Media has played a constitutive role in the global rise of populism. The past two decades have witnessed a procession of reality show presidents, the proliferation of fake news, a flood of online conspiracy theories, the decline of fact-based reporting, and an onslaught of partisan propaganda. Although scholars have a good handle on the economic conditions that have given rise to the current populist moment, we lack a theoretically sound and empirically rich analysis of the communicative practices essential to populist mobilization. In 2006, I began conducting ethnographic research on populism and the press in Venezuela. What I observed there provides a methodological framework for thinking about the relationship between media and populism more broadly. Specifically, it sheds light on the constellation of media practices through which populist identities emerge and evolve.
The first step toward a rigorous analysis of media and populism is to provincialize the influence of charismatic leaders like Hugo Chávez. Even in death, the late Venezuelan president dominates discussions about populism, and his fiery rhetoric has served as the blueprint for a growing literature on populist discourse. It is true that there is a pattern to populist discourse, one that Ernesto Laclau identified and on which all contemporary scholarship is heavily indebted. Reducing populism to the speeches of charismatic leaders like Chávez, however, is a mistake. First, it overlooks the material conditions that give rise to populist movements. In Venezuela and Latin America more broadly, that means downplaying the social, economic, and institutional grievances that propelled the Pink Tide during the 1990s. Second, it neglects the channels through which populist discourse emerges in the first place. Venezuela’s private press created the conditions of possibility for populist mobilization long before Hugo Chávez arrived on the scene.
Instead of concentrating on charismatic leaders, a better point of departure is to look at what ordinary people are doing. What can we learn by observing the practices of journalists, their sources, their editors, and their audiences? In Venezuela, journalists were intent on making denuncias. This practice played a key role in shaping the content and direction of both the populist movement associated with President Chávez and the populist movement that aligned itself against him.
Denuncias have a long legal and political history in Latin America. The term roughly translates as “denunciation,” “accusation,” or “complaint.” In the legal world, denuncias are reports filed with the police or the courts, which are intended to initiate a civil or criminal investigation. In a strictly juridical sense, denuncias are written or oral testimonies tied to bureaucratic institutions. However, the term denuncia also refers to accusations made outside of the formal legal realm. When journalists or their sources talked about “making a denuncia,” they were usually referring to public accusations that circumvented the police or the judiciary and went straight to the court of popular opinion.
Following the practice of denunciation reveals the historical entanglement of the press and populist mobilization in Venezuela. It also exposes a universe of journalistic values that contrasts sharply with the Anglo-American tradition. The most fundamental difference between Venezuelan journalists and their Anglo-American counterparts was the former’s commitment to “truthfulness” over “objectivity.” Almost without exception, the Venezuelan journalists I worked alongside rejected objectivity as a North American fiction. So did their audiences. Instead, they talked about truth and lies, honest reporters and partisan hacks, good denuncias and libelous speech. This ideal of truth telling, while not entirely absent from US journalism, is nonetheless viewed with suspicion (see Schudson). Instead, in the United States journalists prefer to emphasize things like objective distance, balanced reporting, and value neutrality. A reporter or news outlet that violates these principles is accused of “bias.” In Venezuela, charges of bias are superfluous because they are assumed from the start. It is more common to call someone a “liar” because the measuring stick for journalistic integrity is truthfulness rather than objective distance.
Until recently, the distinction between truthfulness and objectivity held up well. Take this quote from a reporter commenting on the comedian Jon Stewart. “There are a lot of journalists who watch Stewart and envy the freedom he has. You can’t go on television when you’re a journalist and say ‘Senator X is a bald-faced liar.’” That remark was made in August 2015. How quickly things changed. As the 2016 presidential campaign heated up, mainstream news outlets in the United States began to embrace a discourse that was not unlike what I saw in Venezuela. Today truth talk is everywhere. More importantly, the kind of denunciations I observed in Venezuela have become a more prominent feature of US journalism.
Denuncias mobilize truth in a particular way. To denounce is to publicly expose wrongdoing by speaking out against injustice. Bertol Brecht wrote that this style of truth telling is belligerent. “It strikes out not only against falsehood, but against particular people who spread falsehood.” In other words, denuncias identify a common enemy against whom outrage is directed.
That brings me to my main point. Denunciation is the fundamental practice through which populist identities are forged and media is the channel through which they are broadcast. Populism is sometimes described as a kind of anti-politics. The positive content of every populist movement, its collective “we,” is always imagined in opposition to some offending “them,” to the extent that populist movements are more clearly identified by what they stand against than what they stand for. Familiar targets of populist ire include corrupt politicians, liberal elites, exploitative corporations, freeloading moochers, and imperial powers. The list is as infinite and malleable as populism itself. Without an external enemy, populist movements lose steam. Which explains why mass-mediated denunciations are so vital to their propagation; this is the activity through which enemies are identified, lies exposed, and political alliances formed.
Denuncias and counter-denuncias ricocheted through the Venezuelan media. Supporters of the Chávez government denounced the evils of neoliberalism, the sins of US imperialism, and the lies of the media. The opposition to President Chávez denounced crime, corruption, institutional decay, and lies of the government. Following the practice of denunciation allows us to see the pattern of populist mobilization as well as its historical trajectory. Because denuncias are made publicly, they leave a public record. That means by following denunciations we can begin to identify when, where, and in what corners of the mediaverse any populist movement emerges. We can also track their shifting targets, constituencies, and political valences. Populist movements are constantly in motion. Rather than trying to pin them down, attention to practices like denunciation allow us to follow their path. Ethnographers have done a great job at looking at the grievances that animate populist movements. The next step is to look at the practice through which these grievances are given voice.
It would be safe to leave it at that. And yet I worry that simply pointing out a paradigm shift is insufficient because it pretends to stand outside of the fray. For better or worse, this is a populist moment, and social scientists occupy the same position as the journalists whom I accompanied in Venezuela—a position in which we have to distinguish good denuncias from bad, honest scholarship from jaded opportunism, people who are trying to tell the truth and people who are actively courting falsehood. It is not enough to describe populism, much less to denounce it. We have to be ready to make truth claims and to support them rigorously. The challenge is to do that in a way that reestablishes a baseline of trust (see Roudakova). Listening to grievances other than our own is a good place to start.