December 6, 2013
Lessons from Georgetown and Harvard
To begin with, let’s get one thing straight. President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner does not talk to the press every day, as she claimed when she spoke at Georgetown and Harvard during her recent agitated visit to the United States.
Asked why students at Georgetown were privileged to be able to ask her questions when she does not talk to the press in Argentina, she insisted that she is “permanently” in touch with the press.
That brought an immediate response from the journalists who are accredited correspondents in the Casa Rosada: “The head of state gave her last formal press conference on August 15, 2011. When accredited journalists manage to get close to the president after events, Cristina Fernández habitually does not reply to questions.
“(We) accredited journalists reiterate that it is necessary that not only the head of state but also her ministers give an account of acts of government (and we) call for press conferences and free access to public information.
“Once again, we reiterate our concern at the lack of information about the presidential agenda and call for renewed access within Government House to be able to speak to those invited to events and people invited to the presidential office.”
It is significant that no names were attached to the communiqué. I trust that there will be no reprisals, but prefer to withhold the name of one of the Government House reporters who posted the communiqué.
Speaking from experience let me say that Cristina’s press phobia is a Kirchner trait. While Néstor Kirchner ruled the province of Santa Cruz, the press was merely an echo of the government. I recall that when an Inter-American Press Association delegation visited Government House for a pre-arranged meeting with President Néstor Kirchner, he dodged the encounter by pretending that he had been called away at the last moment. He gave us all a quick handshake in the corridor and left us with the then evasive Cabinet Chief Alberto González, who has since become a persistent critic of the post-Néstor government.
I don’t think that it is difficult to understand why Cristina, like Néstor, does her best to keep clear of the press. She is in the position of someone on the witness stand who doesn’t want to answer a question that might incriminate them. She prefers to “take the fifth” and remain silent.
The president wasn’t able to remain silent at Georgetown or Harvard because she wasn’t in charge. It has been reported that after the mild roasting she endured at Georgetown, she considered skipping Harvard, as Néstor slipped past the IAPA, but, in the words attributed to Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman, that would have been “un papelón.”
It would, indeed, have been an embarrassment, but Question Time at Harvard was not enjoyable. I don’t think for a moment the president was embarrassed, but she was visibly annoyed and also showed her annoyance by not attending the reception arranged for her after her lecture.
There can be no doubt that to a lesser extent at Georgetown, but decidedly so at Harvard, there were students who were laying in wait for her with heavily loaded questions. I have discovered where some of the ammunition came from.
I am still learning about the intricacies of the Internet, so I did not know about Reddit until I began investigating what lay behind the verbal ambush that Cristina ran into.
The best description of Reddit that I have come across is that it is “the front page of the Internet.” President Barack Obama beat me to Reddit by making an appearance on August 29. This is what he posted:
“Internet freedom is something I know you all care passionately about; I do too. We will fight hard to make sure that the Internet remains the open forum for everybody.”
A Reddit regular responded: “Sure thing. Do you like cats?” According to Benji Laynado who runs RedditEdit.com, that online encounter between the most powerful man on earth and a cat lover “explained itself to the millions of bemused Web wonderers who surged to the site, many of whom had little idea of what Reddit is, and why the president of the United States had chosen to drop by.”
Writing in The Guardian, Laynado said Obama’s visit was “the high watermark of Reddit’s steady but recently dramatic rise to become the ‘front page of the Internet,’ where a voracious community of users submits links across a multitude of categories (subreddits) to be upvoted and downvoted. In December 2011, it served more than 2 billion page views. The process is the Web’s simplest incarnation of the wisdom of crowds: the interesting stuff rises to the top, the rest sinks without trace.”
Well, how did President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner fare on the front page of the Internet?
http://www.reddit.com/r/Harvard/comments/10ebkd/to– anyone–attending–927–public– address–by/ It was not a successful debut. The forum on the president’s lectures began with this post from Argentina: “Please, don’t go easy on the questions. Here in Argentina, she considers the speeches she gives almost daily the equivalent of a press conference and never answers real questions. In recent times she has refused to utter words like inflation, crime, corruption and the like, problems that affect a lot of people in the country. Her ministers have lashed out against the thousands that protested against her government on 9/13 across the country claiming that they were “well dressed” and “upper class” people that had been rallied by the press and opposition while she just ignores it.
“I would love to see her reaction to the tough and serious questions that she refuses to answer in her own country like the corruption scandals that surround her administration or its crony capitalism practices that turn personal chauffeurs into millionaires.”
And then the questions piled up, to be reflected later by the students at both universities. I am hopeful that the president learned a lesson from her visit to Georgetown and Harvard. That lesson is that presidents must keep in touch with the people through the press, both the old press, like newspapers, radio and television, and the new front pages on the Internet, like Reddit.
It would avoid embarrassment and challenge the press to maintain high standards in news reporting and commentary.