A Battle for the Argentine Media

Página/12 — It used to be better.

I spend a lot of time talking with Argentines about politics, but it isn’t very often that I express my own thoughts. People here who care about politics, it happens, really care; in a country as politically polarized as Argentina, that makes for dangerous conversational territory. But I’m going to give it a go here on my blog; I hope any politically passionate Argentines who stumble upon it won’t hate me!

On the whole, I’m neither with nor against Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s government, a posture which seems to offend Kirchneristas and los anti-K (that’s “anti-kah”) equally. For many reasons–a bunch of which I’ll explain in subsequent posts–I tend to agree pretty strongly with Cristina (as she’s universally known here) on questions of economic redistribution and social inclusion, but I’m convinced that much of what she and her late husband and predecessor in office, Néstor, have done has only contributed to the country’s chronic and crippling institutional instability. And for a political science-ish history person like me, that’s a big problem.

Along with the government’s transparent doctoring of inflation rates, the Kirchners’ approach to dealing with the media may be the prime example of the damage currently being done to Argentina’s already weak institutions. Since 2009 in particular, the government has sought to consolidate its control over print and broadcast media. In October of that year, the Kirchners took advantage of the last few lame-duck weeks of their former Congressional majority to push through a controversial and far-ranging new media law. Although ongoing court challenges mean that it has yet to go into effect, if it survives, the law will dramatically reshape Argentina’s media spectrum. I agree with the government’s argument that the status quo is unworkable; the existing media law was enacted by the last military dictatorship, and it does far too little to combat monopolization. At present, in fact, the conservative News Corp-on-steroids Grupo Clarín controls an estimated 27% of the national market and an amazing 44% of the influential Buenos Aires one–a level of market penetration that surely gives Rupert Murdoch wet dreams.

But while such monopolization does pose a real danger, the 2009 media law pushes much too far in the opposite direction. Assuming it stands, it will divide the media spectrum into thirds, reserving one third for the private market, one third for the government, and one third for nonprofit organizations. Licenses will be allocated by a panel dominated by government appointees. Broadcasters will be required to set aside a certain percentage of time for government-sponsored programs. Group Clarín will need to rapidly sell off many of its properties, and it will be nearly impossible for any other private group to build a national media network. The government, in other words, will be the only entity capable of delivering a coherent multi-media message on the national level.

Proponents of the law (or at least the ones willing to admit that it may not be perfect) say that domination by a populist government is still better than domination by private corporations. This may be true, but recent government actions suggest that this vast aggregation of government power isn’t likely to be employed with a great deal of reserve. The Inter-American Press Association, which has recently ramped up its warnings about eroding press freedoms here, has just completed an investigative visit and will be releasing a final report within a week. Its report will surely document the government’s sponsorship of undisclosed “advocacy journalists,” its use of state advertising contracts to reward and punish, its targeted tax raids and legal actions against unfavorable sources, its attempts to intimidate opposition journalists, and its transparently political effort to secure direct control over the distribution of newsprint.

The upshot is a media environment polarized to the point of real civic harm. There’s no one reliably balanced news source in Argentina today; instead of analysis, outlets offer a limited range of predictable, almost automatic partisan responses. While La Nación, traditionally the newspaper of record, is more moderate than most, it still tilts rather obviously to the right, not just on its editorial page but in its news coverage, too. Clarín, which has the highest circulation figures in the country, is knee-jerk in its oposition to everything the government supports, and it’s terribly written. Página/12, once one of the hardest-hitting investigative papers in Latin America, has become something terrifyingly close to a government mouthpiece. And public television–which the government wants to begin broadcasting on monitors to be installed on city buses–feels like little more than propaganda. Unless you read everything, it’s tough to get a decently complete picture of what’s going on. And forget about a factually solid, critical take on current events; no major media outlet does the kind of legitimate, fair investigative work so important as a check on existing power structures, be they public or private. It’s striking, and very troubling.

(My own personal response to the balanced-media vacuum is to read both La Nación and Página/12 regularly, tempered by an occasional (and ever-painful) glance at Clarín.)

“But this sounds just like the US’s current ultra-partisan media environment,” you might be thinking. Not quite. Imagine that you wake up tomorrow to find that only Fox News, The New York Post, USA Today, and whitehouse.gov are reporting the news, and you’ll have a closer approximation of the current media climate here.

What does this all mean for Argentina? I’m hardly about to predict the imminent collapse of Argentina’s longest period of sustained democracy since 1930, but I do think that even the best government needs to be checked by something, and a big part of that something ought to be a vigorous, effective, independent media. Anything less is certain to compound rather than correct the polarization and weak institutions that–to my mind, at least–make for an unaccountable executive and do quite a bit to keep Argentina from realizing its full potential.

I’d love to hear your thoughts–post a comment if you have any!

