From the Mixed-Up Files of Mr. Jon Lee Anderson

8 Apr

Last month, New Yorker reporter Jon Lee Anderson turned twelve shades of red when he was challenged on Twitter about his claim in The New Yorker that Venezuela was “one of the world’s most oil-rich but socially unequal countries.” A lowly rube named Mitch Lake had tweeted, “Venezuela is 2nd least unequal country in the Americas, I don’t know wtf @jonleeanderson is talking about.” Anderson tweeted back: “You, little twerp, are someone who has sent 25,700 Tweets for a grand total of 169 followers. Get a life.” Gawker was all over it.

What got lost in the story though is just how wrong  Anderson’s claim is. In fact, just how wrong many of his claims about Venezuela are.

Luckily, Keane Bhatt, an activist and writer at NACLA, has been on the Anderson file from the beginning, itemizing all of Anderson’s errors and forcing the New Yorker—which is widely renowned in the magazine world for its fact-checking department—to issue some corrections.

First there was this error that Bhatt caught:

Anderson’s article, “Slumlord: What Has Hugo Chávez Wrought in Venezuela?,” is indeed filled with blatant misrepresentations. The New Yorker’s vaunted factcheckers somehow permitted the publication of the following statement: “Chavez suggested to me that he had embraced the far left as a way of preventing a coup like the one that put him in office.” While it is true that in 1992, Chávez attempted a coup against an administration that had deployed security forces to massacre hundreds, perhaps thousands of civilian protesters, Anderson is misleading his readers. Chávez was “put in office” much later, in 1999, through a free and fair election—not a coup—a fact which he did not see fit to include in his piece. He instead wrote, vaguely, that Chávez “assumed” power in 1999.

Then there was this:

In a NewYorker.com piece published before Venezuela’s elections, [Anderson] wrote in error that “Venezuela leads Latin America in homicides.” The most recently available United Nations data show that Honduras, with 91.6 killings per 100,000 in 2011, has twice the rate of homicides as Venezuela, which recorded 45.1 in 2010. (El Salvador has 69.2.) When confronted with these facts on Twitter in February, Anderson admitted his mistake publicly, addressing even his editors at The New Yorker, and agreed to offer a correction. Over a month later, however, neither Anderson nor his editors have fixed his invented claim.

As Bhatt also points out, the headline on that second piece was originally given the hopeful title “The End of Chavez?” Once Chavez handily won reelection, the editors had to change it to “Chavez the Survivor.”

Thanks to Bhatt’s efforts—and that of his readers—both of these errors were eventually corrected.

But now we have this:

For Jon Lee Anderson’s most recent factual error, unfortunately, The New Yorker has thus far refused to issue a clarification or retraction. One month ago—the day Chávez died—Anderson wrote a third piece, for NewYorker.com, claiming:

What [Chávez] has left is a country that, in some ways, will never be the same, and which, in other ways, is the same Venezuela as ever: one of the world’s most oil-rich but socially unequal countries. . .

As I pointed out in “Anderson Fails at Arithmetic,” this allegation misleads the reader in two ways. Inequality has been reduced enormously under Chávez, using its standard measure, the Gini coefficient. So one can hardly say that in this aspect, Venezuela remains the “same as ever.” Making Anderson’s contention even worse is the fact that Venezuela is the most equal country in Latin America, according to the United Nations. Anderson’s readers come away with exactly the opposite impression.

…A senior editor [at The New Yorker] sent me an email [that] offered a strained defense of Anderson’s position on inequality, arguing that Anderson’s point was valid, given that his claim supposedly combined Venezuela’s conditions of being both “oil-rich” and “socially unequal” as one assertion.

I pointed out in my response that any reasonable reading of the statement would portray Venezuela as both one of the world’s most oil-rich and one of the world’s most socially unequal countries. And the fact of the matter is that the CIA’s World Factbook ranks the country 68th out of 136 countries with available data on income inequality—that is to say, Venezuela is exactly in the middle, and impossible to construe as among the most unequal.

I also explained that when Anderson was confronted with this evidence on Twitter, the magazine’s principal correspondent on Venezuela expressed extreme skepticism toward publicly available, constantly used, and highly scrutinized data; he instead cited his own “reporting” and “impressions” as the authority for his assertions….

