Interview by Alejandro Velasco
Alejandro Velasco: Venezuela is in the news these days, but that wasn’t always the case. For decades Venezuela seemed relatively understudied, considered “boring” and uneventful in contrast to the rest of the region. Then Hugo Chávez was elected in 1998, and academic – and media – attention gradually took off. What drew you to study Venezuela, and the media in particular?
Robert Samet: Like many people, I was initially drawn by the grassroots political project that coalesced around Hugo Chávez, but it was the extraordinary media environment that made me choose to do fieldwork in Venezuela. Before graduate school I worked in advertising. My master’s thesis dealt with terrorism preparedness campaigns in the United States, something with which I had experience. For my doctoral research, I wanted to continue working on media and democracy but in a different setting. Venezuela was perfect. It was the most diverse and arguably the freest environment for journalism in the Western Hemisphere. It was also the most polarized. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the media battles playing out in Venezuela were a precursor to what has become the new normal in much of the world.
Alejandro Velasco: As you describe in rich and dynamic detail in Deadline, the media was an early, crucial, and sometimes even literal site of political struggle in the Chavez era, not just a flashpoint but a platform for chavistas and anti-chavistas to seek to impose deeply divergent visions of the country and gain control over its future. But your book takes a surprising turn. It focuses on a specific subset of press coverage – crime beat reporting – that at first glance seems to stand outside the fray of the larger media battles that have shaped the Chavez era. Why did you decide to focus on crime reporting, and how do you think this specific focus sheds light on broader media struggles in contexts of bitter polarization?
Robert Samet: Crime journalism was not part of the original plan. I’d intended to do participant observation with media producers on either side of Venezuela’s political divide, but after a few weeks the research stalled. It wasn’t a problem of access. Most of the news organizations were happy to open their doors, and being a gringo from a prestigious U.S. university didn’t hurt. The problem was that people kept repeating stories I’d already heard. Either the private press was part of a vast anti-Chávez conspiracy (chavistas) or the Chávez government was a corrupt dictatorship intent on ending press freedom (opposition). Back and forth. I decided to start working with crime reporters because violent crime was an issue on which there was an emerging consensus. Focusing on crime allowed me to provincialize Chávez. I could see how reporters went about the business of finding cases, gathering facts, and framing stories. I also observed how they used crime stories as a platform to mobilize grievances, apportion blame, and propose solutions. A distinct pattern emerged. After a few months of working the Caracas crime beat, I started to see a broader logic that governed the practice of journalism in Venezuela.
Alejandro Velasco: Populism is much in vogue as an explanatory device but the term is fraught, seeming at times to mean everything and nothing. One common and contradictory trope is that the press is both a catalyst for and a bulwark against populist politicians who rely on media coverage – positive or negative – to attack freedoms and staid institutions. Your book offers a refreshing and important contribution, viewing “populism” less as a political phenomenon than as a category of analysis to understand fields of cultural and political contestation. How did you arrive at populism as a theoretical framework, and what do you think Deadline adds to debates on what populism is and isn’t?
Robert Samet: Thank you! I couldn’t agree more with your assessment. Populism is a term that is frequently misused. Much of the current scholarship has adopted a top-down definition that confuses populism with the discourse of charismatic leaders. That’s one of the reasons anthropologists have largely avoided the topic. I only turned to theories of populism because I was trying to explain the mobilization of “denuncias” (denunciations) by Venezuelan journalists. Denuncias are crucial for understanding the style of journalism that came to dominate Latin America in the late twentieth century. I expected to find a large literature on the topic, but there was virtually nothing on denuncias in English or in Spanish. I had to create my own theoretical framework. Around this time, I picked up Ernesto Laclau’s book On Populist Reason and found a lucid explanation of the practices I’d observed on the crime beat. Although I have issues with some of Laclau’s normative assumptions, his work allowed me to formulate an empirically grounded analysis of the role that media plays in populist mobilization, a topic on which Laclau himself is silent. In this regard, I think that my book can serve as a roadmap for thinking about the relationship between media and populism more broadly. Instead of starting with a check list of attributes by which to quantify the relative populism of different leaders (ala the work being done by “Team Populism”) we have to start with the grievances of ordinary people and the channels through which these grievances are mobilized.
