[Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Good Morning America as airing the Brandi Hitt story. Her piece was posted on GMA's website, but did not air on the program.] ABCNews.com on Wednesday greeted the death of Hugo Chavez by avoiding the word “socialist.” Instead, journalist Brandi Hitt touted the repressive leader as someone who “appeared to never back down from a challenge.” The reporter never mentioned Chavez’s crackdown on free speech or democracy. Instead, she featured a woman in the streets of Venezuela gushing, “He’s a man that cared about us…He did not give anything to me, but he gave it to my people.”
Over on Today, NBC’s Mark Potter offered this friendly description of the individual who made friends with Iranian dictator Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: “Many here were still surprised when he died, in part because of his larger-than-life personality.” Potter announced that crowds in Caracas were chanting “Chavez lives” and “the struggle continues.” Both Today and Good Morning America made sure to play footage of Chavez’s 2006 appearance at the United Nations. There, the authoritarian leaded mocked George W. Bush as “the devil.”
CBS This Morning offered the most balanced coverage, tipping towards critical. A CBS graphic labeled, "Socialist President Was Polarizing Figure.” The Norah O’Donnell segment featured a 2002 clip of 60 Minutes anchor Steve Kroft telling Chavez that some Americans see him as “a power-hungry, left-wing demagogue – dictator.” Kroft added that others view the Venezuelan as “somewhat loco.”
O’Donnell pointed out, “Chavez demonized the United States and befriended America's enemies during his nearly 14 years in power.”
The CBS journalist did hype the late leader for using “his country's vast oil wealth to fund social programs, which made him popular among Venezuel'as poor.” But she also mentioned his “controversial nature” and offered much more skepticism than was seen on GMA.
In contrast, ABC’s Hitt concluded, “Chavez ran Venezuela for 14 years as a virtual one man show. For any successor, it will be a hard act to follow.” The network’s World News, airing the previous night, did a better job. Reporter Matt Gutman, at least, allowed that “many Americans viewed him as a dictator.”
Unlike ABCNews.com, the Washington Post highlighted Chavez's repressive ways:
Fully in control by late in the decade, Mr. Chavez became increasingly aggressive against his detractors. Opposition leaders were forced to flee the country, some were arrested after openly criticizing the president, and the government yanked the broadcast license of a television network, RCTV, that had been sharply critical of his governing style. The state also created a vast propaganda apparatus, made up of a half-dozen television stations, newspapers and community radio outlets, which offered endless praise of government initiatives.
The deteriorating situation in Venezuela led the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an independent branch of the Organization of American States, to issue a blistering 300-page report in 2010 saying that Mr. Chavez’s government constrained free expression, the rights of citizens to protest and the ability of opposition politicians to function. It also outlined how the president held tremendous influence over the judiciary, with judges whose decisions the government didn’t like being fired.
(Due to a snowstorm, GMA and CBS This Morning were preempted in the Washington D.C. area. Transcripts from these programs were created from ABCNews.com and CBSNews.com.)
A transcript of the March 6 segment can be found below:
BRANDI HITT: Outspoken Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez appeared to never back down from a challenge. Chavez’s rise to power was rocky. Born in an impoverished neighborhood, he joined a military academy and began pushing for social reform. But his first attempt backfired in 1992 when he helped stage a military coup to overthrow the Venezuelan government and failed. After two years in prison, Chavez went from soldier to politician and he won the 1998 presidential election. “He’s a man that cared about us,” this woman said. He did not give anything to me, but he gave it to my people.” During his presidency, Chavez was very critical of the U.S. He objected to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and during this United Nations speech even referred to President George W. Bush as the devil.
HUGO CHAVEZ [through translator]: Yesterday, the devil came here. Right here. And it smells of sulfur still today.
HITT: But Chavez also saw his fair share of protests, strikes and coup attempts. He used his country’s oil to form connections with world powers and developed relationships with Iran and Cuba. In 2011, he was diagnosed with cancer. After several surgeries and chemotherapy, Chavez announced he announced he had recovered and in 2012 won another term in office. Chavez ran Venezuela for 14 years as a virtual one man show. For any successor, it will be a hard act to follow. Brandi Hitt, ABC News, Los Angeles.