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Mexico's educated elite lose clout

The rise of U.S.-style punditry has lessened the intelligentsia's influence as the nation prepares to vote.

July 01, 2006|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Like soccer stars and Roman Catholic saints, intellectuals have long held a prized status within Mexican society.

Octavio Paz, the Nobel Prize-winning poet and diplomat who died in 1998, is more revered than most former presidents. Illuminati such as writers Carlos Fuentes and Carlos Monsivais, historian Enrique Krauze and journalist-novelist Elena Poniatowska are constantly being quoted in the newspapers, feted with official honors and solicited for their views on a smorgasbord of subjects.

In Mexico, where the term "intellectual" usually connotes a person possessing mental gravitas, serious literary chops and at least a few friends in high places, intellectuals have enjoyed a degree of name-brand recognition that's rare in all but a handful of countries -- France comes to mind -- at least among the educated chattering classes. Along with that acclaim, intellectuals reap other rewards: generous government stipends, cultural and academic sinecures, ambassadorships and access to those wielding power.

But lately something funny has been happening on the way to the symposium. Mexico's powerful mass media, particularly television and radio commentators, are steadily usurping intellectuals' power to shape public opinion. Scrappy outsider voices are beginning to emerge on Internet blogs and other alternative outlets, competing for attention with the cerebral old guard.

Some analysts believe that Mexico's bitterly contested presidential campaign, which culminates with Sunday's vote, has further undermined intellectuals' stature -- and that this may benefit the country.

"This election has made even clearer the big divide in Mexican society and just how elitist a country Mexico is, and intellectuals are part of that elite. For years they've lived with their hands outstretched," says Denise Dresser, a columnist for the Mexico City daily newspaper Reforma and a professor at the Autonomous Technical Institute of Mexico.

In a country where nearly 50% of the population lives in poverty and relatively few people read newspapers or receive more than a grammar school education, intellectuals' influence has always been disproportionate to the size of their audience. Now there are signs that their privileged position among the nation's elite also may be undergoing a transformation.

"I think it's kind of overrated, this subject of the role of intellectuals," says Leo Zuckerman, a political science professor at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching in Mexico City. "I believe that those who most believe that they have influence over public opinion are the intellectuals themselves."

Zuckerman thinks that the role once played by intellectuals is now being filled by television news show conductores (anchor-hosts) who frequently inject opinion into their news reports. "In reality the people in Mexico are informed through radio and television, fundamentally," he says. "And in this sense we can see in the last six years that the big conductors, the big personalities of radio and television, converted themselves into the formers of opinion."

Jorge Castaneda, one of the country's best-known intellectuals and a former foreign minister, has referred to this new elite as the "conductorcracia."

Some intellectuals have become talking heads on these television shows, which frequently blur the line between news and opinion. Dresser says the power of television and other mass media are converting Mexico's intelligentsia into an American-style punditocracy, in which snappy sound bites trump scholarly verbosity. "We're becoming more Americanized, for better and for worse," she says.

The presidential race also has rewritten some of the ground rules of commentary. In the past, intellectuals backed principles but typically avoided endorsing particular candidates for office in Mexico's then-one-party system. They argued more with each other than directly with politicians.

That tradition has eroded during this campaign, as Poniatowska and Monsivais came out early and publicly in support of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the left-leaning former Mexico City mayor who according to most opinion polls holds a slim lead over his rivals.

But those endorsements may have come at a price. In the future, intellectuals may find it harder to maintain that they are detached observers. Earlier this year, Poniatowska was publicly criticized and ridiculed by Lopez Obrador's opponents in the ruling National Action Party, or PAN, after she made a TV advertisement on his behalf.

That, in turn, led a group of Latin American and Europeans artists, including the Portuguese and Spanish writers Jose Saramago and Juan Goytisolo, the Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal and the Colombian novelist Laura Restrepo, to rally to Poniatowska's defense by denouncing the criticisms of her as "macho aggression."

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