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Canard d'Etat: Honduras and the U.S. Press

Think the fallacies in America's health care debate are slippery? Try catching the red herring that's fouling up U.S. press coverage of the Honduran coup.
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A canard infiltrated the pages of the finest U.S. newspapers in late June and continues to undermine the first draft of 2009 Honduran coup history and the sovereignty of good journalism in the United States. Logicians might call it a bare assertion fallacy or a false dilemma. As all fallacies, this one thrives from an error in reasoning — and from errors in reporting and editing.

The canard goes something like this:

Efforts by President Manuel Zelaya of Honduras to remove term limits were the cause of a military coup in the Central American nation in June.

That sentence, which appeared in the Aug. 26 edition of The New York Times, was from an Agence France Presse brief about Colombian president Alvaro Uribe's push to stay in power for a third term. It implies that Zelaya, too, was trying to extend his presidency by removing term limits and presents this as fact. But it's not one.

Indeed, sometimes this stay-in-power-by-ending-term-limits canard is attributed to "critics" or "opponents" of Zelaya (including interim president Roberto Micheletti, who lost to Zelaya in the Liberal Party's presidential primary in 2005), and followed by a denial, as in this excerpt of an Aug. 28 article by Associated Press writer Juan Carlos Llorca.

Critics of Zelaya say he was planning to extend his time in office by removing a ban on presidential re-election. Zelaya denies he was seeking to extend his term.

I stumbled upon the canard while simply trying to understand articles published in the run-up to June 28, when Honduran soldiers arrested Zelaya in the early morning hours and summarily flew him to Costa Rica in his pajamas. Like most Americans, the news caught me unawares. Several weeks earlier, while scanning headlines on the Internet, I'd been surprised to learn that Honduras had joined the list of Latin American countries with an elected leftist president. But that was about all I knew.

Here's part of an account AP writer Freddy Cuevas provided for June 26, two days before the coup:

Zelaya has the vocal support of his fellow leftist Latin American leaders as he seeks to follow in the path of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in transforming his country through a constitutional overhaul. The Venezuelan leader and former Cuban President Fidel Castro have warned a coup is under way in Honduras and pledged their support for Zelaya.

Zelaya says the constitution protects a system of government that excludes the poor, but has not specified what changes he will seek.

I found it odd that Zelaya had not specified what changes he would seek, and strange that reporters hadn't badgered some specifics out of him by then, what with all the controversy. But even stranger was that somehow Zelaya's critics were certain of one change he was plotting, as Cuevas reported in the next sentence:

His opponents fear he will try to extend his rule by lifting a constitutional ban on presidential re-election.

Now how's a president going to lift a constitutional ban, I wondered. And then I stopped to think for a few seconds. Presidents can't lift constitutional bans in a democracy. Not in the United States, not in Honduras. A congress or a constituent assembly would have to do that. Right? How did Zelaya's opponents explain he could do it and when? What had Zelaya to say about their fear? The article left all these questions unanswered.

Cuevas continued:

Sunday's referendum has no legal effect: it merely asks people if they want to have a later vote on whether to convoke an assembly to rewrite the constitution.

Now hold on. Zelaya is staging a vote with no legal effect, and yet a military coup is in the works? That doesn't add up. Next sentence:

The Supreme Court, Congress and the attorney general have all said the referendum he is sponsoring is illegal because the constitution says some of its clauses cannot be changed.

In other words, the plebiscite would have no legal force, yet the judicial and legislative branches deemed it illegal. And what was Zelaya's opinion of those rulings? How does he explain what he's up to? Again, the article doesn't say.

In fact, I couldn't find any quotes of Zelaya answering his critics about the legality or purpose of his referendum plans in the best U.S. newspapers, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The Wall Street Journal and The Miami Herald. Was he not speaking to the press?

Oh, except that he did.

