Toro acknowledged, in a letter to Times editor Patrick J. Lyons, “conflicts of interest concerns” regarding his participation in protest marches and his “lifestyle bound up with opposition activism.”
Toro’s obsessive anti-Chavez position in Venezuela was publicly known after last April’s coup when he began sending emails to Narco News and other journalists who he placed on his own mailing list attacking Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. That the Times hired him in the first place was a violation of the Times’ own claims to objective and disinterested reporting. But regarding Venezuela, it was not the first.
Toro’s resignation – the text of his letter sent to the Times management last night appears below - is the latest in a long series of missteps and misdeeds by the New York Times and its reporters regarding the New York newspaper’s one-sided and inaccurate Venezuela coverage:
* Last April, the Times editorial board had to issue a public apology – sent to journalist Jules Siegel (a professor at the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism) by editorial board member Gail Collins. She said, “Nobody should ever cheer the overthrow of a democratically elected government. You're right, we dropped the ball on our first Venezuela editorial.”
* Also last April, New York Times reporter Juan Forero reported that President Chávez had “resigned” when, in fact, Chávez had been kidnapped at gunpoint. Forero did not source his knowingly false claim. Forero, on April 13, wrote a puff piece on dictator-for-a-day Pedro Carmona – installed by a military coup – as Carmona disbanded Congress, the Supreme Court, the Constitution and sent his shocktroops house to house in a round-up of political leaders in which sixty supporters of Chávez were assassinated. Later that day, after the Venezuelan masses took back their country block by block, Carmona fled the national palace and Chávez, the elected president, was restored to office.
* Forero – who, Narco News reported in 2001, allowed US Embassy officials to monitor his interviews with mercenary pilots in Colombia, without disclosing that fact in his article – was caught again last month in his unethical pro-coup activities in Venezuela. Narco News Associate Publisher Dan Feder revealed that Forero and LA Times reporter T. Christian Miller had written essentially the same story, interviewing the same two shopkeepers in a wealthy suburb of Caracas, and the same academic “expert” in a story meant to convince readers that a “general strike” was occurring in Venezuela. The LA Times Readers Representative later revealed that Forero and Miller interviewed the shopkeepers together. Neither disclosed that fact.
* In many ways, it has been the credibility problem posed by Forero that led to Toro’s hiring last November by the Times, and the importation of Times Mexico Bureau Chief Ginger Thompson to Venezuela last month.
* But Thompson’s reporting has also been laden with distortions. Last week she reported that there had been a “strike” by “bank workers” when, in fact, it was a lockout by bank owners supported only by the executives “union” – which represents only one percent of bank workers in the country. (That the bank lockout of its customers – conducted by 60 percent of bank branches over two days – constituted a theft of people’s access to their own money was not raised by Thompson’s article.)
* Thompson, again yesterday, continued to embarrass herself and the Times with a report that “strike” leaders in Venezuela – now completely defeated on every front – are “discussing new strategies to ease the hardship on Venezuelans, including partly lifting the strike to allow businesses and factories to reopen.” This turn of phrase is dishonest on Thompson’s part, transparently an attempt to spin the collapse of the upper-class lock-out as an intentional “evolution” in strategy.
* On December 13, Times columnist Nick Kristof quoted Toro as “a Venezuela journalist” without disclosing that he was, at that time, a New York Times reporter; hardly on the scale of the other violations of the Times’ own stated ethical practices by Forero, but still an interesting revelation of how confused the Times’ coverage of Venezuela has been in recent years. When was the last time a Times columnist quoted a Times reporter without identifying him as such?
As “strike” leaders Carlos Fernandez (the Spain-born president of Venezuela’s chamber of big business) and Carlos Ortega (a union boss whose election as head of the Venezuela Workers Federation was marred by evidence of fraud and undisclosed financial support from United States taxpayer funds) head to New York for a dog-and-pony show hosted by David Rockefeller’s Council of the Americas on Wednesday morning, the “Strike That Wasn’t” has already lost even the illusion of a “strike” made possible by the reporting of Timespersons Forero, Thompson, Toro and others.
But sometimes even the New York Times must stand naked, and the tale of the rise and fall of Francisco Toro as “Timesman-for-a-month” reveals a documented intention by Times editors to hire, in Toro, a pro-coup spin-meister.
