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By Jon Campbell
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Question for media tycoons: How do you land a puff piece on the front page of the New York Times business section on Sunday? Answer: Attempt to secretly stage a political coup, and then try to censor any critical news coverage of the coup.
That's how a cynic might see the Times' April 28 profile of Venezuelan billionaire Gustavo Cisneros. The story included lots of info about Cisneros's business holdings and political connections, but only a passing reference to the fact that he is suspected of having masterminded the failed coup against Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. As Newsweek, The Miami Herald, and the St. Petersburg Times had already reported, Cisneros is accused not only of bankrolling the coup, but also of promoting it on his TV network Venevisión, and then censoring TV news on the day the coup fell apart.
The Times has a history of cheerleading for the oligarchs of Venezuela. As readers of this column will recall, on April 13, the pivotal day after Chávez was removed, the Times failed to denounce the coup d'état, instead praising dictator-for-a-day Pedro Carmona. The Times ran a pro-Carmona editorial and a fluffy profile dubbing Carmona a "mild-mannered businessman," even as he was dismantling his country's Congress and Supreme Court.
Welcome to the Times Lite. The Cisneros story, by reporter Simon Romero, appeared on the front page of Money & Business under the winking headline "Coup? Not His Style. But Power? Oh, Yes." As if to remind upscale readers that Cisneros is "one of us," the Times featured a photo of the tycoon in a tuxedo with his blond wife, describing them as "fixtures in an international social scene that combines finance, media, art collecting, and philanthropy." Another photo showed Cisneros next to AOL Time Warner chairman Steve Case, with whom he does business in Latin America.
The story surveyed Cisneros's business empire, which includes his Venezuelan brewery and baseball team as well as investments in satellite TV, Internet services, and Spanish-language TV networks in Venezuela and elsewhere. The apparent point was to promote foreign investment in Venezuela.
Fair enough. But what investor would trust a forecast that fails to name potential liabilities? Romero did mention that "much attention has been focused" on Cisneros's alleged role in the coup, that the tycoon naturally opposed Chávez's vow to redistribute the wealth, and that Cisneros is a friend of George Bush and Otto Reich, the undersecretary of state for Latin American affairs who is believed to have called Cisneros at least twice on the day of the coup. But Romero allowed Cisneros to repeat his blanket denial of participation in the coup, and then turned off his bullshit detector.
Here are some previously reported details that the Times omitted: On April 11, the day before the coup, Venezuelan political and business leaders met at Cisneros's mansion to welcome the new U.S. ambassador. That same day, an anti-Chávez street protest turned violent. Cisneros's Venevisión and other TV stations showed nonstop coverage of the unrest. That night, alleged coup leaders gathered at Venevisión headquarters, including Carmona, who left directly from Cisneros's office to be sworn in as president in the early hours of April 12. Venevisión announced the coup. On April 12, limos delivered Cisneros and other media execs to meet with Carmona at the presidential palace, just as thousands of citizens took to the streets calling for Chávez to be reinstated.
Did the media moguls and the dictator strike some kind of quid pro quo? In any event, for the next 24 hours or so, Venevisión and other TV and newspaper companies did not cover the massive pro-Chávez protests or the move to reinstate the elected president, who was being held in military custody. Chávez has claimed that TV stations refused to interview his supporters. Instead, Venevisión ran a day-long marathon of Hollywood movies: Lorenzo's Oil, Nell, and Pretty Woman.
Execs at Venevisión and other media companies claimed that the news blackout was justified because violent protesters were threatening their reporters. But rumors of complicity in the coup dogged Cisneros, and on April 16 the tycoon appeared on his own TV station to deny that he owned the airplane that had been waiting to whisk Chávez out of the country. "We have not conspired, we do not want to conspire, we are not going to conspire, nor do we know how," said the man the Times now praises as a business visionary and political fixer.
Some reporters are more skeptical of billionaires who go fishing with George Bush. Newsweek places Cisneros "at the vortex of the whole mess," noting that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is investigating contacts between U.S. officials and Venezuelans involved in the coup. Without heightened scrutiny of deals between the U.S. government and multinationals, big media will continue to erase little coups from the public record every day.
The Times did not respond to a request for comment.
Reporter Michael Allen has settled his racial discrimination lawsuit against the Daily News and has been reassigned to the paper's Manhattan office.