May 19, 2013
Think of an elephant
Machiavelli. There is something quintessentially wrong with the perceived roles of the political and media establishment when a polling firm feels compelled to find out whether the public trusts a journalist more than the President. An opinion study conducted by Datamática discovered that slightly over 50 percent of the public believes in what they hear from television and radio presenter and journalist Jorge Lanata more than in the words of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Only 20 percent responded the opposite. The rest said they trust neither.
It is not that Lanata was planning to enter politics. But in the absence of anything resembling a consolidated opposition, the opposition media and some of its journalists are starting to feel comfortable in that role. Apples feeling like oranges — and being treated as such.
The poll featuring Cristina Fernández de Kirchner vs Jorge Lanata was presented in a cable television programme called La hora de Maquiavelo (Machiavelli’s hour), which discusses political spin. Host Diego Dillenberger said upon presenting the result that, too bad for politics, Lanata was now the sole leader of the opposition. Lanata is a great communicator with public clout and a reputation built over three decades. He is now siding with the country’s media behemoth, Grupo Clarín, which is in turn engaged in a fight to the finish — and arguably losing it — with the administration. His Periodismo para Todos show, or PPT, on broadcast television on Sunday evenings blends journalism with stand-up comedy, which is perhaps one of the reasons for its audience-ratings success.
Elephants. In Don’t Think of an Elephant, US linguist George Lakoff invites the Democrats not to frame political debates in Republican terms. In a televised speech a few days ago, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner explained something she said she had learnt from her late husband, former president Néstor Kirchner: if you want to hide an elephant, she said, you have to place a few other elephants around it. If one of the extra elephants happens to be pink or green, your original elephant will be better concealed, added the President. Ultimately, her point was that the mainstream media critical of her administration kept on running colourful front-page elephants in order to hide the big grey elephant of government success.
Grupo Clarín also resorted in the past few days to animal metaphors in order to accuse the government of exactly the same sin of distorting reality. The government’s political narrative, a Clarín editorial columnist wrote, is selling the Argentine public “a pig in a poke” (okay, it was a likewise expression in Spanish about cats and hares). The narrative, the columnist said, is “exhausting.”
One may argue both rivals have their own elephants and pigs painted in fashionable styles. But it is not clear the heat of the Argentine media tug-of-war still allows them to spot the original grey elephant.
Freedom. The Datamática study also asked people across the country whether they believed the Fernández de Kirchner government respected freedom of expression. Almost six out of 10 people said no.
There were many reverberations surrounding last week’s call by the President for an ethics law for journalists. The move is stillborn though. The President said it would not be up to the government to submit any such bill to Congress. The split local press guild would at this stage be incapable of making any progress.
The question on freedom of the press in Argentina under the Kirchners has more greys than blacks and whites. Both government and oppositionist media are playing hardball in their communications strategies and the first casualty is the public in need of the socially relevant information they need to shape their citizen views. Opinion abounds; information is scarce.
Yet the checks and balances needed for the political confrontation to be fair seem to stand. Last week, two court rulings played against the government’s multi-front war on some media. One of the rulings urged the administration to abide by a Supreme Court ruling obliging the allocation of state advertising to the Perfil publishing house, which filed a suit crying discrimination. Another ruling froze attempts for further judicial intervention on Grupo Clarín’s cable television company Cablevisión, the conglomerate’s main moneymaker.
Debate. The bête noire of the government’s communication strategy delivered a ray of hope this week. The evening political talk show 6, 7, 8 on state-run Canal 7, whose mission is to charge on the opposition and most especially the oppositionist media, used 40 minutes of primetime last Thursday to field a debate between Edgardo Mocca, a staff on its lineup of columnists, and Roberto Gargarella, a political scientist who is critical of the government. It was a respectful debate, peppered with ideas and featuring a touch of what public television could (and should) look like in a more civilized media environment: a standard grey elephant.