April 16, 2014
POLITICS AND THE PRESSSaturday, December 7, 2013
O Captain! My Captain
A Casa Rosada correspondent reported that the new Cabinet Chief, Jorge Capitanich, has a press theory of his own. Asked why he talks to journalists every morning, Capitanich reportedly draws a three-circle mathematical diagram: one circle is the government’s agenda, one the media’s agenda and the third is the public’s agenda. His morning speech should be aimed, he says, at the thin (and getting thinner, one may add) intersection between the three, i.e. the common agenda.
Capitanich is likely to have read the agenda-setting theory developed by two US sociologists in the late 60s. His efforts mark a U-turn in a government communication strategy that had been almost exclusively dependant on the voice and body of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner for far too long. With Capitanich, the president has hired a prime minister and a spokesman.
But formulas, as everything in life, can fail.
On Wednesday morning, after a night of fury and looting in the central province of Córdoba, the oft-cool Capitanich faced the comment-hungry press pack in a tone less affable than the previous days and just limited to drop a standard talking point placing the entire responsibility on the provincial government. He did not take any questions and he walked away.
In the afternoon, the president showed up in Government House to swear in her new Security minister, María Cecilia Rodríguez. The ceremony was short and festive. There were smiles and cheers. The president did not speak. Neither did the new minister. Maybe not the right message you wanted to hear if your home or shop had been vandalized the night before.
The Córdoba crisis was the first acid test for the government’s newly-found communication openness. Its defensive reflexes sent the administration back to a hear-no-evil tactic. The next day, Capitanich sought to make things up by pitching a 45-minute press conference. “I am here to take all the questions you consider necessary,” he said.
For too long the government focused its communications on the media rather than the message. The goal was to take over (if only legally and symbolically) the big media, as if occupying the Bastille. In normal circumstances, communications is an appendix at the service of politics. In the Kirchner world since the media war on Grupo Clarín broke out in 2008, politics had been servicing an omnipresent and ever-lasting communications policy.
Capitanich played an important role in that system as a member of the AFSCA federal broadcasting committee board, in representation of the provinces. The then governor of Chaco even caused a stir earlier this year when he said, after being mentioned in a television report on alleged money laundering television report, that there should be an ethics law for journalists. “All the people involved in the system of public communication should be subject to popular control in order to avoid manipulation and deceit.” He later withdrew his idea.
Now in one of the country’s highest non-elective chairs, Capitanich is bringing things back to “normal.” Government communications seems to be — again — a tool for government and politics. Many believe it might be a bit overused, though. As one government source quoted on condition of anonymity told a newspaper this week, “There aren’t important things to say every day.”
The hyperkinetic Capitanich has taken every communicative space available in Government House. Even the Casa Rosada website (www.casarosada.gob.ar), which was until very recently exclusive presidential territory, is now flooded with pictures of the Cabinet Chief. Only yesterday, from eight rotating home page items, six were about Capitanich and only two about the president. Only (a short) time will tell whether the president is stepping out of the picture just for a while to let her new strongman gain space or has decided instead to play the detached head of state role for the remaining of her term. With polls showing presidential approval ratings higher than the government’s, the responsibility is likely to rely almost solely on the new captain. The prize, he hopes, could be a ticket to the presidency.