Alejandro Velasco: Venezuela is one of the world’s most violent countries, even as you also observe, there is much debate about what precisely that means, with wildly divergent statistics often thoughtlessly tossed around in leading media accounts. That leads to an important meditation that runs through Deadline, about the meanings of violence beyond figures, but also and perhaps more importantly, about larger epistemological tensions in a world where not just policy making but most decision making and reporting about it is increasingly dominated by “hard” numbers. As someone who is not an anthropologist I’m curious: what do you think a book like Deadline – and the discipline of anthropology more broadly – has to say about how the value of ethnography and qualitative methods at a time when these tools seem increasingly to be questioned as valid or important?
Robert Samet: I’m secretly fond of numbers and spent a lot of time pouring over crime statistics. Violent crime in Venezuela is exceptionally bad by any measure. Because it was a political flashpoint the numbers were weaponized. Organizations associated with the opposition often inflated the homicide rate, while the government went to great lengths to hide it. This is a pattern with which criminologists are familiar. The solution is not better numbers. It’s better context. That is what good ethnography and good journalism have in common. That is also one of the things my book provides—a nuanced, empathetic, and policy-relevant description about struggles to control perceptions of crime. However, ethnography is much more than mere context. It is a resolutely empirical methodology, one that is far better suited to studying moments of political and socio-economic upheaval than quantitative research. As I learned in my advertising days, quantitative data is great for predicting behaviors within a closed system, but it is not particularly useful if you want to understand how individuals or groups will react to something radically new. For that you need a methodology with a stronger grounding in peoples’ lifeworlds. To return to the subject of populism for a moment, data scientists were not the ones who foresaw the current wave of upheavals. It was scholars whose research was close to the ground and whose work had an ethnographic sensibility. For anyone who wants to understand where things are headed, I’d argue ethnography is more relevant than ever.
Alejandro Velasco: You write that fieldwork for what became Deadline began in 2007, continuing through multiple research visits of different length until just recently. That means you have witnessed Venezuela arguably at the height of chavismo’s popularity and power, through Chavez’s death, through Nicolas Maduro’s first years in power, and more recently, during the country’s dramatic economic collapse. As an ethnographer, what special challenges do you feel you’ve encountered researching and writing in such a fast-changing context? And based on your research and writing on Venezuela, what has surprised you – and what has failed to surprise you – about the turn the country has taken in recent years?
Robert Samet: So much has changed over the past decade. When I started out, Venezuela was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise bleak world. Today it is in crisis. For an ethnographer, the speed of change definitely posed a challenge, but it was compounded by the political stakes. Ever since I started working in Venezuela, the situation has been misrepresented abroad. In the United States, for example, the GOP is using Venezuela as an example of the dangers of socialism, a move that even The New York Times flagged as baldly misleading. Back in 2007, it was easy to counter partisan assertions about dictatorship, censorship, or political persecution; fast forward to the present and it’s more difficult. Take the issue of crime control. Under Chávez, the Venezuelan government rejected tough-on-crime policies as instruments of racial and socio-economic oppression. Under Maduro, it has embraced them. Tough-on-crime policies have been the hallmark of rightwing populism since the 1980s, so it’s troubling to see an ostensibly leftist movement champion tactics similar to those we see in Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro or the Philippines under Rodrigo Duterte. I would not call Maduro’s punitive turn surprising—if anything, I was amazed that Chávez managed to hold out against pressure to move in this direction for so long—but it creates a real conundrum. How do you write honestly about a topic that has become the object of political football? As someone sympathetic to the plight of ordinary Venezuelans as well as the ideals of the Bolivarian Revolution, I’m acutely aware that my critiques could be used to justify brutal sanctions or to make a case for war. That’s what made this project so challenging. There is a very narrow tightrope that I’m trying to walk.
