"The piece accommodated the correspondent's prejudices, confirming only what corroborated its preconceived ideas."
Only a few days ago, Venezuelans in Caracas received large crowds of visitors from all over the world. They came to attend the Caracas Social Forum. This is one of three forums into which their progenitor, the Porto Alegre World Social Forum, split off this year. Simultaneous Social Forums were held in Balako, Mali and Karachi, Pakistan.
As Caracas welcomed this crowd of some 70,000 people, most of them bona-fide young idealists, I came to know many young reporters. The most frequent phrase I heard pronounced by them was: "I've come to see what is really going on here."
I also attended some of the conferences and rallies programmed by the forum's organizers and listened to prominent left-leaning U.S., European, Canadian and Latin American social scholars read out their papers and a lot of U.N.-associated Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) activists state their goals.
Sitting among so many radical young people, I kept glancing at my laptop screen and read various dispatches from Davos, Switzerland, where another kind of congress, the World Economic Forum—more sanctioned, but more infamous because of recent idealistic disruptions—was also being held.
It was a sobering experience that made me think of one of the most disquieting qualities embedded in the very nature of journalism in free and open societies. Journalism is meant to be a public service as well as a legitimate line of business. But, no matter how committed it claims to be to objective reporting, the business side of journalism entails subtle incentives to bend the facts, accommodate sympathies or prejudices, or both. These incentives only cloud the truth and disservice the reader's expectation of unbiased information. One of the strongest known antidotes against these incentives, I think, is the reporter's personal uprightness.
During the Caracas World Social Forum, an Irish film titled "The Revolution Will Not be Televised" was repeatedly shown to packed houses in various movie theaters and aired by the government's TV network. The film bears the same title as a famous Scott-Heron song. Its theme is the bloody and controversial chain of events in Caracas that began on April 11, 2002. The directors are Kim Bartley and Donnacha Ó Briain. It has garnered international awards.
I saw it twice and found its impartiality a pretense. And so it made me think of Nigel, a correspondent I once befriended.
Imagine you are back in 1968: The year of the May Days in France and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. That year also saw an election campaign in Venezuela during which I fell for Comrade Sandy L., a Communist Youth belle, and became an interpreter for Nigel, an English left-wing correspondent.
My girlfriend's uncle, a respected university professor of Law, summoned me to serve as Nigel's interpreter who had come to Caracas for a week to write a story on the upcoming elections. In the cynical Stalinist jargon of the time, with its focus on who could be used for what, Sandy's uncle was a "progressive."
Together, Sandy and I headed out in her Volkswagen to find Nigel at the Hotel Tamanaco Intercontinental, the city's most prestigious hotel.
Much to our surprise, Nigel had moved out before even checking in, but he left a message for us to find him at a guesthouse, which stood, and perhaps still stands, at the corner of Miracielos and Hospital in the center of town.
Nigel turned out to be not much older than we were. He was a freelancer in his 20s who detested five-star hotels because he wanted to see the open veins of Latin America up close and personal.
So he had moved to this ratty little place. Nigel's attire was utterly predictable: worn jeans, a safari jacket and paratrooper boots. The Communist Party of Venezuela, he explained to me later with a snarl of contempt, had "laid down the gun," selling itself out to electoral politics while "Ché" Guevara, who had been killed in Bolivia only the year before, was barely cold in his grave.
Sandy's uncle had put together a schedule of interviews with every single one of the 14 presidential candidates. By day I would accompany Nigel as he met three or four candidates. By night, Sandy L. and I would take him out to drink beer and dance salsa with our friends.
But this round of daytime interviews and nocturnal recreation left Nigel dissatisfied. Since leaving London he had dreamt of interviewing a real guerrilla, one of the fighters who had entered Venezuela from Cuba in 1967. Unfortunately for Nigel, however, a number of those guerrillas had fallen soon after disembarking, targeted in ambushes that the army had set up with the help of a now-legendary network of informers. Others were laid low by every kind of tropical disease imaginable. And they were surrounded by elite military units, on a mountain called "El Bachiller." Be all that as it may, Nigel hadn't come to Latin America just to talk to corrupt populist politicians in suits and ties who amounted at best to no more than a bunch of reformist dreamers.
He wanted to see the open veins of Latin America, he wanted his noble savage, his real revolutionary.
When Nigel requested for the third time that I set him up with a guerrilla chieftain, I told him once again: "Sorry, but I'm just a nobody; I've got no connections." So he should quit asking, I said, because I had no way to hook him up with the bearded warriors of mountain and jungle. But he wouldn't give up asking. His manner went from persistent to obnoxious and he even permitted himself an expression of doubt about whether I had the guts for the job.