Lastly, I argued that the awkward formulation of combining “oil-rich” and “socially unequal”—a reading I reject—exposes Anderson’s contention as even further at odds with reality. Included in my email was the following list showing the top 10 most “oil-rich” countries ranked in order of their total crude oil production, according to the International Energy Agency. Each country’s corresponding Gini coefficient from the CIA World Factbook appears in parentheses—the higher the Gini coefficient, the greater the country’s inequality:

1. Saudi Arabia (unavailable)
2. Russia (0.42)
3. United States (0.45)
4. Iran (0.445)
5. China (0.48)
6. Canada (0.32)
7. United Arab Emirates (unavailable)
8. Venezuela (0.39)
9. Mexico (0.517)
10. Nigeria (0.437)

When provided with these arguments and data, The New Yorker’s senior editor fell silent in the face of repeated follow-ups. I received a reply only once: a rejection of my request to publicly post our correspondence.

Bhatt closes by urging his readers to get in touch with the The New Yorker.

Readers can pose such questions to The New Yorker by contacting its editors at www.newyorker.com/contact/contactus, by email at tny.newsdesk@gmail.com, or on Twitter at @tnynewsdesk. Such media activism plays a crucial role in engendering more careful portrayals of countries like Venezuela, which has long been the target of cartoonishly hostile, slanted, and outright false media coverage. Previous demands for accuracy and accountability have already prompted two admissions of error by The New Yorker, and can lead to a third, in spite of the magazine’s obstinacy. More importantly, the magazine now faces a real political cost to publishing sloppy reporting, as well as a powerful deterrent to running reckless news and commentary during a politically significant transitional moment for Venezuela.

I concur.

32 Responses to “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mr. Jon Lee Anderson”

  1. Paul Rosenberg April 8, 2013 at 8:48 pm #

    With a liberal media like this, who needs Fox News?

  2. louisproyect April 8, 2013 at 8:56 pm #

    Great work, Corey.

    • Corey Robin April 8, 2013 at 8:57 pm #

      It wasn’t me! It was Keane! Be great if you could post this on FB and your blog.

  3. The Raven April 8, 2013 at 9:43 pm #

    Be careful of this line of argument. The claim that income inequity within Venezuela is moderate is trumpeted all over the web. But the average income in Venezuela, including various subsidies, is perhaps US$9000/yr. Venezuela has, it seems, an equitable distribution of poverty.

    Source: http://english.eluniversal.com/2011/02/04/en_ing_esp_average-household-in_04A5099091.shtml

    • Keane April 8, 2013 at 10:04 pm #

      The Raven: per capita GDP for Venezuela was estimated to be over $12,500 in PPP according to the IMF (page 31):
      http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/reo/2012/whd/eng/pdf/wreo0412.pdf

      Venezuela’s income is higher than Colombia’s or Costa Rica’s, and much more equally distributed, but neither Colombia nor Costa Rica are regularly referred to in the press as particularly impoverished.

      • The Raven April 8, 2013 at 10:43 pm #

        Still an equitable distribution of poverty, though.

        Also, isn’t anyone, well, a bit concerned that Venezuela is making its money from fossil fuels? This does not have a future.

      • inaina April 10, 2013 at 8:54 pm #

        Keane: that per capita GDP is calculated with the official exchanged rate (4,30 veb/usd at the time) which is not truth for the day to day life.
        I think Venezuela’s reality is much more complex than many people living outside the country (and even many Venezuelans) might think and that this why errors like Anderson’s happen.

  4. joe April 9, 2013 at 12:44 am #

    To The Raven,

    What would you recommend the Venezuela do otherwise to fund these social programs?

  5. sapitosetty April 9, 2013 at 6:01 am #

    Venezuela’s Gini coefficient, poverty rate, median income and other figures are based on an unrealistic official exchange rate, where earning 1000 bolivars a month last year was officially almost US$250. That exchange rate has already been devalued, from 4.3 to the dollar to 6.3. But more importantly, on the real — black market — currency exchange market, the bolivar has collapsed to about 25 to the dollar. The current, real-world value of 1000 bolivars is about US$40. That is the exchange rate that matters, as prices for rent and imported goods in Venezuela are generally set to reflect the black market rates. For poor people, whose income largely goes to necessities such as milk, eggs, and toilet paper, there is a benefit from price controls — low prices. There is also the weakness of price controls — scarcity, which means wasting valuable hours in line or rushing across town for scarce goods. At real exchange rates, I have no doubt that Venezuela is at least as unequal than Chile, my current home and — officially — a more unequal country.

