September 2, 2014
Media and the mob — a mutual seduction
Lynching coverage proves that binary options seduce both TV and crowds at a timeThat a violent, pre-civilized beast lurks within many Argentines is nothing new dating from last week. You can go back decades or centuries — in this country or the world — to find previous cases of mob murder or aggression for various causes. Just to mention some within everybody’s living memory, there was the group attack on a Pro centre-right activist who amid last year’s opposition saucepan-bashing was trying to convince his companions not to destroy Congress. Or the permanent soccer hooligan savagery of trying to kill anybody wearing a rival jersey. Or the mob in action in some gated community (where the “state is absent” at the express wish of its residents) against some intruder jumping over the wall — a symptom of the times lucidly registered in the Mexican film La zona (2007).
Before thinking of the social, elite or media triggers of these actions, it is important not to lose sight of the moral responsibility and integrity of the individuals forming part of a society yet deciding to gang together for the summary execution of a robbery suspect. There are many people with these characteristics living among us who also feel proud of their violence and cowardice and who shout out as if they were a majority. This bespeaks a social degradation which needs to be described unvarnished.
Today’s Argentina has this sinister side, which includes the poor response of the political elite to this reality (see editorial on page 2). When the time comes to talk about the lynchings in front of a television camera, some of our leaders become faint-hearted (in the cases where they pride themselves on being progressive), or directly justify them (if they lack any ideological inhibitions), it can be imagined that the morality of the average Argentine politician is no superior to the rest of society. Among that legion of politicians who dare not contradict television interviewers who can barely master a couple of intellectual and ethical concepts, one stands out as shrewd. As from mid-2013, one of them has been striking first and hardest, as became especially clear in the debate over the Penal Code, an issue not unrelated to the lynchings, where some joined in with the argument that “with the new laws they (the presumed thieves under assault) would walk off scot-free.” The rest of the politicians following his lead should think of hiring better marketing spin doctors.
But another star of this drift toward lynching is TV. Yet in contrast to the political give and take, the screen has no room for criticism. Those apocalyptic communication theorists who find no remedy for the voracious and self-congratulating television would have a field day if they could see how these days the Argentine channels have swung from absolutely omitting any analysis of their own role to the indignant denial of any responsibility because they are showing “what is happening to people.”
Argentine television is very particular. There are no less than seven self-styled news channels — a total difficult to find in any other city in the world — and four private broadcast channels with their own news shows. But all too often it seems that there are none at all, when the channels all seem hypnotized (and hypnotize in turn) with the non-stop transmission of a police episode or a mere anecdote which can entirely absorb a news programme.
Like the mob, television brooks no contradiction and rejects sophisticated views on victims and perpetrators. All in all, binary options seduce both Argentine TV and crowds at a time. It does not matter if the statistics show that the murder rate has been stable since the end of the last century (with a logical peak in the crisis years of 2000-2003) and that they are the lowest in South America along with Uruguay and Chile. Should this be brought to his attention, the director is always ready to zoom in on the face of a victim while the news show host stares earnestly into the camera saying: “How do you explain to this woman who has just lost a child that Argentina is safe?”
There is crime in Argentina. How could there not be in a country which has suffered brutal economic collapses at regular intervals since 1975 at least and whose governments, including the current one, have not bothered to democratize the police forces since 1983? What more can be said about the inhuman prison system and the lack of justice in this country? Other statistics point to a sustained increase in the number of robberies while the victim index of Di Tella University showed last January that 36 percent of Argentine families said that they had suffered some crime (two-thirds of them violent) against one of its members in the last year. This is beyond discussion when it comes to talking of lynchings.
Most politicians succumb to the TV demagoguery and even stumble into (without thinking, because there is no time) aberrant discriminations. But one would expect a different role from the printed press, Argentina’s best tradition when it comes to information.
That famous “Silent invasion” cover of the April 2000 edition of the magazine La Primera sticks in the memory, a bold press operation which aimed a kick in the teeth at alleged foreign immigrant “invaders” (see photo). That publication sought to woo a far right constituency but had to shut down shortly afterwards.
Closer in time, last Wednesday, another publication went down the same road but right down the middle of the avenue, not on the fringes. On that day Clarín newspaper ran the front-page headline: “Five more cases of neighbours beating up robbers.” Without the least subtlety, Argentina’s main newspaper, one of the best-selling in the Spanish language which aspires to represent the common sense of the middle class (the neighbours?), decided to prejudge the victims of the blows and acquit outright the infuriated mob attacking en masse.
There are reasons to suppose that Clarín chose that road for reasons related to its confrontation with the national government and that the headline does not represent the true thinking of those responsible. Whatever the truth, it is time to reflect on the limits of public discourse in this country. The above was an important example but was far from being the only one placing itself on the side of the “neighbours” or which tries exotic pirouettes to justify the lynchings from front pages. If our most successful politicians or the mainstream players in the media market do not show more moral integrity than the lynch mobs, we shall soon be on the brink of a new abyss.