He had hit on the truth of the matter: I had no interest at all in the Dirección General de Policía laying its hand on me because I was escorting this Brit journalist while he interviewed some Comandante during the election season.
That night, after we had left Nigel in his lodgings, Sandy L. started up the ailing Borgward and said: "He wants to interview a guerrilla commander. You should stop being so difficult. Why don't we just get him what he wants?"
The next day, I asked Nigel to forgive me, explaining that my reticence had been calculated to allow time for those in the guerrilla political-military bureau to consult their intelligence services and evaluate Nigel's record as a journalist committed to the peoples' heroic liberation struggle.
Having deemed Nigel acceptable, the political-military bureau had agreed to grant an interview. Nigel would be able to speak with one of its most notable members: Comandante Pocaprisa ("Slowpoke"). Nigel, looking most satisfied with himself, committed the fictitious commander's code-name to his notebook.
Pocaprisa was, in reality, a longtime friend of my family, a prosperous auto-parts distributor, whose acting talent made him a big hit at parties. He had a knack for parodying all kinds of rhetorical styles, which would allow him to plausibly render the guevarist jargon of the Armed Forces of National Liberation.
To keep Nigel safe, he wouldn't even have to trek into the mountains. Comandante Pocaprisa would meet with him in a coffee shop with a terrace in the business district of Cumbres de Curumo—an upper middle-class neighborhood—where he lived. The coffee shop boasted a vending machine selling betting slips for long-distance wagering on horse races.
So, on a Saturday morning, Nigel, Sandy and I, with a couple of pals who were helping us, headed for the interview with the counterfeit guerrilla chief.
Pocaprisa was perfect in his fiery denunciation of the political killings and the lies of the government, along with the mendacity of the entire political establishment, of the labor movement's betrayal the working class, and of the bourgeois press.
Talking as a military expert, he spoke of the mobility, morale and firepower of the 450-man column he commanded, which was located only 170 kms from Caracas. He spoke of massive desertion from the National Guard and about the coming victory of the armed vanguard of the people. The elections of December, 1968 would not take place, he predicted, because the revolutionary forces would triumphantly enter Caracas long before voting day. Nigel gulped with excitement. At that moment, fate produced another twist--a convergence in the playlet Sandy L. had set in motion.
Comandante Pocaprisa was still at the high point of his act when three Armored Personnel Carriers and a communications jeep, all from the Army, drove up to the coffee shop.
An officer and several lower-ranking soldiers jumped from the vehicles and strode into the place. Nigel's face grew pale as the officer merely got a betting slip, had it stamped, bought a pack of Marlboros, and treated his subordinates to some meat pies and fruit shakes.
"As you can see, the encirclement is tightening around me. I have to leave. Hasta la victoria siempre, amigo," our incorrigible jokester friend said, echoing Ché Guevara's famous signoff and barely managing to avoid bursting out laughing. But Sandy L. took the game one step further. Stone-faced, she had me ask Nigel if he knew how to use a pistol. Meanwhile, she slid both hands into her handbag, mimicking the gestures of someone chambering a round in an automatic weapon.
"I'm a British subject," Nigel responded and I must admit that he kept the legendary stiff upper lip. "I'd rather return to my hotel."
We walked by the assault vehicles, boarded Sandy's two-seater and, without taking the trouble to blindfold the Englishman, or to conceal our trail, left him at his rathole at Miracielos and Hospital and laughed about it all the way home.
Rafael Caldera, the Christian Democratic candidate, won the election by a nose. By late January or February of 1969, a copy of the leftwing weekly where Nigel's stories appeared reached me. The paper devoted part of its international section to the Venezuelan election. The long interviews with all the candidates looked like classified ads running along the edge of Nigel's big piece, which took up the rest of the space: an adventure tale from very heart of the guerrilla war in Venezuela that echoed Hemingway during the Spanish Civil War.
None of the article's 3,500 words subjected any of its sources to the slightest scrutiny, nor contrasted what they had to say with the statements of others. The piece simply accommodated the correspondent's prejudices, confirming only what corroborated its preconceived ideas. What resulted was a specious self-referential story which used a factual, dispassionate tone as a tool to mislead anyone who might read it in good faith.
The resemblance between Nigel and the unscrupulous producers of "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" is inescapable.
As for Nigel, the young British reporter who had come "to see what is really going on here," I imagine that he made a career for himself, and that, once he got over his Guevarista infantile disorder he would have voted for Margaret Thatcher.
* Ibsen Martinez is a columnist, journalist, and award-winning playwright from Caracas, Venezuela. His writings have appeared in El Nuevo Herald, Miami, Letras Libres, Madrid, and El Pais in Madrid. Since 1995, he has written a weekly column for El Nacional.
For more articles by Ibsen Martinez, see the Archive.