overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran: NYT coverage from August 17th through 20th (the timeframe of the coup) does maintain an appropriate journalistic framing, relating the facts and events as they transpired, and even cautioning that the full picture of this upheaval will only reveal itself fully with more time. Such time was apparently elapsed by the 21st, where in summing up Mossadegh’s overthrow at the hands of General Zahedi, the Times scolded the former for being “so disloyal” to the Shah (nevermind that Mossadegh was democratically elected), and branded him a “rabid, self-seeking nationalist.” The coup is rightly contextualized as a conflict within the broader Cold War, with Western interests at stake, yet there isn’t the slightest question concerning the later-revealed role of the US government. Sure, governments might just lie to journalists and deny such maneuvers, but one might ask for a statement nonetheless, at least to get the denial on record.

On September 11th 1973, Chilean leader Salvador Allende would suffer an even worse fate than Mossadegh, driven to suicide as soldiers stormed his office in another US-fomented coup. (The event has come to be known as the first 9/11.) As soon as September 12th, the Times laid “a heavy share” of the blame for the overthrow on Allende himself, for not building out political coalitions with opposition parties. This justification was transposed to Morales almost exactly in an NYT editorial on November 11th of this year. Credit where it’s due, though: coverage of the 1973 putsch in Chile includes mention of the CIA and International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation’s strategy for Allende’s overthrow dating back to 1970, but we’re quickly assured that “no evidence” points to such a plan being carried out. ITT’s eventual role in the coup is debatable, the CIA’s is not. By September 15th, the Times was already putting a positive spin on Allende’s successor, General Augusto Pinochet, with a profile describing him as “disciplined, tough, but with a sense of humor.” At the time that profile was published, Pinochet had already begun imprisoning political opponents by the thousands in a soccer stadium, where many were tortured and summarily executed.

These wrong-headed narratives extend to cases beyond the Cold War as well, like the unsuccessful coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in 2002 (he was restored to power within two days). An editorial from April 13th reported an entirely false Chavez “resignation” at the time, and welcomed the transition of power away from this “would-be dictator” and “ruinous demagogue” — it bears repeating that here, as with the cases of Mossadegh and Allende, we’re talking about a democratically elected leader. The article goes on claim that the event was “a purely Venezuelan affair” with no outside interference, although it would later be revealed that there was continuous contact between the coup’s plotters and the Bush administration in the months leading up to it.

Returning our focus to Bolivia today with this record in mind (I omitted many other cases for brevity’s sake), it becomes difficult to take in the New York Times’ reporting on the situation there without some degree of skepticism. The crisis continues to worsen since Morales’ ouster, with an anti-indigenous ethno-nationalist at the helm, and clashes between the military and civilians turning deadly. The American people, as electors in a global superpower state, hold more sway and responsibility in this situation than any other outsiders. With a presidential election less than a year away, one of the facets of candidates that requires our scrutiny is how they handle these kinds of situations — we can’t do that without accurate coverage. We deserve a premier newspaper that is up to the task.

David Mazzucchi is a freelance journalist and co-host of the Pod Me Us political podcast. He is an expert of nothing.

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