At the end of a discussion of Haiti on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, actor Sean Penn went on a rant in defense of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, suggesting prison time for American journalists: "every day, this elected leader is called a dictator here, and we just accept it! And accept it. And this is mainstream media, who should – truly, there should be a bar by which one goes to prison for these kinds of lies."
This is a little strange, since a study by our Business and Media Institute of Chavez coverage from 1998 to 2006 found Chavez’s much-criticized human rights record was mentioned in only ten percent of stories, and he was described as a leftist in only 12 percent of stories. Maher shifted to Chavez and the end of the Haiti interview, asking Penn to make a case for his man Chavez:
MAHER: His image in the media is just a buffoon. You have been there. You know him. You’ve talked to him. That’s all I really know about Hugo Chavez, is what I read in the media. A dictator, took over a lot of the branches of government, wants to be president for life. What do you know that I don’t know, that I should not have such a harsh feeling about this guy?
PENN: I think that if you’re more happy with 20 percent of a population having the access to dreams, access to the feeling they have an identity and a voice. If it’s okay with the 20 percent, versus the 80 percent he gave it to, then you can criticize Hugo Chavez. You know, there are a lot of complicated issues that comes simply out of perspective. We in the United States have a difficult time putting ourselves in the shoes of what has been the history of Venezuela, the history of Latin America, and many other places.We’re very monocultural. And then we are hypnotized by the media. For example, Hugo Chavez. Who do you know here who’s gone through fourteen of the most transparent elections on the globe, and has been elected democratically, as Hugo Chavez?
Stay with the transcript here, because Penn’s talk gets very fuzzy and inarticulate, but his primary point is that Venezuela and Cuba helped him provide assistance to Haiti, when he knew next to nothing about how to help, so he is frustrated that anyone would speak negatively about them:
PENN: Hugo Chavez, who when I went to Venezuela, when I went to Haiti, because when I, starting up an NGO [non-governmental organization, in U.N.-speak], how do I , an actor in Hollywood, order bulk narcotics? [Laughter] But meanwhile –
MAHER: Oh, I know you do know how.
PENN: But on a serious note, you know, this is where amputations, reamputations after gangrene sets in – it was Venezuela, Cuba, were – supplied us with those to be able to get them to hospitals. And then later when I – it wasn’t because the Americans weren’t, it was because I didn’t know how – It seemed I didn’t know the same people that I know to be able to do it.
Penn wrapped up the segment by insisting that he’s a little sympathetic to anti-American conspiracy theories about occupation, because this is the kind of gunk that gets thrown at his hero Hugo, and it should be punished by jail time:
PENN: The collaborative opportunity in Haiti, when you talk about Hugo Chavez, and some of the other people who are demonized [think Castro], and you know, when some of these countries accuse us of an occupation -- where I believe this was strictly a humanitarian action by the United States military, and an incredible one – I’m a little sympathetic. Because every day, this elected leader is called a dictator here, and we just accept it! And accept it. And this is mainstream media, who should – truly, there should be a bar by which one goes to prison for these kinds of lies.
Penn did not offer praise for the network news reporters who spoke well of Chavez, as BMI reported:
Jessica Yellin of ABC's Good Morning America" portrayed him as the "wildly popular Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez" and added "it's clear the real star in these parts is Mr. Chavez, the protest leader" in her Nov. 5, 2005, broadcast.
Ironically, an Aug. 16, 2004, "NBC Nightly News," report actually noted concern had Chavez lost the election. Anchor Tom Brokaw expressed that sentiment: "There had been concerns that a Chavez defeat could further disrupt oil supplies."
Chavez and Penn do seem to agree on George W. Bush, as BMI noted:
A Feb. 5, 2006, Reuters report quoted him [Chavez] saying: "The imperialist, genocidal, fascist attitude of the U.S. president has no limits. I think Hitler would be like a suckling baby next to George W. Bush."
So Penn doesn't think Chavez isn't more of a demonizer than a demonizee?