El Pais, Sunday June 28, 2009 (Coup Day)
Excerpts from a 1,300-word Q&A of President Zelaya by special correspondent Pablo Ordaz, conducted in Spanish on June 27, one day after Zelaya fired the top general in the armed forces:

Ordaz: The opposition says that what is really behind the vote on Sunday is your intention to remain in power.
Zelaya: Look...Honestly. I don't have any option for staying in power. The only way would be to break the constitutional order, and I'm not going to do that.
Ordaz: Is that your word?
Zelaya: Yes, I'm going to end my government on January 27, 2010. That's what I am going to do. But I'm going to leave behind a process to open democracy, open the possibility for a president to be re-elected in the future. Although I don't know if by then I'm going to be available.
Ordaz: What's your model?
Zelaya: Look. I've positioned myself in the center-left as a government because I practice liberal ideas, but with a socialist, social, tendency, very closely tied to integrating the citizen with his rights.
Ordaz: But you aren't a man who came from the left...
Zelaya: That is so. In fact, I come from very conservative sectors.
Ordaz: And at what point did you fall off the horse?
Zelaya: Ha, ha. No, rather, at what point did I get on the horse...Look, I had planned to make changes from within the neo-liberal framework. But the rich won't cede a penny. They won't cede any of their money. They want it all for themselves. So, logically, to make changes one has to incorporate the people.
Ordaz: Why have you been left so isolated, president?
Zelaya: It's because we're talking about the bourgeois State. The economic elites comprise the bourgeois State. They are at the top of the armies, parties, judges, and that bourgeois State feels vulnerable when I start to propose that the people have a voice and a vote.
Ordaz: How are the moments of crisis that you've lived through in these latest hours going to change you politically, but also personally?
Zelaya: [He stays quiet.] What am I going to change? If I emerge strengthened [from the vote] this Sunday. ...Perhaps I'll have to create closer ties with the groups with power. I'll have to create closer ties with them and convince them. Tell them that I'm not against them, that this is a historic process, that they have to cooperate. ...They have to understand that poverty won't be eliminated until the poor people make the laws.

Constitutional Crisis — Or Not?
Back in the U.S. press, though, we weren't getting so much as a peep from Zelaya or anyone else in his administration. As a result, across the United States, newspapers are presenting a canard — that Zelaya's stated intent was to break the constitutional order and stay in power — as a fact.

President Manuel Zelaya of Honduras was ousted by the army on Sunday, capping months of tensions over his efforts to lift presidential term limits.

That's the lead from Elisabeth Malkin's article in the June 29 New York Times. Further down:

The arrest of Mr. Zelaya was the culmination of a battle that had been simmering for weeks over a referendum, which was to have taken place Sunday, that he hoped would lead to a revision of the Constitution.

Critics said it was part of an illegal attempt by Mr. Zelaya to defy the Constitution's limit of a single four-year term for the president.

And what had Zelaya said the attempt was part of? This article also eschews words from the man, members of his administration, supporters, or even an academic-type who could encapsulate Zelaya's previous rhetoric about the referendum or his take on the Supreme Court's decision about it. The last paragraph offers a sense of who's behind him but no hint why.

Mr. Zelaya, 56, a rancher who often appears in cowboy boots and a western hat, has the support of labor unions and the poor. But the middle class and the wealthy business community fear he wants to introduce Mr. Chávez's brand of socialist populism into the country, one of Latin America's poorest.

Of course, this was Mr. Zelaya's brand of socialist populism, not Chavez's. Fear of Chavez was real, though, according to Bruce Bagley, a political scientist at the University of Miami's Department of International Studies who specializes in Latin American security matters. I'd e-mailed him for help deciphering the articles I was reading, and learned they were vexing him as well.

So, the term-limit accusation against Zelaya is, in fact, a canard? I asked. "Yes," he wrote back. "He never formally sought to change the law."

Then I got him on the phone, and he explained what the coup was really about. "Zelaya's conversion was not so much ideological as it was pragmatic and opportunistic," Bagley said. "Hugo Chavez offered a substantial subsidy in petroleum to Honduras, which is a petroleum importing country. That kind of subsidy was not being offered by the United States. And in fact Zelaya saw the opportunity to improve the well-being of the poorest of the poor in his country, not only with petroleum but also with Cuban doctors, and he seized on the opportunity. That scared the pants off of the right-wing oligarchy that has dominated throughout the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century in his country. And they reacted as they did during the Cold War with military intervention."