Alejandro Velasco: One of the more provocative contributions Deadline makes is identifying the multiple pressures beat reporters face in climates of intense of polarization, pressures that go well beyond a simple state versus independent media binary. Instead you show how beat reporters are susceptible to both overt and subtle forms of manipulation by management, by colleagues and interlocutors caught up in the fray of polarization, and of course by larger political tensions as they affect daily life, the object of their reporting. That seems to echo another recent book on the media in Chávez-era Venezuela (Naomi Schiller, Channeling the State, Duke 2018) by noting that debates about press freedom – in Venezuela and elsewhere – often miss power relations in the press itself, power relations that are compounded but also obscured when the dynamic becomes one that pits “the state” versus “the media.” What contribution do you want Deadline to make to debates about the role – and the power – of the press in society, and about how we should think about the relationship between state and the media, as seen through the eyes of beat reporters?
Robert Samet: Here in the United States we are slowly waking up to the fact that press freedom is not all it’s cracked up to be. The myth of press freedom obscures how corporate entities have been remaking the state in their image for the better part of a century. Nowhere was this vice grip on the media challenged more imaginatively than Venezuela. Deadline looks at how private interests shaped political speech. Channeling the State describes how grassroots media projects set out to democratize access to cultural production. I think that the two books are complimentary. They show, albeit from different angles, that the media is a platform on which state-making projects are staged. In this respect, Naomi and I both challenge anti-statist assumptions that became prevalent in the critical humanities and social sciences from the 1980s onward. I hope that my book encourages a new generation of students and activists to work to change the nation-state rather than formulating newer, ever more sophisticated critiques of it. Among other things, I want readers come away with a greater appreciation for limited government regulation of things like online hate speech or the circulation of deliberate falsehoods. In the United States, these have become the vehicles for white nationalism. It is time to shut them down.
Alejandro Velasco: The book is at once engagingly written and theoretically rich. It also is both deeply situated in the Venezuelan experience, while resonating loudly in debates that extend well beyond Venezuela – about the craft of journalism, the meanings of populism, the work and policy of urban policing. It also strikes me as a book that makes an overarching argument, but whose chapters can also stand alone. That’s all to say, I can see it adopted in many different courses and settings – from introductory courses in Latin American culture, to political theory courses, to public policy course in urban planning, to advanced journalism seminars, and more. Can you give advice on a few ways someone wanting to incorporate Deadline might teach it productively? Or perhaps a more difficult question: How would you teach your book to undergraduates? Are there chapters that are particularly well suited to teach independently? If read in full, are there auxiliary materials you would pair with it?
Robert Samet: Thank you! I teach at a liberal arts college and I wanted to write an ethnography that was relevant to my colleagues but also accessible to undergraduates. You’re right to observe that Deadline is constructed around a central argument, however there are also chapters and sections that stand alone. For example, I’d recommend chapters 2-4 for anyone who wants a depiction of how the stigma of criminality is stamped on the urban poor. These are the book’s most accessible chapters and I think they are conducive to undergraduate teaching. For graduate instructors who are interested in the book’s theoretical contributions, chapters 5-8 probably hold the greatest appeal. This is where I take up theories of media, democracy, populism, and representations of violence. For someone trying to explain how the Venezuelan landscape changed over the last twenty years, then the book’s first two chapters and the conclusion are probably the most important. How would I teach it? I think that Deadline is best suited for unsettling received wisdom about Venezuela and the relationship between media and democracy. I’d introduce the book by having students look for examples of how Chávez and Venezuela are portrayed by the international press. Then, I’d have them watch Kim Barley and Donnacha O’Briain’s 2003 documentary The Revolution Will Not be Televised. After that I’d dive into the book itself. I think that it pairs particularly well with journalistic accounts of Venezuela, like Jon Lee Anderson’s “Slumlord” published in The New Yorker (2013) or Frontline’s “The Hugo Chávez Show” (2008). But I think that it’s even more interesting when you pair it with contemporary discussion of social media, fake news, and ideals of journalism. In my opinion, Deadline is the best available case study of how populism operates in and through the media. It avoids the hype about new media as well as the liberal handwringing about evils of populism. I want students to come away with a nuanced understanding of a pattern that is built into the very fabric of our democracies.