    • sapitosetty April 9, 2013 at 6:07 am #

      Adding, to be clear, that most Venezuelans receive all of their income in bolivars, while expat workers and wealthy capitalist receive a big chunk of their income in dollars. Hence, currency devaluation — a direct result of Chávez’s and now Maduro’s decision to print so many bolivars — primarily affects the poor and middle class.

      • sapitosetty April 9, 2013 at 6:14 am #

        And also adding that rich people in Venezuela don’t report their income accurately, and indeed actively hide not just wealth but also income abroad. Members of the ancién régime lie because they fear expropriation. Members of the nouveau riche lie because many got their money through corruption. Even real estate transactions are often given one price in the public filings while there are side agreements for a much higher price in US dollars, exchanged elsewhere. So the numbers are likely off at both the top and bottom of the income spectrum.

      • Keane April 9, 2013 at 8:50 am #

        Sapitosetty: You’ll have to take up your objections to inequality methodology with SEDLAC, the World Bank and ECLAC, which independently produce roughly the same, highly scrutinized Gini figures. It’s pretty absurd to say that Venezuela may surpass Chile in income inequality when the UN ranked Venezuela at .397 and Chile at .516:
        http://websie.eclac.cl/sisgen/ConsultaIntegrada.asp?idIndicador=250&idioma=e

      • sapitosetty April 9, 2013 at 9:26 am #

        OK, will do.

  6. jonnybutter April 9, 2013 at 8:17 am #

    So, assuming all this is true Sapitosetty, how does that impact the truth of Anderson’s statements? And do wealthy people in Chile not prefer dollars? And do wealthy people in Chile not underreport income?

    The key sentence from Bhatt is this: “…Venezuela has..long been the target of cartoonishly hostile, slanted, and outright false media coverage.”

    • swallerstein April 9, 2013 at 12:03 pm #

      Wealthy people in Chile generally do not prefer dollars. The US dollar has lost value in relation to the Chilean peso in recent years and interest rates are higher in pesos.

      • jonnybutter April 9, 2013 at 3:31 pm #

        Yes Swallerstein, of course you are right. The point is that Venezuela is not some signal, unique disaster in S. America in terms of income inequality. For all I know there is also less under-reporting of income in Chile compared to other countries in the region. Despite my errant detour, the main point stands.

      • swallerstein April 9, 2013 at 3:53 pm #

        Jonnybutter:

        My guess is that there is more income and wealth inequality in Chile than in Venezuela.

        My guess is also that Chilean financial statistics are more reliable than those of Venezuela and that the formal, on the books, economy (and hence, reported for tax purposes) accounts for a
        larger percentage of GNP in Chile than in Venezuela.

        For me, the importance of Chávez is symbolic: he stood up to Uncle Sam. He’s a step towards Latin American autonomy from the so-called Washington consensus and from the dominance of American culture in general.

      • jonnybutter April 9, 2013 at 4:02 pm #

        All agreed swallerstein, although, while I certainly think of Chavez as an equivocal figure (like every other leader there has ever been), I do think he accomplished a few things beyond symbolism. We’ll see how lasting they are, I guess. Thanks for the correction.

      • swallerstein April 10, 2013 at 10:00 am #

        jonnybutter:

        Here’s a link to a short article on income inequality in Chile.

        It’s in Spanish, but there’s a chart which shows that the 0.01% earn
        even twice as much in percentage terms as the 0.01% in the U.S and 5 times as much as the 0.01% in Canada.

        http://www.elmostrador.cl/opinion/2013/04/10/desigualdad-en-chile-el-problema-son-los-super-ricos/

  7. Freddie DeBoer April 9, 2013 at 8:52 am #

    Several of the comments here are essentially saying, “well, it’s true Venezuela doesn’t have high inequality, but it is a poor country!” Which, number one, is a relative claim, and number two, is entirely beside the point of this post and the criticism of Anderson.

  8. david mizner April 9, 2013 at 10:09 am #

    Thanks for this, Corey and Keane.

    You know, when he died Human Rights Watch put out a scathing obit. Fair enough, but I’m waiting for HRW’s obit on Thatcher. And waiting. And waiting…

    • Keane April 9, 2013 at 10:48 am #

      Great point, David! I have a piece coming about about HRW’s behavior soon (hopefully)

  9. Aidian Holder (@aidianz) April 9, 2013 at 10:09 pm #

    Love the Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler reference. Loved that book when I was a kid.

  10. Blinkenlights der Gutenberg April 10, 2013 at 6:29 pm #

    This is old media digging its own grave.

    Everyone under 30 knows to trust random twerps on Twitter before trusting the New Yorker.

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