Popular TV: Schiller’s Channeling the State

Channeling the State: Community Media and Popular Politics in Venezuela, by Naomi Schiller (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018).

reviewed by Anna Fournier, University of Manitoba

In her well-documented and subtly argued account of community media in Venezuela, Naomi Schiller seeks to offer readers a “critical anthropology of press freedom” (p. 198). While liberal understandings hold that press freedom requires autonomy from the state (p. 224), Schiller argues that “establishing an anthropological approach to press freedom requires assessing ethnographically the local meanings, experiences, and limits of liberal norms” (p. 199). She begins by challenging the conceptualization of state and civil society as distinct and bounded, positing instead, as anthropologists have done in different contexts, that the state is akin to a process.  Indeed, for her interlocutors at the community-run channel Catia TVe, the state is viewed as “an unfolding and messy collection of ideas, practices, individuals and institutions that had the potential to improve the lives of the poor and expand access to political participation” (p.4).  Community media producers envision  barrio-based television not as a mouthpiece for the government, but rather an instrument with which to engage in statecraft, alongside with, or in “radical interdependency” (p. 17) with, state authorities. From this ethnographic basis, the socialist state in Venezuela emerges as a set of unstable practices to be engaged with and reworked.

The Bolivarian revolution (made possible by social movements that pre-date Hugo Chávez’s election in 1998) rests in part on the idea that the poor, or popular class, should have the opportunity to create change. Based on fieldwork conducted in 2006-2007, Schiller examines how barrio-based media producers, rather than being concerned solely with reception of media content, seek to bring about greater social inclusion and media diversity in the production of community media. Schiller makes the case that in some ways access to media production may be more important to community media producers than press freedom.

The Catia TVe channel, first broadcast without a state permit in 2000 and later licensed and personally inaugurated by Chávez, lent critical support to his government, especially during the countercoup of 2002. While Catia TVe can be considered state-aligned, it is not a state television station, but rather a barrio-based community station. Early on, it received government funding for equipment and thereafter entered into agreements with state institutions to broadcast state publicity spots. There is no central party control over it (other than state officials pressuring it to broadcast events that celebrate the revolution) (p. 60). Schiller masterfully tracks, at the level of everyday narratives and practices, the ways in which Catia TVe employees sought state support (including financial support) while also negotiating autonomy from the state.

At times, Catia TVe’s workers tried to erode boundaries with the state, for example, reaffirming the station’s commitment to revolution through their election coverage, or supporting the government’s revocation of RCTV’s (a commercial channel) license. At other times, the boundaries with the state were reproduced strategically, for example in efforts to build a collective political identity encompassing barrio residents, or in considering the possibility of raising money from the local community instead of relying on an unstable state, especially as the economic crisis deepened. State-community boundaries could also be reinforced by showing that Catia TV provided the “from below authenticity” (p. 79) of barrio media productions that state-run media projects, despite the best intentions of the government, could not necessarily achieve (in part because of the  important presence of middle-class actors in state media).

In a chapter entitled “Channeling Chávez,” Schiller explains how barrio supporters of the revolutionary process disagree over who fundamentally holds the power to solve local problems. Some identify Chávez as the one to be called upon directly to solve issues (as he often did during his live weekly show Aló presidente). By contrast, readers are shown the response of Ana, a journalist from Catia TVe, to a barrio resident hoping for the president’s swift intervention: Ana emphasized what residents of the community themselves could do to address the issue. For her, local action was critical in solving problems and affirming autonomy against Chávez (p. 148).

Schiller asks, “Can community media producers criticize the state?” (p. 4). According to her, however, it impossible to give a straight answer to such a question because the attitude to press freedom among Catia TVe’s workers is animated by both liberal democratic and socialist ideals, and indeed at times diverges from both.  Instead, Schiller identifies a recurrent tension between producers and the state. On the one hand, community media producers feel that any criticism must be leveled within the revolution rather than against it – that is, criticism must result in the advancement of the revolution, not its demise. On the other hand, producers also feel that they are tasked with making a “revolution inside the Revolution” (p. 203), understood here as a struggle against bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption and a commitment to keeping the revolutionary process on track so that it fulfills its promise to serve the interests of the poor. 

Schiller shows how a fragile balance is maintained in the process of recording and broadcasting denuncias, i.e., complaints regarding the uneven or flawed implementation of social projects. Here, it might have been helpful for the author to weave in the two concepts of self-criticism, or autocrítica, and social oversight, or contraloría social. Self-criticism (a prominent feature of Soviet and Cuban socialisms) is a practice entrenched among Venezuelan state officials themselves, so that for (ordinary citizen) supporters of the Bolivarian revolution to criticize the latter’s implementation is not only accepted but expected.  A practice such as self-criticism that ascribes the role of watchdog to officials (even those at the highest levels of government) further complicates the notion of a state/civil society boundary. The author briefly addresses contraloría social (p. 155), but since this is a practice that government officials consider a key achievement of the revolution and a radical departure from previous political regimes in Venezuela, more could be said about how citizens’ denuncias may in some ways constitute a form of compliance with a revolutionary model that insists on accountability.

Channeling the State also tracks the dynamics of class and gender in socialist Venezuela, describing the difficulties encountered in efforts to include people from traditionally marginalized groups in community media activities.  In Chapter 3, “Class acts,” the author raises the question of who gets to speak for and represent the poor, noting that despite their best intentions, government officials and members of pro-government media at times portray popular culture (the culture of the poor) in an essentialized, folkloric manner, disregarding the heterogeneity of experience among barrio residents. Schiller brings readers’ attention to the class tensions that come to the surface between people of different socioeconomic backgrounds (popular class and middle-class), who all claim allegiance to the Bolivarian revolution, by tracking routine interactions between members of Catia TVe and ViveTV (an official state television channel) in the context of training workshops. Readers also learn about the prevailing discourse of maternalism and antifeminist attitudes in her account of the insidious exclusion of women’s voices within the production process itself at Catia TVe.

In this engaging book, Schiller demonstrates that Catia TVe constituted “neither watchdog nor lapdog” (p. 224), and emphasizes community media producers’ “own savvy understanding of the dynamics of interdependency between the organized activist poor and official state actors and institutions” (p. 205). Finally, Schiller (p. 231) is able to buttress critiques of top-down approaches to state power and state-building, showing readers how most interactions and relationships on the ground cannot be neatly categorized as either from above or from below.