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March 29, 2017
Friday, February 10, 2017

An agenda-less 2017

By Marcelo J. García
For The Herald

Argentina’s public agenda is adrift. The government started the New Year just as it had finished the last: hoping for the economic recovery to happen, somehow, still to no avail. The opposition is meanwhile trying to figure out whether the government will fail or succeed, and speculates on what tone to adopt as the midterm elections start to loom on the horizon. Both are struggling to understand what is going on — and above all what’s going to happen — in the world under Trump. And the media is not shedding any light on the whole affair.

The greatest press paradox of the Macri era is the newspaper La Nación. Last month the paper broke the story that the head of the country’s spies had received in 2013 five suspicious bank transfers that were likely linked to the Lava Jato corrupcion scandal in Brazil. Federal Intelligence Agency (AFI) chief Gustavo Arribas is a close friend of Mauricio Macri’s and the president actually defended him in public saying that the allegations against him amounted to “a tale.” Not without a series of contradictions, Arribas said he had only received one transfer for the sale of a flat — something he later adjusted to the sale of the furniture in a flat.

But instead of boasting what clearly amounted to a “scoop-of-the-year” candidate, La Nación did everything in its power to first bury and second play down the story, actually giving more front-page space to the government’s defence of Arribas than to the actual story reporting the facts. Hugo Alconada Mon, the journalist who published the first story based on court statements by financier Leonardo Meirelles, went on untimely holidays two days after his piece was published and did not follow up on the story in the following days, something very unusual for reporters with such a relevant story on their plate. Alconada Mon came back from his vacations early this week.

La Nación’s main commercial competitor but press buddy Clarín is in turn placing its entire journalistic might on the character assassination of former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, unveiling new corruption scandals by the minute and making a huge deal out of them. While the bad news on Fernández de Kirchner appears in banner headlines, those of Macri are most of the time only buried on less visible opinion pages.

Members of the country’s elite business association AEA, both La Nación and Clarín are trying not to play hardball on the government. To do that, they are keeping their front pages away from big controversies. But in the process, this mainstream media is finding it difficult to produce an interesting and engaging alternative agenda for the public. There isn’t much good news around. For the media it is always easier to oppose and denounce the government, and so far that gap has been filled by the denunciation of the previous administration’s corruption (which was indeed ample) instead.

The combination of an ailing economy and a political and media establishment incapable of hammering out a hopeful agenda is a combo Argentina should be wary about. The country is going to the polls in the second half of the year and there does not seem to be many great ideas out there on how to motivate the voters.

A public opinion poll by the firm OhPanel distributed by Grupo Clarín in its weekly newsletter “Nuestra Palabra” (Our word, http://cor.to/1jqY ) showed a deterioration of Argentine institutions in terms of public reputation. The media, of course, was not the exception. The Grupo Clarín newsletter rightfully boasted that its newspaper Clarín got the best score and so did its broadcast TV channel Canal 13 and its radio station Radio Mitre. But the broader picture is that only 13 percent of the public has a positive opinion of the media, down from 16 percent a year ago.

The poll placed NEOs at the top of the public’s esteem, but also the government does better than the media, with an approval of 20 percent. The unions, in contrast, come in last, with only four percent of the public giving them the thumbs up.

All ears

Something even more rotten adds to the feeling that there is an agenda vacuum the establishment might not be noticing ­ or not paying attention to.

The court and intelligence underworld have been distributing tapes and transcripts exposing prominent figures. In the last two weeks there have been transcripts of Fernández de Kirchner speaking to her aides that served in her government but also of the president of Boca Juniors, Daniel Angelici, who is an ally and friend of President Macri’s.

In a country where a federal prosecutor with ties to the spy community like Alberto Nisman was found dead in circumstances yet to be determined, anything that smells of illegal manipulation of information to extort people should be handled with great care. Beyond the temptation of increasing audience ratings and the morbid details, the media has a fundamental responsibility to question the origin and purpose of the use of such information, if it was obtained illegally and if its publication breaks the law. The risk: an information loop that might get out of control.


@mjotagarcia

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