David Rothkopf, the CEO and Editor of the Foreign Policy Group, is standing behind a July 27 story in his magazine, titled “The Making of Leopoldo López.” “People can make their own judgment based on the story,” says Rothkopf, “which is factually correct now.” That last word is key, considering that over the past seven weeks, the story has sustained four “clarifications” that are actually corrections; a “correction/clarification”; and a pair of “updates.”
At the center of all this post-publication amendment is Venezuelan opposition leader López, who in February 2014 was arrested and charged with allegedly inciting violence connected to national protests that he’d helped organize against the anti-U.S. regime of Nicolás Maduro. It didn’t take long for an international consensus to denounce the charges: The UN’s human rights boss called for López’s release, as have various other international organizations. The editorial board of the New York Times called the proceedings a “travesty” and highlighted the government’s strange argument that López used “subliminal” messages to stir up the masses; The Washington Post called the trial “farcical.” Foreign Policy magazine called López, a Kenyon College graduate and former mayor of Caracas’s Chacao district, one of the world’s greatest thinkers of 2014, “the most popular figure in Venezuela’s long-splintered opposition.”
Over the summer Foreign Policy — a division of the Graham Holdings Co. and, before that, the Washington Post Co. — took a swipe at proving itself wrong. The piece by Roberto Lovato purported to take a deeper look at López’s freedom-fighting credentials. Reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute (and with support from the Puffin Foundation), Lovato’s story starts with the observation that the U.S. media has been kind to the 44-year-old López, leader of the Voluntad Popular party. Then it ventures that the picture is more complicated in Venezuela, where some concur with the view of the Maduro regime that he’s a “violent ‘fascista'” with less commitment to constitutional democracy than editorialists at the Times and the Post might suppose. (Disclosure: The Erik Wemple Blog works in the editorial division of the Post).
This contention rests on Lovato’s interpretation of a pivotal event in recent Venezuelan history. In April 2002, elements of the country’s military and business sectors tried to pull off a coup against now deceased President Hugo Chávez. It lasted barely two days. Though López’s people claim he didn’t support the coup or ally himself with its propagators, Lovato cycles through a sheaf of circumstantial evidence in an attempt to prove otherwise. “[N]ews reports, parliamentary records, U.S. government documents, video recordings, and interviews show that López was not quite as remote from the coup attempt and its plotters as he and his representatives claim,” writes Lovato.
There’s more: Lovato depicts close ties between López and Pedro Burelli, a Venezuelan national, a former big shot at the country’s national petroleum outfit PDVSA and now a Washington area resident and consultant. Rather than explain how Lovato links López and Burelli, let’s just recite the ways in which Lovato failed to link López and Burelli. They are listed at the bottom of the story:
* Clarification, Aug. 12, 2015: Pedro Burelli was not involved in hiring Leopoldo López at PDVSA.
** Clarification, Sept. 3, 2015: Leopoldo López’s mother was originally hired by a subsidiary of PDVSA in 1980, and transferred to the head office in 1994.
*** Clarification, Aug. 12, 2015: Burelli did not specifically advise López on the 2014 clashes with the Venezuelan government.
Here are the additional corrective notes:
**** Clarification: Aug. 26, 2015: An editing error in a previous version of this article made unclear the years in which López was banned from running for public office.
***** Update, Aug. 12, 2015: This article has been updated to note the ruling by the Inter-American Commission and Inter-American Court of Human Rights on behalf of López.
****** Correction/clarification, Aug. 12, 2015: A previous version of this article incorrectly noted that Burelli was “considered a fugitive from justice by Venezuelan authorities.” In June 2014, the BBC reported that the Venezuelan government would be seeking a Red Notice from Interpol for his arrest. A Red Notice has not been issued.
******* Update, Aug. 17, 2015: This article has been updated to reflect Burelli’s explanation for the meaning of the word “colectivo” and to include the name of the retired officer to whom he was speaking.
In a chat with the Erik Wemple Blog, Burelli claimed that the story’s explanation of his relationship with López is “totally false.” And based on the correctives that Foreign Policy has already run, Burelli asked that he be removed altogether from the story. It’s here that the story about Foreign Policy’s López story soars to front-runner status in the the annual Pulitzer Prize competition, “Most Thoroughly Contested Magazine Story, 2015 (Latin America Category).” In an Aug. 19 e-mail to Stephen Kiehl of the law firm Covington & Burling LLP, Burelli listed 51 bullet points as to why he didn’t belong in the story. A little taste:
11. I have not been accused or mentioned in the 100% political case against Mr. Lopez and his mother related to the above mentioned grant.
12. I have never been a paid advisor to Mr. Lopez.
13. I have never been a formal advisor to Mr. Lopez.
14. I have not been a regular advisor to Mr. Lopez.
15. I have never been a representative of Mr. Lopez.
16. I have never attended an event on Mr. Lopez’s behalf.
17. I have never spoken in Mr. Lopez’s place.
18. I have never pretended to be a representative or a formal advisor of Mr. Lopez.
19. I have never been a member of Primero Justicia or Voluntad Popular.
20. I have never attended an event of Primero Justicia or Voluntad Popular.
No way is the 57-year-old Burelli exiting the story. “He was included in the article as somebody who has some association with Leopoldo López. I assume he’s proud of that association,” says Rothkopf. Detect the edge in that quip? It’s based on weeks and weeks of e-mailing among Burelli, Rothkopf, and lawyers. Burelli bashed the publication so fiercely in his communications that on Aug. 31, he received a legal threat letter: “Foreign Policy reserves its rights to pursue all legal options against you relating to these and any further defamatory statements,” wrote Kurt Wimmer of Covington & Burling LLP.