Also real was the Honduran corporate sector's fear that a Zelaya win on June 28 would foment mass momentum for calling a constituent assembly that would be hard to reverse.

"Whether or not he could have called a constituent assembly was really up to the congress," Bagley told me. "But the congress and Micheletti, I think, felt that they might lose this. So they decided to act pre-emptively, to accuse the president of violating the constitution when he had not done so. To add to that, that he had the intention of violating the constitution, which of course is counterfactual, and could not be proven."

Still, I was skeptical because of all the reportage stating he had violated the Honduran constitution. So I found a copy of it online. Article 42 does state that anyone who "incites, promotes, or supports the continuation or re-election of the President of the Republic" loses his or her citizenship. According to his remarks to El Pais, Zelaya wasn't inciting, promoting or supporting the continuation or re-election of the president (i.e. himself). His June 28 vote was nonbinding, his stated intention to leave office at the end of his term. No one reading accounts in the top U.S. newspapers would have known that, though.

Nor would they have known what his decree did or didn't state. I obtained a copy of it, too. (To see it, click on the PDFs below "Resources" box in the right-hand column of this page.) First, it contains a flowery populist preamble, noting that under Articles 2 and 5 of the constitution "the powers of the state and government emanate from the people"; that "Honduran society has experienced substantial and significant changes in the past 27 years" that demand "a new constitutional framework"; and that the Citizen Participation Law of 2006 requires the inclusion of every citizen "in the execution and evaluation of all the policies and acts of the State."

Then it orders a "national opinion poll," to be conducted by the National Institute of Statistics no later than June 28, that asks the Honduran citizenry only the following ballot question:

Do you agree that in the general elections of 2009 a Fourth Ballot should be installed in which the public decides whether to convoke a National Constituent Assembly?

The decree makes no mention of term limits or re-election or anything of the sort.

And yet all across the U.S. we're getting articles that state or imply that a vote to lift term limits was imminent and threatening to keep Zelaya in office. Had everything gone Zelaya's way on June 28 — and a majority approved the constituent assembly question — he still couldn't have won re-election under his stated referendum plan. That's because on the same November day that voters would approve the call for a future constituent assembly, they would also elect a new president from a list of six candidates, none of whom would have been Zelaya — owing to the constitution's one-term limit. There may have been ways for Zelaya to try to stay in power for a second term, but holding a November referendum on whether to convene a constituent assembly isn't one of them.

"That's tough to explain in a short article, so we condense," a reporter for one major U.S. newspaper told me. "And sometimes we condense too much."

Helene Cooper in Washington and Marc Lacey in Tegucigalpa cranked out a nice long piece for the June 30 print edition of The New York Times. But again, no quotes or paraphrases from Zelaya about the charges against him, and again oversimplification of his constituent assembly push turned accusation (that he was trying to end the term limit) into fact.

Obama administration officials said that they were surprised by the coup on Sunday. But they also said that they had been working for several weeks to try to head off a political crisis in Honduras as the confrontation between Mr. Zelaya and the military over his efforts to lift presidential term limits escalated.

The story then offered some previously unreported gossip involving Zelaya and Hillary Rodham Clinton ...

On June 2, Obama administration officials got a firsthand look at the brewing political battle when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton traveled to Honduras for an Organization of American States conference. Mrs. Clinton met with Mr. Zelaya, and he reportedly annoyed her when he summoned her to a private room late in the night after her arrival and had her shake hands with his extended family.

... before returning to reportage related to the legal issues and once again omitting any Zelaya perspective:

During a more formal meeting afterward, they discussed Mr. Zelaya's plans for a referendum that would have laid the groundwork for an assembly to remake the Constitution, a senior administration official said.

But American officials did not believe that Mr. Zelaya's plans for the referendum were in line with the Constitution, and were worried that it would further inflame tensions with the military and other political factions, administration officials said.

