Jon Lee Anderson Explains: Because I Said So

Jon Lee Anderson

Jon Lee Anderson

New Yorker staff writer Jon Lee Anderson has a blog post on the magazine’s website (4/23/13) addressing the controversy over his recent coverage of Venezuela (FAIR Blog, 4/17/13):

At issue are sentences in three different pieces written in the course of a number of months—two on the New Yorker‘s website and one in the magazine.  Readers pointed out what they saw as factual errors in each. In two cases I agreed, and corrected the sentences; in the third I didn’t, for reasons I’ll explain.

So you expect he’s going to explain why he didn’t agree that the third alleged factual error wasn’t really wrong, right? Well, you’ll be disappointed. He spends quite a few words explaining why even though he was wrong on the first two sentences, he was really right, before getting around to the third one. Here’s that contentious sentence:

What he 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, with a large number of its citizens living in some of Latin America’s most violent slums.

He sums up the critique of this sentence thusly:

A number of letters I’ve received dispute, out of context, my reference to “the same Venezuela as ever: one of the world’s most oil-rich but socially unequal countries”; several cite an economic statistic known as the Gini coefficient–a measure of income inequality. Others are simply angry at the suggestion that Chávez left Venezuela “the same.”

OK, although aside from “a number of letters,” this point had also been made by a number of media critics, including Keane Bhatt (NACLA, 3/15/13), Corey Robin (4/8/13), Gawker (3/11/13) and myself (FAIR Blog, 4/17/13). It would have been nice if Anderson had linked to some of his published critics–you know, for context.

But the real issue is, why doesn’t Anderson think he should offer a correction? After quoting himself at length–apparently just to demonstrate what quoting him not “out of context” would look like–he offers this:

In terms of some of the components of social inequality, notably income and education, Chávez had some real achievements. (Income is what’s captured by the Gini coefficient, although that statistic has its own limitations, some particular to Venezuela.) But in housing and violence, his record was woefully insufficient. Those social factors are intimately related, to each other and to the question of equality. Most of the Venezuelans who are murdered are poor, and they are being killed in greater numbers than ever before, while living in desperately miserable and violent slums, where many of those murders occur.

So the reason that it is not wrong to say that Chavez left behind “the same Venezuela as ever: one of the world’s most…socially unequal countries” is that Chavez substantially reduced income and educational inequality, but on “housing and violence, his record was woefully insufficient.”

You have to wonder how those crack New Yorker factcheckers responded to that: “When you say ‘one of the world’s most socially unequal countries,’ what’s your source on that?” “Well, Chavez did have some real achievements on income and education, but his record on violence and housing was woefully insufficient.” It’s hard to imagine how a factchecker could respond to that, though “woefully insufficient” might be a helpful phrase.

It looks like we’re never going to get a correction out of the New Yorker for saying that a political leader had left his country as unequal as ever when he had actually greatly reduced inequality. But I suppose Jon Lee Anderson’s post does serve as a clarification of sorts: When New Yorker writers seem to be citing comparative statistical data, they may really just be stringing together random political observations. Which is good to know.

Anderson also notes that “some have cited these sentences as evidence of bad will on my part (and the New Yorker‘s)—of a politicized bias against Hugo Chávez.” Strangely, he doesn’t seem to address that issue at all in his response–other than perhaps suggesting that a politicized bias against Chavez is a natural thing to have.

UPDATE:  Keane Bhatt, who’s one of the great media critics of our time, takes the trouble to spell out exactly what’s wrong with Anderson’s nonsensical defense of his inequality claim. In a new blog post (NACLA, 4/24/13), he writes:

Notice that Anderson never tells his readers what Venezuela’s Gini coefficient actually is. According to the United Nations, Venezuela’s Gini, at 0.397, makes it the least unequal country in Latin America and squarely in the middle range of the rest of the world. Only by sidestepping this brutal empirical obstacle can Anderson attempt to lay out his case….

Now, Anderson has settled on a definition of social inequality that minimizes Venezuela’s high educational and income equality in favor of high homicide rates and unequal housing. But simply saying that Chávez’s record “was woefully insufficient” on housing and violence does not naturally equate to Venezuela’s standing as a world leader in social inequality….

While Venezuela’s homicide rate is high by international standards and a significant social ill, this alone does not necessarily make the country more socially unequal than another country with a lower homicide rate….

Anderson also doesn’t offer statistics showing that housing is more unequal in Venezuela than anywhere else. That’s because it’s not.

Out of the 91 countries for which the United Nations has available data, Venezuela is 61st in terms of the percentage of its urban population living in slums.

Read the whole thing; it’s devastating.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.