BUENOS AIRES — Argentina by what its newspapers report, you might think it is a country of military unrest, economic insecurity, drug problems and corruption.
But if much of the big news is bad news here these days, it testifies to an unfettered press that freely reflects a nation's struggle to reconcile its unruly impulses with a recognized need for democratic order and economic stability.
Take corruption, a recurring theme this year in the Argentine press. Scandal after scandal has eroded the credibility of President Carlos Saul Menem's administration and public institutions in general.
At one point, Menem expressed exasperation in a news conference over media interest in the scandals, complaining that he was being asked "questions that I have answered a hundred and one times." But he added: "I prefer insults rather than having it said that in Argentina there is no freedom of the press."
Much of Argentina's middle class, the largest in Latin America, habitually reads newspapers, which have traditionally played an important role in national life. La Prensa and La Nacion, the two most traditional papers, were founded in 1869 and 1870, respectively.
But in these times of economic crisis, newspapers sales have suffered. At prices as high as 80 U.S. cents daily and $1.30 on Sunday, they have become unaffordable to many people who might normally read them. Some borrow from neighbors rather than buy their own copies.
Over the years, readers have gotten used to taking a lot of what they read in the press here with a grain of salt. Caution was the hallmark of the media during long periods of authoritarian government before 1983--often making the press an incomplete or unreliable chronicler of national events.
Argentine newspapers have become bolder in recent years, but perhaps because of their lack of practice in a climate of full journalistic freedom, they often are still less than diligent in checking facts. And in some papers, political bias is evident in the news columns. La Prensa, for example, is staunchly conservative while Pagina 12 leans to the left.
A five-year-old tabloid that pursues bad news with evident relish, Pagina 12 is one of the country's most aggressive newspapers. It led the way, for example, in reporting on a scandal that has implicated relatives of Menem's estranged wife, Zulema Yoma, in a scheme to launder international drug money.
Harking back to the White House years of former U.S. President Richard M. Nixon, the affair is referred to in the Argentine media as "Yomagate."
Also on the drug front, Diego Maradona, Argentina's soccer superstar, has alternately been depicted in the press as a symbol of despair and of hope following his arrest in late April on charges of possessing cocaine and supplying it free to his friends.
Previously, cocaine use had been in the headlines only occasionally here. But when Maradona was picked up, the press quickly turned him into a symbol of lost Argentine virtue. A rash of follow-up stories suggested that cocaine use and trafficking are becoming rampant.
Then, it seemed that the government was spurred by all the publicity into adopting a tougher anti-drug policy, and Maradona was reported to be progressing well in a rehabilitation program--even getting into shape to play soccer again. And suddenly, Maradona was good news--his recovery a press-promoted symbol for bouncing back from adversity.
The Argentine economy certainly has a lot of bouncing back to do, and the press is reporting on President Menem's recovery plan with large doses of skepticism.
In efforts to hold down inflation, which soared to nearly 100% a month at one point last year, Menem is trying to balance the government budget and limit the amount of national currency in circulation.
Inflation is down but, as the newspapers insist on reporting prominently, still not out. The media have paid particular attention to sharp increases in the price of beef, once a cheap staple in Argentina and now an increasingly expensive reminder of hard times.
"Meat again gave the economic program a hard time," said a recent weekly summary in Clarin, Argentina's largest-circulation daily.
In pursuing his economic goals, Menem has trod on a tender spot in Argentine tradition: the mandatory yearly bonus of one month's salary. The bonus is divided into two parts, half in July and half in December.
Recently, Menem's Economy Ministry announced that payment of the bonus would be spread out over the year so that all workers would not have to be paid in the same months. The outcry in the press and Congress was such that the government was forced to give up the idea.
The latest grist for headlines has been a to-and-fro over what new tax might be imposed to finance increases in teachers' salaries and pensions. A government proposal to double property taxes in Buenos Aires has been front-page news, for it touches on another sensitive area: the pocketbook of Argentina's hard-pressed middle class.