Even so, one administration official said that while the United States thought the referendum was a bad idea, it did not justify a coup.

How to explain the persistence of the term-limits canard and the U.S. press's complacency, if not complicity, with it?

"I think these people have their blinders on because of their animus to the ALBA countries," Bagley said of my fellow American journalists. "They're drawn to the example of Hugo Chavez, which everybody agrees is an example of someone moving toward the authoritarian left. I agree with that. I think he's circumscribing freedom of the press. He's expropriating media. He's doing all kinds of arbitrary things. Zelaya did none of that."

Bagley also thinks Zelaya, whom he describes as a "clown, a loudmouth and a grandstander," has helped sow confusion. "He has been singularly inarticulate in laying out his position," Bagley observed. "He has failed to have his advisers lay out the legal case clearly for all of this, which he should have done and should be continuing to harp on. He should also point out that it's perfectly legal to call a constituent assembly. Zelaya is at fault for not laying out this clearly."

Asked why there was a lack of new or archived Zelaya statements about the legal issues in the coverage, another journalist told me, "I was basically working crazy hours on the fly on breaking news and did not really have the luxury of digging up clips or doing extensive research."

That disclaimer sounds like a symptom of "churnalism," a byproduct of newspaper retrenchment and a topic British journalist Nick Davies explores in his book Flat Earth News. Staff reductions create overburdened reporters and editors, who are scrambling increasingly to produce the quantities of content more bodies used to provide. Fact-checking and old-fashioned depth reporting are sacrificed.

"An industry whose primary task is to filter out falsehood has become so vulnerable to manipulation that it is now involved in the mass production of falsehood, distortion and propaganda," Davies writes.

U.S. press coverage of the April 2002 coup that ousted Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's elected president, for two days was much more diligent in representing both sides. One explanation is that major U.S. papers had reporters based in Caracas because Venezuela, under Chavez, was the source of an ongoing news narrative; thus their journalism was simply better informed. A leading canard put forth by anti-Chavistas — that widespread anti-Chavez protests had forced Chavez to resign and thus the coup wasn't really a coup — was obliterated by events. For example, in contrast to their Honduran counterparts, Venezuelan civilian and military leaders behind the coup had dissolved the congress and fired the supreme court. Also, journalists quoted Chavez's denials that he had resigned and then couldn't avoid reporting the news that a group of pro-Chavez military officers, encouraged by large numbers of pro- Chavez protesters, reinstated him.

Hearing From the Other Side
An Aug. 6 article by AP writers Morgan Lee and Alexandra Olson finally provided some verbiage from Zelaya's perspective. It still didn't come from the man himself, but at least they had interviewed a senior member of his administration. Lo and behold, that official debunked the canard that the president was seeking re-election with his referendum plan; he also offered a big new insight into what Zelaya thought it could do for him.

Victor Meza, who served as Zelaya's interior minister, acknowledged that the president miscalculated.

"The impression that stuck with the traditional political class and with the most conservative business leaders of the country was that Zelaya had taken a dangerous turn to the left, and therefore that their interests were in jeopardy," he said. "We underestimated the conservatism of the Honduran political class and the military leadership."

When Zelaya called a referendum on June 28 to ask the public to support a constitutional assembly, opponents accused him of trying to abolish term limits and extend his rule, like Chavez did in Venezuela. Zelaya denies that. Meza said he didn't want immediate re-election, though he hoped to lay the groundwork for a return to the presidency in 2012.

Two weeks later, a McClatchy Newspapers report by Tyler Bridges perpetuated the canard but was one of the first in the U.S. press to provide the Zelaya perspective on the impossibility of seating a constituent assembly before he left office:

The political problems began after Zelaya veered left in the middle of his four-year term and embraced the socialist anti-poverty program of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, a fierce U.S. critic. Zelaya worsened matters by pushing for a June 28 vote giving Hondurans the chance to say whether they supported calling a special body to rewrite the country's constitution.

