Having heard not one but two harangues last week by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) regarding The New York Times’ lack of ethics and presumed alignment with previous corrupt administrations, I couldn’t resist calling Tim Golden. Golden was the tenacious 1990’s Times correspondent in Mexico who shared a Pulitzer Prize with Times colleagues for their fearless coverage of the corruption wrought by drug trafficking.
So what was it like being so cozy with those nefarious, neoliberal mafias del poder? Golden, now an Editor at Large at ProPublica, chuckled, then mentioned that one of his very first stories when he arrived in Mexico in 1991, coincidentally enough, was about the government’s efforts to suppress news of a cholera outbreak in the state of Oaxaca. He said the Salinas de Gortari and Zedillo administrations were also quick to express their displeasure at the Times when such stories appeared. They rarely had substantive rebuttals, but instead made vague accusations that the newspaper and its sources were trying to subvert their transformation of Mexico (plus ça change).
AMLO went after the Times in two of his mañanera press conferences (on the same week Reforma received a phoned-in bomb threat claiming to come from the Sinaloa Cartel) because of the newspaper’s May 8 front-page story suggesting Mexico has undercounted Covid-19 cases. But instead of sticking to a rebuttal of the article on its merits, AMLO said the Times – along with The Washington Post, the Financial Times, and El País – may be among the world’s most famous newspapers, but that they have “no ethics.” He accused them of lying and slandering, on account of their different worldview. The reasoning became a bit muddled, but AMLO seemed to suggest that these foreign papers were conspiring against him because (like all conservatives and Reforma) they resist his transformation of Mexico.
Donald Trump would be proud of AMLO’s performance, not to mention his characterization of The New York Times. AMLO’s constant vilification of media brings to mind an anecdote in the Committee to Protect Journalists’ report authored by my ASU Cronkite School colleague and former Washington Post executive editor Len Downie on The Trump Administration and the Media. He recounts how, in late 2016 when President-elect Trump was about to go on 60 Minutes for an interview, Leslie Stahl asked him off-camera why he kept incessantly attacking the media after winning the election. Trump replied: “I do it to discredit you all and demean you all, so that, when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”
Governments have every right to question critical reporting and push back with substantive counterarguments or context as part of a healthy, continuous dialogue between those in power and those seeking to inform the public about their activities. But the Trump/AMLO approach is to simply discredit the press’ legitimacy, integrity and motives. Their MAGA/4th Transformation populist projects do not appreciate independence of thought, pesky questioning, or constructive criticism. You are either a cheerleader or, as Trump describes media, “the enemy of the people.” This is a profoundly anti-democratic worldview that has little patience for such inconveniences as an independent judiciary or press.
Autocratic regimes around the world, as Downie notes in his CPJ report, have been taking their cues from the Trumpian rhetoric, interpreting it as permission, if not encouragement, to silence critics. The United States and Mexico are not autocratic regimes, so our republics are left to hover in this uncomfortable experiment of seeing what could go wrong when autocratic thinking takes charge of supposedly democratic governments. Meanwhile, given the AMLO/Trump characterization of the press as corrupt and dishonest, it is not surprising that in both countries impressionable followers may be inspired to threaten journalists.
The widespread assumption in today’s toxic, polarized environment is that we all act out of craven partisan interests; that we can’t owe loyalty to any larger guiding principles or convictions (pursuit of the truth, love of country, rule of law, you name it). AMLO’s worldview can’t accept that the same newspaper raising questions about his administration’s Covid-19 stats would have reported on an outbreak of cholera his political antagonists tried to keep under wraps when they were in power. Nor can AMLO’s followers acknowledge that the same Times correspondent they are smearing as corrupt for his Covid story is the same able journalist who broke this shocking story in 2017 about the previous administration’s tracking of critics (including Reforma’s current top editor) via phone spyware.
I had a small taste of how quickly and cynically people equate independent thought with blind partisanship when I wrote an op-ed for The Los Angeles Times last week critical of AMLO’s response to the pandemic. My email inbox and Twitter feed were flooded with vitriolic accusations that I was in cahoots with the elites that formerly ran the country, whom I had never dared criticize.
Funny they should say that last part. Undoubtedly the most impactful thing I ever wrote critical of a Mexican administration in my years interpreting Mexico to US audiences was a 2004 editorial in The New York Times when I was a member of its editorial board. It was on Marta Sahagún, conservative President Vicente Fox’s wife, and the corrosive influence of her political ambitions and controversial charitable foundation on Mexico’s evolving democracy. Expressing the views of the institution after our board’s discussion of the matter, the editorial titled “Mexico’s Evita” proved devastating to Los Pinos. Some of Fox’s advisors complained we were trying to help AMLO. But the agenda, then as now, was a concern for my country’s democracy and rule of law.
Golden first met AMLO when the former PRI man was protesting his loss to Roberto Madrazo in Tabasco’s 1994 gubernatorial race, an election marred by allegations of fraud. AMLO’s power to mobilize protesters launched his national career, eventually leading him to Mexico City’s mayoralty and beyond. Golden remembers him back then as an opposition figure who craved and applauded the Times’ investigations into governmental corruption and malfeasance.
Nowadays, Golden said, “AMLO realizes he doesn’t need the media on his side the way his predecessors did.” Like plenty of Latin American populists before him, and Trump north of the border, AMLO understands he can bypass the press and address the Mexican public directly, and that there’s upside in characterizing journalists as the adversary. But back in the 1990s, PRI presidents were desperate to court US media, lest the American people and their representatives in Washington sour on closer ties with Mexico within a new free trade area. AMLO is less concerned with US public opinion, and is also aware that nowadays our “famous” media outlets are not the proxy they once might have been for US public opinion or for the policymaking establishment’s worldview.
On the contrary, by calling the Times all sorts of names, AMLO is simply falling in line with Trump.
In his May 15 harangue on the world’s most famous newspapers’ lack of ethics, AMLO said we all need to engage in soul-searching to learn the lessons of this pandemic, so that we can emerge into a new normal with new behaviors, akin to washing our hands and watching our diet. Here’s hoping the president accepts his own invitation and emerges from this period with a higher degree of tolerance for independent thought, constructive criticism, and the role of the press in a free society.
* Andrés Martínez is a professor of practice in the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University and the editorial director of Future Tense, a Washington, D.C.-based ideas journalism partnership between ASU, Slate magazine, and New America .Twitter: @AndresDCmtz