And no spat is a real spat until it surfaces on Twitter:
The objections posed by Burelli look narrow alongside the 23-page docket against “The Making of Leopoldo López” written up by Jared Genser, international counsel for the opposition leader. It breaks down Lovato’s story paragraph by paragraph, alleging factual mistakes, omissions and biases of all kinds. “I ordinarily would not take the time to provide such a detailed response; I am doing so here because I am concerned this article is well outside the norm for acceptable error from a journalist,” writes Genser, managing director of Perseus Strategies, in his Aug. 1 broadside.
After a month of negotiation, Foreign Policy earlier this week published a rebuttal by Genser and another writer under the title, “The Other Side of Leopoldo López.” The buried lede in the piece relates to Lovato’s work history: “While researching and writing this article, Lovato worked concurrently for Telesur, the state-run news agency of Venezuela, which had viciously and unfairly attacked Lopez for years, and was even a host of one of their programs,” notes the rebuttal story.
In his rebuttal to the rebuttal, Lovato confirms the Telesur connection: “It is true that, as a working freelance journalist, I contracted briefly with a TeleSur subsidiary, TeleSur English, headquartered in and operated out of Ecuador, one of six countries that jointly run the parent network.” Venezuela, it should be noted, is the majority stakeholder; it’s accurate to call it Venezuela’s state-run media outlet.
Shouldn’t this Telesur detail be written across the top of the story in red? Rothkopf says that the disclosure in the rebuttal is sufficient. “We have a very high regard for our readers and feel that they can draw their own conclusions if we present them with the facts,” he says. The editors didn’t know of the Telesur connection prior to running the story, says Rothkopf, “and that’s unfortunate.” Executive Editor Pauker says, “It’s difficult to make the claim that he is the agent of the Maduro government…based on that association.”
Esther Kaplan, editor of the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute, recalls of the Telesur matter: “Roberto did mention in passing early on that he was in discussions with a Latin American network to shoot a pilot show on US Latinos,” writes Kaplan via e-mail. “Unfortunately, I don’t recall being aware that the network was Telesur, and I was frankly unaware until recently that Telesur was majority Venezuela-owned. We absolutely should have disclosed this to readers.” Telsur itself has found merit in Lovato’s Foreign Policy piece, recycling its findings in opinion piece titled, “A Foreign Policy article by Roberto Lovato represents a crack in a huge propaganda edifice” and in a recent “analysis” story.
As to the body of corrections and “clarficiation”-corrections at the story’s bottom, Kaplan comments, “Roberto came to us with an interesting story about a public figure who hasn’t received much scrutiny. We took extraordinary care, as we always do, to examine countervailing facts, to seek responses from all of the subjects, to closely vet every allegation, and to be transparent with readers about sourcing. Given the intensity of the criticism that has ensued, it’s notable that we only had to make a handful of clarifications. I think that’s testament to the care we put into vetting the story.”
Lovato tells the Erik Wemple Blog that the piece is factually strong. “The facts in the story hold,” says Lovato, a San Francisco-based freelancer. “One correction in a 6,000-word piece does not a story kill.”
Genser has a take on the other end of the spectrum: “If this article meets the editorial standards of Foreign Policy, then no reader can trust what they publish.” Genser is founder of Freedom Now, a group that works to “free prisoners of conscience worldwide.” “They are providing justification for keeping a guy in jail who’s been wrongly imprisoned,” says Genser. His job is to help free López, and the Lovato story isn’t advancing that cause.
Pushback against Foreign Policy has stirred something of a backlash in favor of the piece. A group of professionals from the National Lawyers Guild, the American Association of Jurists, and International Association of Democratic Lawyers, for example, encouraged the magazine to stand up to Genser: “We support the journalistic integrity that you have shown in providing your readership with an alternative perspective on an important opposition leader in Venezuela and appreciate that Foreign Policy was willing to print information that is familiar to many of our organizations’ members, but perhaps not to your readers,” reads the Aug. 20 letter. David Smilde, a Tulane University professor knowledgeable on Venezuelan politics, tweeted shortly after the piece was published:
Amid its strife with the likes of Burelli and Genser, Foreign Policy evolved on how it viewed the story. As initially published, it’s taxonomized as a “profile”:
Now it’s something different:
When the piece originally landed with Foreign Policy, says Pauker, “it was internally designated as an argument piece, which it is now.” That said, Pauker notes that the factual/reportorial standards for both categories are the same.
Among the many disputes batted around on e-mail was the length of sentence that López was facing. The charges, says the story, could add up to a prison sentence of 10 years. “Foreign Policy must correct the years Lopez faces in prison to being 12 not 10 — that is factually false as written and downplays the time he might serve in prison,” wrote Genser in an Aug. 13 e-mail not marked confidential. Foreign Policy refused to budge.
Yesterday, López was sentenced to nearly 14 years in prison. “The lawyer got that one right,” says Lovato. “This is one of those things where I had to beat them over the head, and they didn’t change it,” counters Genser.