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The Media Test the Length of Their Leash

Daring and progressive, but often slipshod and retrograde, journalism is not yet up to the demands of democracy.

September 24, 1997|RAYMUNDO RIVA PALACIO | Raymundo Riva Palacio is a veteran journalist and syndicated columnist who parted with Reforma last spring over an editorial policy disagreement. He also is the editor of the Mexican edition of Le Monde Diplomatique

One day after the disputed election of Carlos Salinas de Gortari as president in 1988, the main headline of the newspaper El Financiero read "Nada para nadie" (nothing for anybody). Anywhere else in the world, a headline like that would have been thought of as irreverent but irrelevant. In Mexico, it caused a commotion. Its message was interpreted as a direct provocation to an autocratic political system that did not allow dissent. From that day on, things would never be the same for El Financiero, but the truth is, that headline did not mark a real breakthrough. It did send a strong signal that the Mexican press had been through a transformation, but its message was actually a follow-up of the rupture between society and the ancien regime that followed the massacre of students in Tlatelolco in 1968.

As El Financiero's relationship with the government soured, many reporters and writers from the daily La Jornada joined in to dispute the government's point of view on different issues. That was also the case of the magazine Proceso, which since its foundation in 1976 had become sort of a weekly scorecard of government misdeeds. But it wasn't until the Salinas administration that newspapers took the presidential office to task as part of their daily routine.

In response, the administration promised trouble for any print medium that tried to break the political control exercised by an absolutist presidential power.

For decades, the government has controlled the content of all the print media by controlling the supply of newsprint and other raw materials. More important, the government was newspapers' main source of advertising revenue.

Control of the electronic media was easier, for they are licensed by the government.

Over the years, this sad state of affairs led to media self-censorship that not only distorted the relationship between the press and the government but also between the press and the public. Many publishers, editors and reporters got richer and richer while the information handed to the people got poorer and poorer. Editorial content reflected the interests of the elites and had little to do with the concerns of society.

By the time El Financiero published its headline, it had already survived the advertising boycott imposed by the previous De la Madrid administration, unhappy with the newspaper's coverage of the renegotiation of Mexico's external debt.

Proceso had suffered the same fate during the Lopez Portillo administration.

La Jornada followed a more enlightened route to keep its editorial line independent. It reached out to the intellectual community and consolidated its circulation among university graduates and politically powerful leftist groups and individuals. La Jornada managed this feat while keeping the government as its largest advertiser.

With these pioneering efforts at independence having opened the way, Reforma, a new daily with a refreshing design, an audacious editorial line and a bold marketing approach burst onto the national scene in 1993. Immediately this new journalistic phenomenon found its readership niche: an audience that does not care so much for high quality journalism and prefers instead a print equivalent of television news, the preferred medium of 85% of the population.

The impressive market penetration in both circulation and advertising led many other newspapers to imitate Reforma's brand of daring journalism, even with its occasional ideological or sensationalist excesses. "To be critical," said the owner of a newspaper whose editorial line has always been aligned with the government, "can also be profitable."

There has been an important transformation in the broadcasting industry as well, driven by the rise of new communication outlets and a reorientation of marketing strategies seeking the best media to reach consumers.

Last July, having television networks in competition forced the most evenhanded coverage of elections ever. Radio networks and stations engaged in a fierce competitive drive to capture new audiences with their coverage of the elections. Both radio and TV drew their commentators and analysts from the print press. Their presence on the air gave the coverage depth and variety and brought the broadcasting media into a new journalistic dimension.

Today, the Mexican media have fallen into some sort of a democratic drunken binge; journalists shoot their pens and their voices at people and institutions that had always been virtually untouchable--the president, the army, the church--challenging them and systematically diminishing the size of many Mexicans who once were considered larger-than-life.

Unfortunately, this media explosion has not brought about a corresponding structural change in the media's relationship with the government. The government continues to be the largest single advertiser in the press. It also continues supplying newsprint to too many newspapers, and the procedure to grant broadcasting licenses has not changed.

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