December 15, 2017

Politics & the press

Friday, July 28, 2017

Midterms campaign on ‘listening’ mode

President Mauricio Macri meets with people in Tres de Febrero this week.
President Mauricio Macri meets with people in Tres de Febrero this week.
President Mauricio Macri meets with people in Tres de Febrero this week.
By Marcelo J. García
For The Herald

If the politicians really wanted to hear what the public is saying, they could’ve let them had their say in the primaries

The latest fashion in Argentine politics is for politicians to say they are “listening” to the public. This is high campaign season, as you probably know by now, but the news is that more than fielding their proposals for the voters to make their pick, politicians say they are out in the field hearing what the voters have to say instead.

This would be good, per se, were it not that the two main forces fighting for political dominance in Argentina right now claim to stand at totally opposite poles. The ruling Let’s Change (Cambiemos) coalition and the once-almighty Peronists led by former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner are engaged in what appears to be an electoral fight to the finish in the province of Buenos Aires, Argentina’s largest district and home to 40 percent of the voters.

The fashion was introduced explicitly by the former president, who said at the start of her senatorial run that she had only given her team of congressional hopefuls “one instruction”: “Go out to the streets, open up your ears and listen to what is happening to the people.”

The ruling party is also doing the “listening-to” campaign shuffle, under the tutelage of its Ecuadorean strategist Jaime Durán Barba. One of its candidates in the provincial congressional slate, Guillermo Montenegro, was more explicit in an interview with the newspaper La Nación this week.

Journalist: “What are Let Change’s campaign proposals?”

Montenegro: “We are trying to listen more than do the talking.”

The coincidence is paradoxical. If the politicians really wanted to “listen” to the electorate, they could have given them the opportunity to have a say in the primaries instead of featuring mostly single slates with no real competition. The PASO system of voting (which comes from a Spanish language acronym standing for “open, simultaneous and obligatory primaries”) is meant to give the public a formal chance to speak up. Politicos — from all sides of the alleged divide — closed it up however. So closed in fact that now the government wants to scrap the PASO system all the way for the next general election in 2019.

The endogamy of the political system has made it plausible that the mere act of “listening” to voters can now become a motto of the campaign. The political establishment has had enough time to listen to the public — in the time that spans between one campaign and the other, i.e. two long years. When the campaign comes, it should be time for the politicians to do the talking instead.

Is it, or is it not, the economy, stupid?

The state of Argentina’s economy is forever present in the campaign. But the “listening mode” means that the candidates might be able to avoid talking about it, at least according to another instruction the ruling party congressional hopefuls were given by the wizard Durán Barba.

The confusion of roles has been a norm in Argentina’s public life over the last few years. Politicians listen instead of talk and make decisions based on opinion polls rather than the country’s best interests, a ‘wait and see’ instead of leading.

And journalists, too, often act like politicians instead of reporters.

Two relatively known journalists decided to explicitly jump the fence and enter party politics this year. Débora Pérez Volpin was a news anchor on the Clarín Group’s news networks before she decided to join the congressional slate with challenger Martín Lousteau in Buenos Aires City. And on the other side of the political isle, Gisela Marziotta, one of the most visible supporters of the former Kirchnerite governments in the so-called “militant” press, will be running for the Lower House representing the capital.

A major debate — which as most debates these days seem to come and go within hours — was triggered last week by a television report on Jorge Lanata’s Periodismo para Todos Sunday prime-time show, which featured an interview with a 12-year-old known as “Polaquito.”

The kid was put on air confessing to drug-addiction and a couple of murders, which were also related to his addiction. The report followed up on a saga the Lanata show had started a week earlier, on security and narco-violence in the sprawling suburbs of Buenos Aires. Fighting crime is at the top of the agenda for Buenos Aires Province Governor María Eugenia Vidal, currently the most popular person in the ruling party.

The public discussion that followed included experts on children’s rights and advocates of the freedom of the press. Should the child have been shown on TV? Does the report violate his rights, those in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child? The report did little to hide his identity, although it did not reveal his real name and blurred his face, and it called the child by his real nickname and aired his voice as it is.

The press freedom advocates argued that the report showed a portion of reality that is of public interest, which is right. But the question, from a strictly journalistic point of view, is whether the things “Polaquito” said on the air were true. People in his entourage, including his mother, said most of the kid’s talk was actually fabrication. The Lanata report failed to fact-check that.

The public just got the kid’s voice as fact. Just “listening” is not always good enough.



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