12/10/2012 | It is a sign of the political times to watch President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner reading out a New York Times editorial titled “Conspiracy World” (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/10/opinion/conspiracy-world.html?ref=editorials&–r=0) during a cadena nacional speech. “To live and seethe in that world of conspiracy theories means rejecting any form of objective reality,” goes the second paragraph the President read in a perfect Spanish translation on Wednesday evening.
“Objective reality” is what most Argentines trapped in a media imbroglio between the administration and the media powers-that-be are struggling to get. And the word conspiracy was good to describe the media scandal of this week, which involved — again — journalist Jorge Lanata.
Lanata and his team of journalists and producers were held for about an hour and a half by Venezuelan intelligence officers at as they were leaving Caracas after covering Sunday’s election. Lanata is a jack of all media trades, one of the most versatile journalists of post-dictatorship Argentina. The government’s main media/political foe, Grupo Clarín, hired him this year to step up journalistic pressure on the government. He is doing that job all right. But he is also shedding some credibility in the process.
A day before the Caracas airport incident, Lanata had said in an interview with the weekend newspaper Perfil that he believed the case Alfonzo Severo, a witness in a high-profile political murder trial who went missing for a day last week, had been “a self-kidnap” (http://www.perfil.com/ediciones/2012/10/edicion–717/contenidos/noticia–0073.html). Lanata did not produce any information to back his suspicion. The next day, when he went himself missing for a while as he was escorted to some dark Caracas airport basement, government followers raised the same suspicion (also largely ungrounded) over his story. No wonder.
The Lanata incident was a haven for conspiracy talk, which is becoming the norm rather than the exception in Argentina’s political life as the media wrangle escalates to a proclaimed moment of truth on December 7, a.k.a. “7D”. That day, according to a Supreme Court ruling, a Broadcast Media Act passed by Congress three years ago will enter full implementation mode, as an injunction filed by Grupo Clarín against an anti-trust clause will no longer be effective. The government is closing its ranks for the final charge in what it once described as “the mother of all battles.” Grupo Clarín is digging its trench as deep as it can and promising multiply defence.
In the meantime, the conspiracy theorists say, almost every news item you get is tainted by the fast approaching 7D-day. Lanata, who hosts radio and television on Grupo Clarín’s Radio Mitre and Canal 13 and also for the newspaper Clarín, has denounced political spying, persecution and censorship in the various Argentine provinces from where he has aired reports critical of federal government allies over the last few months. For a persecuted journalist, he speaks up quite freely, critics argue. But Lanata’s approach is serving Grupo Clarín’s victimization strategy quite well.
The Venezuelan incident, which he said included the deletion of some of his computer files, reached an entire new proportion in the conspiracy saga, with Lanata blaming the Argentine government for the alleged international surveillance and, on the opposite camp, the Argentine Ambassador to Caracas downplaying the entire incident and repeating the Venezuelan government line that the TV crew had engaged in a certain “provocation” of the local authorities. The truth might be somewhere in the middle, but is nowhere to be found.
The New York Times is a liberal publication and the editorial the President read to the Nation sought to shield President Obama from allegations made by Republicans that his administration had cooked unemployment figures to make the economy look more robust in the middle of the presidential campaign. “The charge was absurd. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, which along with the Census Bureau conducts the underlying household survey, is run by career civil servants and is impervious to political pressure and manipulation, as all but the hypnotized in Washington understand,” Cristina Fernández read out from the New York Times. She then concluded: “Tell me the truth, doesn’t this article seem to come from any given Argentine newspaper?” Hard to tell, though: Not many pens (if any) in either side of the media fence have defended the INDEC statistics bureau in public recently. And it seems nobody will in the immediate future.
The media tussle is (metaphorically at least) headed toward a collision. Grupo Clarín is not giving in an inch on its position and the government is marching forward. Communication between the two seems severed — maybe for good. This week, Grupo Clarín’s prime time newscast Telenoche featured a report compiling all the evil deeds the government is attributing to the conglomerate’s CEO, Héctor Magnetto. The list was pretty long.
As it stands now, the story line ahead seems fixed: Plot point December 7 arrives, Grupo Clarín declines to downsize, government takes action (format yet to be defined but crucial to the saga), Grupo Clarín cries foul and moves his victim play to the international arena. The outcome, overall, looks pretty bad for Argentina’s reputation.