May 23, 2013
That is the question
It was a major ego blow for many Argentine journalists this week: President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner accepted to be grilled by a bunch of university students in a foreign country. Why them and not us?
Cristina Fernández de Kirchner taking questions is a novelty, something that has only happened on a handful of occasions since she took office five years ago. The questions this time came from students of Latin American affairs and Argentines studying abroad in the universities of Georgetown and Harvard. Much of the Q&As was devoted to debating about the presidential reputation of not engaging too often in a journalism genre known as press conference. Yet at times, most notably in Harvard on Thursday night, it felt as if it was the Argentine journalists making the questions.
The government is at war with mainstream media and its journalistic bigwigs. The journalists’ lament has somehow crept up to the top of the demand agenda for some sectors of the public, as demonstrated by a handful of pot-bangers who protested against the President while she was in New York. One of the protesters carried a sign reading: “You should give press conferences.”
More reasonable criticism might argue that the generalized state of confusion surrounding the relations between politics and the press in Argentina — a deterioration causing too much harm to the daily dose of information the average citizen gets — also reached the President at times during her university. Obsession, if there is one, moves both ways.
The President was asked twice why she did not respond to questions from the press. Her answer had some lights and some shadows too.
“I speak every day” — Mostly true, the President speaks a lot in public. All of her speeches are broadcast live by public television; some also go on the much-scrutinized cadena nacional network that obliged private stations to also broadcast her words.
“I speak a lot to the press. If a journalist asks me a question during rallies and ceremonies, I always answer it” — Stretchy. The President might speak occasionally to a reporter here and there, but it is an exception rather than the norm.
“During press conferences in Argentina, some journalists shout and making a fuss if they don’t like an answer” — Mostly not true. It is a one-case-driven argument. The President was referring to La Nación journalist Mariano Obarrio, who walked out of a press round by Interior Minister Florencio Randazzo last year, angered by the minister’s interpretation of a piece bylined by the journalist. This was also exception rather than norm.
“Some journalists believe the interviewer is more important than the interviewee” — Mostly true. Egos are playing against some journalists these days.
“Journalists believe my job is to answer their questions and that is not the case. My obligation is to inform the public about my acts of government” — This is the core of the President’s argument and it has been for much of the Kirchner era: the government is entitled to bypass the press and speak “directly” to the public. And this is, attached to the prior point, the biggest Narcissistic blow to the journalistic ego. The follow-up question here would be how the government actually informs the public — but that’s a different story.
“In my country, all journalists say they are independent” — True sometime ago, mostly not true now. The big divide of Argentine journalism today is one between pro-government “militant” journalists and oppositionist “independent” journalists. The President has one point here though: the “independent” might want to call themselves oppositionists.
“There is no such thing as independent journalism” — Philosophically true, sociologically dangerous. The President is right to say all humans have a point of view and a certain positioning toward reality. Modern journalism, however, has been built on the assumption that objectivity, if not theoretically possible, can be socially constructed.
“What I most like about the US press, at least the most serious, is that it clearly tells readers which candidate they support, it does not present itself as independent and objective” — Half true, half untrue. While papers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post write their voting preferences in the run-up to elections, these papers continue to make a creed out of the separation of news from commentary.
“Sometimes I say white and then they write that I said black” — Sometimes true. The last question she got from a Harvard student on why she had said that “Argentines should fear her” was a good example of that. The President explained how she was taken out of context to omit the fact that she was referring to her government’s officials re allegations of corruption and wrongdoings.
“In Argentina, the media has become oppositionist” — True, but only if she was referring the mainstream media led by the government’s chief foe, Grupo Clarín. Some smaller and heavily subsidized media outlets are outspokenly pro-government.
The Q&A sessions leave lessons for the immediate future for both the government and the opposition. The President is consistently good at speaking in public and argumentation, and there seems very little reason to keep her off of the press round some journalists so much desire. Journalists who are critical of the government, meanwhile, might want to dust their agendas if they are to come up with better questions.