Virtually all of Honduras's major institutions lined up against him, saying that the country's current constitution did not permit the vote. They suspected that Zelaya was bent on making changes so he could seek another term as president, as Mr. Chávez and his allies have done.

Zelaya's supporters say any modification of the constitution wouldn't have taken place until after he left office in January.

Canard Still Alive
The coup narrative eventually shifted away from the causes of the overthrow to mounting international efforts to return Zelaya to office for the rest of his term. But the canard is still wreaking havoc in the best U.S. newspapers, as if the untenable prospect of a term-limit law change before Zelaya left office — and not the imminence of a nonbinding June 28 vote certain to mobilize the nation's impoverished majority and jeopardize the wealthy elite — prompted the coup.

Here's how AP's Freddy Cuevas condensed, and thereby distorted, the legal dispute in a Sept. 1 article:

Most of Zelaya's own Liberal party supported his ouster, accusing him of seeking to eliminate a constitutional ban on presidential re-election, as Chavez and other Latin American leftist leaders have done. Zelaya denies that was his intention.

Wrong twice. According to the El Pais interview and the Aug. 6 article by Cuevas's fellow AP writers, Zelaya was hoping a constituent assembly would eliminate a ban on presidential re-election — after he left office. As usual, the Sept. 1 update has nothing further from the Zelaya side to debunk the canard, like noting that by the time a new constituent assembly was seated someone else would be president. Or how about a sentence like "Zelaya has stated he intends to step down when his term ends next January"?

In the Sept. 3 New York Times, an informative, well-written article by Ginger Thompson on Zelaya's visit to Washington actually quoted him, but not about the term-limit confusion. Again, reporter and editors left the canard unrevealed.

The longer the political crisis in Honduras continues, the more of a conundrum it threatens to create for Mr. Obama. A handful of congressional Republicans, backed by a well-connected group of lawyers and lobbyists, have mobilized in support of the de facto government, accusing Mr. Zelaya of illegally trying to change the Constitution so that he could run for another term.

There — right after that paragraph — was a perfect juncture for a line or two from Zelaya explaining the legalities of his referendum actions and what the heck he thought he would accomplish by them.

In some quarters, the first draft of coup history seems to be getting more tendentious, not less. A Sept. 8 Honduran coup update that Tyler Bridges filed, from Caracas, for The Miami Herald and McClatchy Newspapers contained 11 assertions by Micheletti government officials that reporter and editors allowed to go unanswered by the Zelaya side. The article led with the (non-) news that Micheletti and his interim government were still "dead-set against" allowing Zelaya to serve the last five months of his term. Then it (accurately) outlines the referendum-related accusations against Zelaya.

The Micheletti government, a majority of the Honduran Congress and powerful civil and business groups say they can't trust Zelaya to keep his word under the Arias plan. All are convinced he would push for a measure aimed at rewriting the constitution so he could be president again. Micheletti and his supporters say Zelaya repeatedly violated the law by trying to hold a plebiscite that would have permitted a vote for the new constitution.

But on this one, reporter and editors were too busy to find the time or place for even a perfunctory "Zelaya denies it" sentence.

There was room in the second paragraph, however, for some new allegations from the Micheletti camp: that Zelaya had "illegally used public money to keep horses, buy watches and jewelry, and repair his Harley-Davidson motorcycle." Again, reporter and editors left them unanswered by Zelaya or members of his deposed administration.

The conventional wisdom about Latin America coverage has long been that the U.S. press pays scant attention to the region until there's a crisis. And then it pays only a little more heed. Perhaps the term-limit canard is a sign that this chronic indifference endures. "I think nobody gives a damn about Honduras," Bagley offers, in sum.

Maybe readers would, though, if the highest caliber newspapers in the U.S. targeted issues surrounding the subversion of democracy in the third-poorest country in our hemisphere with a fraction of the firepower they used so excellently to expose warrantless surveillance directives, credit default swaps and mark-to-market accounting in the United States.

Editors? How about a decent 1,300-word Q&A of Zelaya for an upcoming Sunday edition?

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