May 24, 2013
Press notes: what they don’t want you to know
Timeless definition of journalism: what they don’t want you to know
Old journalists, like old elephants, cannot forget. Memories of just how bad journalism was when I first set foot in Argentina in April, 1959, will not go away.
I was amused, not outraged, when at the first government press conference I attended, I discovered why the other reporters took no notes.
They were waiting for the gacetilla, the official handout, Copies were distributed at the conclusion of the event, so that reporters would not leave beforehand.
Later, when I worked for Time Magazine in my spare time, the correspondent, Piero Saporiti, explained that when a country has suffered many years under dictatorship, journalists become lazy. They become so accustomed to reporting only the official story that they continue to stick to the government version of things long after restrictions on the press have been lifted.
Saporiti was a genuine Italian count, and he dressed the part, topping off his sartorial elegance with a silver-knobbed cane, coats that looked like cloaks and dramatic black hats. He spoke from his experience under Mussolini and wrote a fine book with the title, From the Balcony. He understood Argentina and I learned a great deal from him including one prediction that I would like to forget. “Argentina,” he said, “is like a carousel. It just goes round and round and will possibly never get anywhere.”
Amusement about the state of the press and my affection for the eccentric characters who were journalists in those days and my tolerance of the cynicism of my colleagues were eventually replaced by indignation. I discovered that major stories were fabricated. I also learned of institutional corruption. Cushy sinecures in state enterprises were given to favoured hacks. Journalists had also managed to secure perks for themselves, ranging from being able to import cars tax-free to special reduced rates on state airlines and railways.
By comparison, the standards of journalism today are reasonably acceptable. But it is dangerous to accept anything that is morally dubious using the argument that things were much worse in the past.
When I returned to Argentina three years ago to live here for each winter and spring, I was exhilarated by the explosion of freedom of expression. I realized from 2006, when I came to Argentina on a mission of the Inter American Press Association, that the bright light of unprecedented freedom of speech contrasted with the murky shadows outside the glare of public life. But I found myself comparing today’s freedom with past censorship, whether imposed by dictatorship or induced by an understandable concern for self-preservation. And to begin with, I found myself wondering what all the fuss was about. That feeling, I found, was shared by a journalist who told me how worried he was when he was constantly told how “courageous” he was because he simply reported the facts.
I began to be more worried when the President revealed a week or so ago that she asked the head of the tax agency, the AFIP, to look into the files of a man who complained about the difficulties facing the real estate market since exchange controls were introduced. It reminded me of the methods that the Stasi, the East German secret police, took to the extreme, the subject of a brilliant book and film on state control, The Lives of Others.
That worry came back to nag me when the President revealed that someone has been going though the files of YPF following the state takeover of the oil company and came up with something that the President used in a nationwide television address. It was a denunciation of Marcelo Bonelli, a star journalist for the Clarín Group for more than 20 years. She sought to discredit a report by Bonelli that the CEO of YPF had thought of resigning when his authority was undermined. (This has not yet been denied.) The president claimed that Bonelli and/or his wife received payments from YPF to the tune of a million pesos.
Yesterday Bonelli gave what I thought was a perfectly satisfactory explanation of the payment slips that someone came across at YPF.
Bonelli’s wife is an English teacher and an official translator. She was paid 6,000 pesos a month for seven months’ work at YPF, he explained.
Then I remembered something else. In January 2001 Bonelli ran into trouble when, in his words, he was “sanctioned for (providing) good information.” He published the tax returns of Víctor Alderete, the former head of the pensioners’ health system. Bonelli faced the prospect of jail time for the crime of “violating secrets.”
The ruling by Federal Judge Claudio Bonadio was overturned by a higher court. In Página/12 a heading over a story by Horacio Verbitsky reads: “Freedom of expression protects democratic society from tyrants and has a constitutional guarantee ...” I have never been able to forget how committed Verbitsky was to the importance of freedom of expression. I have noted that a blog, which seems to be fairly even-handed, has a post reminding Verbitsky that he wrote a book with the title A World Without Journalists which, in my rough translation, includes these words:
“Journalism exists to tell something that someone doesn’t want to be told, the rest is propaganda.” He went on to say that the journalist’s job is to tell the bad side of everything. The good side can be left to the press office.