7 thoughts on “A Battle for the Argentine Media

  1. Hola Paul, ante todo muy interesante el post, lo que noto es que haces muy poco incapie en las cosas positivas del gobierno, y entiendo (o supongo) que es más fácil escribir desde la negativa, solo por tenés formada una opinión y haber razonado sobre el tema. Me parece que si ponemos en la balanza las cosas (que nunca es posible, porque es totalmente subjetivo) no creo que merezca este Gobierno verse visto de ese modo, igual, entiendo que es totalmente necesario ser critico con todos los temas, más allá de la generalización para cortar con la inercia de pensamiento.

    Con lo respecta a tener varias fuentes de información, eso es totalmente necesario, más allá de si el Gobierno (¿con mayúscula?) tiene influencia sobre algunos medios o tiene periodistas militantes o como quieran llamarlos. Siempre, no solo en cuestión de medios de información, es recomendable tener más de una fuente. Con lo que decís de la libertad de prensa / opinión, es un poco irónico que estés haciendo ese comentario en un blog publico y libre y que nada te condiciona a hacerlo, por ende, existe esa libertad, es verdad que no tiene la llegada de Clarin, pero por lo menos no esta imposibilitado.

    Creo que lo que esta pasando en Argentina es una respuesta a lo que la sociedad pretende, porque desde siempre fue necesario oír las 2 campanas, pero que sea necesario advertirlo es porque la sociedad esta ciega ante eso y es “vaga” en cuestión de critica, por lo menos es una opinión personal.

    Muy buen post.

  2. Attempts by the state to exercise strong control over the media put me (rather paranoidly) in mind of the Fujimori regime in Peru, where the intelligence services, under Montesino, massively bribed judges, congress members, and the media. It’s a measure of the importance of the media (as a voice of descent, or as a government mouthpiece) that bribes to media owners were many times the size of bribes to members of congress and the judiciary. While Argentina’s government’s attempts to control the media are far more transparent (just as the right wing’s control of the private media is presumably more transparent), and hence, perhaps less dangerous, like Paul, I fear that these attempts undermine the development of an institution that is ultimately necessary to a functional democracy and political discourse. Moreover, I find it striking that governments that appear to operate based upon principles I generally agree with (investment in social/public goods, redistribution to promote egalitarianism) frequently use these principles as excuses to deploy anti-democratic weapons against their detractors. In general, I think this (almost French revolution) mindset that a egalitarian social agenda must be supported “by any means necessary” has a tendency to undermine the ideologies it purports to support.

    I’m curious why the market place has given rise to such a conservatively slanted non-governmental media. It seems almost too easy to claim that wealthy elites are right wing and wealthy elites control the media. While this might explain an inequality of power/influence between the left and the right, it doesn’t seem to explain the entire non-existence of a non-government sponsored leftie media. Is to be left-wing to be automatically subsumed by the government agenda? Maybe in a future post, Paul, you could speculate on why an independent left-wing/moderate media hasn’t developed or has so limited a reach.

  3. I think Natalie has a really good question. I’d also be interested in the share of the media that each mode takes up–are newspapers still the dominant way of getting information and opinions out to the public, or is there something akin to the FOX News/MSNBC/CNN wind tunnel? Are there serious, broadly-read (or at least influential) online publications? And what’s going to happen to them under this law–would they also be strictly regulated?

    It seems like that last online option would be promising, at least for the wired middle class, if the issue is that the corporate conglomerates that dominate print (and TV?) are staunchly conservative.

    Finally–if some of the outlets that are now part of the problem were once part of the solution (Página/12), what happened? Was it a financial issue, with cutbacks to real journalism and more opinion-based stuff to get readers? Was there a change in ownership or leadership?

    I wish I could end this comment by contributing something other than questions, but it doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen. Maybe if I get some answers, Paul…

  4. For me, it still strains credulity to view the new media law and the government’s aggressive media policies as limiting free speech in Argentina. This applies to both the government’s proactive actions (strong and somewhat propagandistic usage of public TV, mixed with actually quality programming and good documentaries) and reactive actions (i.e. its verbal attacks on Clarin and its attempts to limit its overwhelming market share). It is still the case, that when you go to any news stand in Argentina, I would say that 4 out of 5 newspapers are extremely critical of the government — in a country where, at this point, the government is likely to be re-elected! If you turn on the television, you have the state channel, and then you flip through private channel after private channel, all of which favor the right-wing opposition. While the government may have done some clumsy political targeting of hostile companies, like when it shut down Cablevision, there has not been a single news network or paper shut down by the government, once again, in a context in which the opinions expressed by media sources are far to the right of those held by society. When you read the papers in Argentina, you have no idea that Cristina is likely to be re-elected right now! (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-05-20/fernandez-is-poised-to-win-re-election-as-argentina-president-poll-shows.html)

    I can feel some of your concerns about institutional stability being sacrificed at the altar of political change, but I also think that the current model is deeply flawed. I don’t have the details on the 3-way public-private-non-profit split that you mention, but I would say that the private media, apart from the papers that you mention like Pagina 12, form an opinion bloc that is no less monolithic than the government. In fact, the polarization of which you speak was not caused by the media law’s application, but was a pre-existing condition, even when private market-share was high and in principle a broad spectrum of voices could have emerged. Instead, the views of a minority sector of society were amplified and presented as the views of the society as a whole. In a pre-existing propaganda war, the government fought back, and fought back hard, which has also been their philosophy on the economic distribution end that you like.

