October 1, 2014
Politics and the pressSaturday, May 24, 2014
For The Herald
It is difficult to be a journalist these days but it is also difficult to be a source, even if you are the pope.
The Argentine pontiff was dragged into a diplomatic imbroglio with the government over a hard-to-explain communication gaffe over a letter/telegram he sent to President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner on the occasion of Argentina’s May 25 National Day. The glitch of international proportions was the communications tip of a political iceberg that surrounds the pontiff’s role — real and symbolic — in Argentina’s public life.
Picture yourself for a minute in the shoes of the journalists following (or trying to follow) this saga. Rule number one of the craft says that one needs at least two independent sources to take a piece of information as real. And yet there are sources one tends to take as irrefutable – in some circumstances. If the president’s press office publishes a letter from a pope to the head of state, any reporter would take the information as undisputable and the next step would be to give the letter a political frame. If a Vatican spokesperson says a few hours later the letter is a fake, any journalist would take that as true as well. If the government explains that it got it through normal diplomatic channels, the plot would thicken dramatically. If the Vatican retracts its “fake” line the next morning, it means the end of the world in journalistic terms and you have to burn the day’s newspapers before they even reach the newsstands.
The first-fake-then-real pope letter will not go down in history as an important episode of Argentine politics but it does give observers a flavour of how political communication is more often than not at the service of deceiving rather than informing the public. And for once, the blame this time does not fall on the government, but on the so-far immaculate Papal communication and also on journalists and opinion-formers.
The government did for once what it should do all the time: tell the truth. The argument presented by Presidential Chief-of-Staff Oscar Parrilli and Religious Affairs Secretary Guillermo Oliveri that the letter had followed the normal diplomatic delivery channels and that there was therefore no reason to doubt its authenticity served the purpose of kicking the blame ball over to the Apostolic Nuncio’s office first, which in turn volleyed it back to Rome.
And yet, as if this were the fable of the shepherd’s boy and the wolf, most of the mainstream oppositionist Argentine press did not give the Fernández de Kirchner administration the benefit of the doubt. Paradigmatic was a front-page headline on a century-old local newspaper: “The most mysterious of presidential scandals,” it read.
By the time the government’s version of events held true before dawn yesterday morning, it was clear the blame relied solely on the Catholic Church’s governing structure. Letter scandal aside, it seems some factions of the Catholic Church are struggling to come to terms with the notion that the pope keeps pulling the strings of the local political scene from a distance — and has clout to do it. Does the pope really have to (and has time to) devote an important part of his daily agenda to Argentine affairs when he is, for instance, about to start a trip to the Middle East that could define his Papacy?
The pope also had to quench a political fire ignited by his fellow Argentine bishops two weeks ago, when they published a document on crime and violence in Argentina, an issue that tops the public’s list of concerns and has been a headache for the Fernández de Kirchner government. A line in the document’s first paragraph caught the newspaper editors’ attention: “Argentina is sick with violence.” Another further down went, “Corruption is a real social cancer.” The text was soon being regarded as an anti-government stance from the Church and, ultimately, also from the pope.
If anything good (or at least novel) happens in Argentina after more than five years debating journalism is that everybody feels entitled to question whatever the media runs — sometimes with good arguments.Two Catholic bishops rushed out to criticize the coverage of the document. “The media sometimes trim reality, take only a part of it and use that part to interpret everything,” said VíctorFernández, dean of the UCA Argentine Catholic University, falling just short of delivering a perfect definition of a synecdoche. “Sometimes there is even false information,” he added. “The headlines from some media (on the day after the text was issued) made it look as if it were an anti-government document, but that was no the spirit of the text,” said Jorge Lozano, head of the Church’s social commission.
The Church leaders are not the only ones who feel their words are being misused. Another important source in Argentina’s public life, Economy Minister Axel Kicillof, complained two weeks ago that the media made up a line he never said as they picked up a Sunday morning radio interview. “The word inflation is ridiculous,” a news agency quoted him as saying, and the line picked by other media reverberated extensively. He had actually never said that. The mistake is likely to have originated from the lazy ear of an agency reporter on a Sunday morning shift, yet the minister preferred to view it as an example that the media make things up to conspire against the government. Sources also have a right to complain sometime.