June 9, 2015
In 2006, a violent, months-long protest by a teachers' union forced the government of Oaxaca into hiding. Government services in Oaxaca City ground to a halt as cabinet secretaries and their entourages moved silently from hotel to hotel. If you read the Imparcial newspaper, however, you would have thought it was business as usual. Its pages were packed with stories from outside the capitol covering road openings, government development projects and public pronouncements, featuring photos of dignitaries and loyal supporters. Curiously, these stories had no byline.
"How do you get those stories," I asked a reporter for that newspaper, "when it's such chaos here in the city?"
"Oh, the government just sends them in," he answered. "And we print them."
This kind of government propaganda masquerading as news has always been an important source of income for Mexican newspapers. And although Mexico's democracy is maturing, and political competition increasing, the problem seems to be getting worse, according to a recent report by the London based Ethical Journalism Network. Not only that, but practices looking remarkably similar to this are springing up in newsrooms around the world, even in countries with strong traditions of press freedom. In an informal survey of the media landscape in a dozen regions in the world, featuring interviews with reporters, editors and media entrepreneurs, the report concludes that money is blurring the lines between journalism and propaganda globally. "Everywhere in journalism there are 'dark arts' at work" write the report's editor, Aidan White.
The root of the problem seems to be increasingly cuthroat competition in the media business. You would think the media landscape in Mexico, for example, would be thriving. There are 300 dailies, 1646 commercial radio stations and 236 television stations (which sounds glorious in a country with only one and a half national newspapers and two national TV broadcasters, one of which is plagued by scandal.) Competition is good, right? Except competition in Mexico has meant smaller pieces of the handout pie to go around in the form of government advertizing, subsidies and paid news stories. At the same time, democracy has created political alternatives able to take up the slack. Now it is not just the government that is willing to hand over brown envelopes to Mexican reporters. Opposition candidates, too, bid for favourable mentions. The report quotes one source claiming to know political commentators who charge politicians tens of thousands of dollars for time on local television programs. Instead of sweeping out corruption, competition has simply created a larger, fiercer version of the old way of doing things.
Part of the problem is familiar: low pay. Journalists have never earnt much, and need to supplement their income somehow. (I knew a journalist in Veracruz who was "paid" in copies of the newspaper he wrote for, which he then sold as he went around looking for stories for the next day.) But thrown to market forces, some outlets are embracing a more modern form of remuneration. According to the report, La Jornada, long the moral high-horse of the Mexican left, pays it's journalists in advertizing commissions, sometimes as high as 50%.
No one would be surprised to hear that there is corruption in the Mexican media. But the EJN report is even more scathing of journalism in the UK, the very birthplace of freedom of expression. The "vital duty to inform has been subjugated to the bottom of the priority list" by the UK media. Market forces and the fear of being beaten to the headline have made media ever more reactive. Outlets scramble to churn out bite-sized stories that "regurgitate" prejudices and "predefined narratives" without offering analysis or context. And there is hard evidence that the media is failing to inform the public. The report cites journalist Owen Jones, who has looked at opinion polls on divisive social issues such as welfare scrounging or immigration. Respondents consistently over-estimate by several orders of magnitude the scale of phenomena, such as welfare cheating or muslim immigration, which they consider problems,
But there is bribery involved too, more genteel but just as insidious as Mexico's brown envelopes. Public relations is becoming a high-profile, well-paid job, and communications graduates are increasingly finding it more attractive than journalism. The report quotes one journalist who spoke anonymously:
I probably have more friends that are PRs than are journalists – or are journalists now, at least. Obviously, you want to help them where you can by getting a mention for their clients etc. in the paper. In return, you’ll get a nice slap up dinner, a bottle of champagne or something.
“Accepting gifts in return for coverage is not something that is hidden away; it is openly discussed. In fact it’s almost a competition for who can get the best freebies. The further up the newsroom ladder you are, the better freebies you can usually get. I know editors who haven’t paid for a holiday in years.”
I find it fascinating that crass commercialism in one country looks so much like political influence in the other. Both are reducible to a free market scramble for dollars. And even if the dollars come from different places, the result is the same: a public poorly informed by its media.
There is one positive note in the report, and it comes in the section on Mexico, not the UK. It praises the newspapers El Universal and Reforma and the magazine Proceso, three of Mexico's largest and oldest, as able to produce quality journalism without wholesale political influence. They "seem to have found a formula for survival on sales and commercial advertising," wrote the authors. What is their secret? The report doesn't say, which is a pity, because if the vices of today's media are universal, perhaps their antidote is also universally applicable.