    At the end of the day, I do wish that you could find, for example, a paper that was reputable, center-left, but still critical of the government when it had to be (let us also not forget that some of the brightest Argentine intellectuals quite simply are “intelectuales K” and thus work for Página 12, and that “journalistic objectivity” is not as much the norm as that of the “committed intellectual.”) I would like for this publication to exist, and I would read it. I read what Beatriz Sarlo, for example, has to say about the Kirchners with interest. Sane, interesting articles like hers’ are published sometimes in both national and local private newspapers, although they are the exception to the norm.

    At the end of the day, when I go to the kiosk, and I am unable to find anything good written about a government that by the polls is more popular than Obama is in the USA except in one newspaper, this country has no problem with press freedom.

    And finally, although I am not very well-versed in the law itself, I think that in the “non-profit” sector, it will democratize the air waves in certain ways, allowing for access to voices that are not exactly represented now, won’t it?

  5. Paul, interesante análisis. Sin embargo, y a modo de respuesta de algunos comentarios, cabe destacar la presencia de medios como “El Argentino” (grupo privado kirchnerista liderado por Szpolski) y la Editorial Perfil.
    De igual manera, no es lo mismo la existencia de programas televisivos oficialistas en medios privados que en medios públicos. TVR, Duro de Domar y Bajada de Línea son programas oficialistas que tienen aire en Canal 9 (privado). En cambio, 6,7,8 es un programa que roza la propaganda y se transmite en la TV Pública (estatal). Creo que esta es una diferencia notable y que refleja un poco la intención del gobierno de turno.
    Es un debate muy interesante que suele ser tomado a la ligera y subestimado por los extremos…

    Un abrazo Paul!

  6. Thanks for the extremely thought-provoking post, Paul! This question of whether democratic society requires a “balanced” source of information or “newspaper of record” to function properly is a very interesting one, and brought to mind the ongoing theoretical debate between Jurgen Habermas and Chantal Mouffe over both the feasibility and desirability of a public sphere. I won’t be able to do either of their arguments justice here, but the core of Habermas’s argument is that democratic society requires “communicative actors” to engage in discussion, debate, and argumentation in search of an emerging consensus on questions of common significance. Such communication, in turn, is impossible without certain already-agreed-upon rules about what lies inside and outside the realm of acceptable, rational debate.

    Mouffe attacks this model on two fronts. First, she argues that any pre-conceived “boundaries of discussion” inevitably reflect the outcomes of earlier power struggles; simply taking the rules of debate for granted masks the fact that the rules themselves are, and should be, contentious. Second, Mouffe argues that political conflict itself—rather than the consensus Habermas is after—is better positioned to express the full range of citizens’ interests by engaging and valorizing their passions, not just their argumentative abilities as judged by some pre-set standard. For Mouffe, the development of so-called consensus represents a constraint on democracy, as it ossifies temporary outcomes that should remain just that — temporary.

    Interestingly, the UK has sort of been a laboratory for both of their ideas. Within broadcast media, the BBC does a fairly good job of living up to Habermasian standards, helping to promote the common “background understanding” of political affairs that all political actors can use as a foundation for discussion and debate. Some within the UK, however, argue that the BBC fulfills this role by pushing an elite, London-centric worldview that actually skews public affairs in a particular direction. Newspapers are a completely different story, with the most popular publications promoting fiercely polarized and unabashedly partisan worldviews. The FT and the Times come close to being “newspapers of record,” but do not approach the level of prestige or credibility that the NYT enjoys even among its most virulent critics. (In the US, I would say, there is at least more of an aspiration for balanced news coverage in the NYT and other national papers, as evidenced by our much stronger tradition of the news/editorial wall.) In US broadcast media, however, the decline of the networks and the rise of cable could be viewed as a sort of Mouffian moment in the national political conversation.

    Anyway, to return to the subject at hand, Cristina’s media reforms raise a lot of interesting questions about the prospects for a public sphere and the real-world impact of political conflict. Is the current situation in Argentina a sort of Mouffian media climate run wild, with Cristina attempting to create the basis for a more balanced and less polarized national conversation in which all citizens can join? Or should the status quo be understood as Mouffe’s nightmare of a faux public sphere, with the Argentine right promoting boundaries of “informed” or “rational” discussion that exclude the voices and passions of the left, artificially neutering and delegitimizing open political debate in the media? With this interpretation, Cristina’s move would be seen as a sort of necessary rejoinder from the left, a message of “two can play at this game” that could actually enrich Argentine democracy.

    Lastly, it’s important to remember that “public” and “government-run” need not mean the same thing. Unlike in Cristina’s proposed reforms, the BBC is overseen by a non-partisan trust that is funded publicly, yet remains independent of the government in power. Cristina’s reticence to pursue a more British approach leads me to believe that she is, at heart, a Mouffian. After all, can we really see Cristina—or any Argentine president—trusting a third party to set the boundaries of the national conversation?

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