The New York Times Doesn’t Much Like Cristina

It’s been clear for a good while now that Alexei Barrionuevo, the New York Times‘ Southern Cone bureau chief, isn’t a fan of newly reelected Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. His reporting on topics from Argentina’s approval of gay marriage to conflicts between the president and the country’s central bank tend to paint Cristina (as she’s universally known here) as a shameless self-promoter whose real achievements are merely incidental to her search for political advantage. Sure, there are plenty of legitimate reasons to criticize Cristina, but there’s also ample cause to celebrate her achievements — and Times readers consistently get just the first half of a very complicated story.

Even when set within this context of one-sided reporting, though, Barrionuevo’s article about Cristina’s resounding reelection this past Sunday stands out. Facing a divided opposition and bolstered by Latin America’s highest rate of economic growth, Cristina (whose husband, Néstor, died last November after serving his own presidential term from 2003-2007) won reelection with nearly 54% of the vote, more than three times the share earned by her closest competitor. It’s the widest margin of victory since the return of democracy in 1983, and while Cristina’s critics can choose to blame the results on the weakness of the opposition or on kirchnerismo‘s supposed pandering to the poor, few doubt that the election was free and fair, and a 37% margin would suggest that Cristina has done at least a few things right. Any piece of objective reporting, you’d think, ought at the very least to recognize some of these successes. Yet Barrionuevo’s article, Kirchner Achieves an Easy Victory in Argentina Presidential Election, resolutely does not. Instead, it expounds on the weaknesses of Cristina’s last term and attributes much of her victory to sympathy over Néstor’s death before concluding, in the voice of one of several experts cited in the piece, that a “political reckoning” is in the works. Cristina’s opponents themselves looked more generous in defeat.

Barrionuevo begins by recalling — correctly — that two years ago, Cristina’s re-election prospects looked dicey, the outlook dimmed by conflict with the powerful agricultural sector, increasing inflation, and a number of scandals. (Not mentioned is a temporary slowdown in economic growth.) But in the past two years — and especially since Néstor died — Cristina has experienced an exceptional turnaround, winning reelection by an historic margin. Barrionuevo attributes this revival largely to this year’s economic growth of 8%, so strong that it led voters to overlook “troubling signs” like high inflation and a heavy-handed approach to critics. So far, no real complaints.

But then Barrionuevo’s biases begin to reveal themselves in much more obvious ways. He devotes the bulk of the article to criticism of Cristina’s failings without any mention of her accomplishments in education, poverty reduction, or human rights, and he describes her in unnecessarily harsh terms. (When he says that “with her emotional speeches and designer suits, Mrs. Kirchner appealed to the masses,” one senses that Barrionuevo isn’t complimenting Cristina’s oratory or her fashion sense.)

Much more troubling is Barrionuevo’s refusal to quote any sources with even vaguely flattering things to say about Cristina. One analyst he cites notes that “this election seemed to defy the normal rules of politics,” presumably because of the government’s “corruption and cronyism.” While there is indeed plenty of evidence to warrant these two adjectives (which, for the record, describe just about every government in Argentine history), it seems to me that voters’ willingness to overlook corruption amid record economic growth — and at a time when salary increases are largely keeping pace with real inflation, subsidies have increased, poverty has declined dramatically, and social spending has more than tripled — follows rather than challenges “the normal rules.” Another condemns Argentina’s failure to embrace the sort of macroeconomic policies that favor foreign direct investment; while that’s a legitimate complaint — especially among Argentina’s business class and foreign corporations and governments–the decision to deprioritize long-held debts and, in turn, international investment stands at the heart of the economic “model” that Cristina has touted continuously throughout the campaign, and it evidently didn’t trouble most voters overmuch. A third argues that Argentina’s regional influence has decreased while Brazil’s has increased; I won’t argue with that one. A fourth, already mentioned above, argues that “when the money runs out” due to a predicted economic slowdown next year, “there will be a political reckoning.” This is likely true as well, though it’s worth noting that these predictions are based on probable international developments like lower commodity prices and reduced demand from China and Brazil — and blaming Cristina for these things is like blaming Obama for the European debt crisis.

What’s remarkable isn’t that Barrionuevo cites these sources; for the most part, I don’t even disagree with the points they raise. Instead, it amazes me that Barrionuevo doesn’t quote anyone willing to frame Cristina’s reelection in a more favorable light. There’s certainly no shortage of local political observers who recognize that Néstor and Cristina made life better for a lot of Argentines, and that this might have had something to do with this past Sunday’s results. Even Clarín, arch-enemy of kirchnerismo, was willing to credit decreased unemployment and increases in personal consumption as major factors in Cristina’s victory; the people “voted with their wallets,” one of the paper’s commentators announced. (If you’re curious about the government’s relationship to Clarín, check out this earlier post.)

What emerges from Barrionuevo’s slanted reporting is a narrative that goes something like this: In 2003, Néstor and Cristina set out to establish a political dynasty. Their combative political style and corruption nearly did them in back in 2008-09, but economic growth (driven by high commodity prices, not by an economic model that experts claimed would “collapse” before this year) managed to improve the couple’s political prospects. Then Néstor died, Cristina softened her image, and an ineffective opposition somehow failed to capitalize on the government’s many failings, enabling Cristina to ride a wave of sympathy and economic growth to victory last Sunday. Yet the successes of kirchnerismo ring hollow, and now it’s only a matter of time before all hell breaks loose.

Plenty of people, here and abroad, would agree with this take on the recent Argentine past; lots of others wouldn’t. Barrionuevo’s article would make for a fine op-ed or a piece of what the Times loves to call “news analysis.” But to present this as straight news reporting — it’s what I expect from Rupert Murdoch, not from the New York Times.

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