Francisco Toro: Timesman-for-a-Month
Toro first appeared on the pages of the Times last September 24, when he was quoted by Forero and identified as “an editor at Veneconomia, a financial newsletter,” bolstering Forero’s spin that Chávez had wrecked Venezuela’s economy. Two months later, Toro popped up as a Times reporter.
A LexisNexis search reveals that, in his brief career at the Times, Toro penned just two articles: on November 21 (“Venezuela Ready to License Rights to Offshore Gas “) and November 30 (“White Collar Oil Workers Key in Venezuela Crisis”). Ironically, Toro’s reports were more balanced than those of the rabidly pro-coup Forero or those of relief pitcher Thompson: Toro, at least, acknowledged that it was the “white collar” members of the state oil company’s management behind the lock-out and that “The biggest federation of blue-collar unions in the oil industry, Fedepetrol, is split between pro- and anti-government factions.”
In fact, even last fall, before the “strike” began on December 2nd, Toro acknowledged on his own Internet weblog that “this strike doesn’t have a chance… the strike will fail.” If only some of that kind of interpretation had made its way onto the Times’ pages over the past month!
Toro, with one key exception, has honored the Golden Rule of the New York Times – “Don’t Get Caught” – better than Forero or Thompson. Toro, who publicly acknowledges that he admires Mexico’s disgraced ex-Secretary of State Jorge Castañeda (who also resigned this past week from his post), plays the “objectivity game” slightly better than the official Timesmen: Mixing his rabid pro-coup sentiments with flourishes of measure and consideration of other views so as to appear more balanced.
Here is a copy of Toro’s resignation letter, sent yesterday afternoon to Times editor Patrick Lyons, and now posted to Toro’s weblog:
From "Francisco Toro"
Date Mon, 13 Jan 2003 5:57 PM
To "Patrick J. Lyons"
After much careful consideration, I’ve decided I can’t continue reporting for the New York Times. As I examine the problem, I realize it would take much more than just pulling down my blog to address your conflict of interests concerns. Too much of my lifestyle is bound up with opposition activism at the moment, from participating in several NGOs, to organizing events and attending protest marches. But even if I gave all of that up, I don’t think I could muster the level of emotional detachment from the story that the New York Times demands. For better or for worse, my country’s democracy is in peril now, and I can’t possibly be neutral about that.
I appreciate your understanding throughout this difficult time, and I hope in the future, conditions will allow for me to contribute with the World Business page again.
Toro, on January 7th, committed an act of disclosure that probably marked the beginning of the end of his Times career: He spoke “out of class” about his interactions with a NY Times editor, also on his weblog:
“It’s tough being a journalist in this country, especially if, like me, you’re trying to juggle roles as a critic in the local press and a beat reporter for a U.S. newspaper. Trying to play both roles – and trying to mediate between the sides – takes its toll. It’s the reason, in any event, for the new and regrettable need to password-protect this blog: one of my US editors was very uncomfortable with having one of his reporters taking such openly political stances on a public website.”
In other words, at least by January 7th, the Grand Poohbahs of 43rd Street were already aware of Toro’s conflicts of interest, and whatever they said to him led him to sweep his blog under the rug with password-only access. This suggests strongly that at the Times, conflicts of interest are tolerated as long as they are not disclosed or made public.
Then, last night, Toro came clean: “my lifestyle is bound up with opposition activism at the moment, from participating in several NGOs, to organizing events and attending protest marches.”
As much as I disagree with Toro’s politics (I have argued with him before in heated exchanges), I admire him for disclosing what the New York Times did not want him to disclose: his clear bias and his conflicts of interest. By resigning from the Times in an open and public manner, he did the right thing.
But the New York Times comes out of this episode with its already broken credibility regarding Venezuela reporting more damaged than ever. The Times’ Venezuela coverage is adrift, caught between its self-proclaimed “objective” mission and its hidden agenda: the distortion of news from that country in order to destabilize a democratically elected government.
If the Times International Desk had a shred of journalistic ethics, it would have either hired Toro as a partisan columnist or disclosed his activity in organizations, protest marches and the rest of what Toro himself calls his “opposition activism” on its pages when it hired him as a news correspondent.
That the Times hired Toro in the first place, did not disclose his conflicts, and then apparently encouraged Toro to hide his conflicts by blocking public access to his web blog for the past week, indicates that the cancer inside the 43rd Street offices of the New York Times that grows from its simulated Venezuela coverage is malignant. Until the Times’ management comes clean on this and previous ethical lapses, particularly those of Forero, regarding Venezuela, the patient – the newspaper’s credibility – continues to die.