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Understanding Clarín

By Marcelo J. García
For The Herald

By Marcelo J. García

Martín Sivak’s new book

The past sheds light on the present. A new book on the history of Argentina’s best-selling newspaper, Clarín, is key to understand the media conflict that has marked Argentine politics for the last half decade.

Clarín. El gran diario argentino. Una historia by Martín Sivak (Planeta) is arguably the most exhaustive and less biased historic recollection of the newspaper turned multi-media conglomerate founded in 1945 by a politician called Roberto Noble. Sivak’s book covers the paper through 1982 but also presents tidbits about the present, which it promises to cover in an eventual volume two.

Yet as it stands, Sivak’s work opens the door to a history of greys in the relationship between political and press establishments and points toward a way of reading the current scenario in a light different to the “mother-of-all-battles” approach that both the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Grupo Clarín have given to the media war that started six years ago.

Since the Kirchners and Grupo Clarín clashed heads-on in the maelstrom of a conflict over farming export duties in the first half of 2008, their positions have been stubbornly irreducible. Their political boxing moved from one ring to another in Argentina’s hectic public life, from Congress to business to the courts (it is now waiting for the next score card from the Supreme Court). But much to the frustration of the two, there has been no victory by knockout. And the way things look, it seems unlikely there will be one.

Sivak’s history of Clarín, on the contrary, tells a story of versatility. The book divides the early decades of Clarín in two moments: the first spanning since foundation to the death of Noble in 1969 and the second through 1982, when the paper was controlled politically by the pro-development party MID of former president Arturo Frondizi and his political mastermind Rogelio Frigerio.

Under the founder, the paper subordinated its action to Noble’s ambitions of political ascension and clout. Noble, writes Sivak, hoped the paper could serve as a catapult to the presidency, only to settle later for the more modest goal of helping to catapult others. Through the years, this potential asset would turn into the more threatening alleged power of destabilizing presidents. When Noble died in January 1969, the paper said about him, “Nothing interested him more in life than politics. Journalism was to him a political passion.” The paper now would never admit to that hierarchy of priorities.

Politics continued to be the paper’s main drive when Noble’s widow Ernestina Herrera took charge of the company and handed the editorial reins of Clarín over to his late husband’s last political affiliation. MID’s leader Frigerio became editor in the shadows and instructed Clarín’s line during the hectic 1970s. This period included the dark years of the last dictatorship and the company’s first move toward business expansion with the construction — in partnership with two other newspapers, La Nación and La Prensa, and the military regime — of the first newsprint plant in Argentina. Those were also the years that consolidated the leadership of its current CEO, Héctor Magnetto, the man the Kirchner era later labeled as public enemy number one.

Clarín and Argentina’s most distinctive political creation, Peronism, were born on the same year, 1945: the first in August; the second in October. To foreign (and also local) observers, both phenomena have proven tricky to grasp, mostly because neither seemed to have cared to keep an ideological line. The book shows how Noble’s Clarín flirted with Juan Perón’s government during the paper’s first decade only to make an awkward political U-turn after Perón’s overthrow in 1955. “Ideological consistency did not seem to be an important variable,” writes Sivak. While there is plenty of bibliography on Peronism, Sivak’s book helps to fill a gap when it comes to understanding Clarín.

For a time not fitted for middle ground stances, Sivak’s investigation and writing style succeeds in the difficult task of showing Clarín’s lights and shadows. “Through its history, Clarín has always reflected the pragmatism of its director and founder,” writes Sivak. “Noble built a type of relationship with politics and with the State that has survived him.”

Many of the axioms of Clarín’s past can be found in the present, now that the paper has grown to become a giant multi-media conglomerate listed on the London and Buenos Aires stock exchanges and with interests in almost every sector of the news, content and distribution business. As it peeps through the present, Clarín, Una Historia also shows what is new and what is old about the Kirchners’ war on the news outlet. A quote attributed to former interim president Eduardo Duhalde in the book points to a certain obsession the Kirchners have had with the press, “They’d better stop reading the newspapers and start to govern.”

Clarín’s “dual strategy” of playing the free press card while also reaching out for government patronage to advance its business agenda had played nicely during the first half of the Kirchner decade until the conflict escalated to its current insurmountable heights. The question Sivak’s second volume and future media historians will have to answer is exactly how and why that happened.

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