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A critique of reporting on Mexico

21 May 2011

A journalist doesn’t have to live like an impoverished local. But the less local life you experience the less you can do your job, and this is what readers need to understand. The average person anywhere in the world goes to work and comes back home. He knows little about people outside his social class, ethnic group, neighborhood, or city. As a journalist you are making judgments on an entire country and interpreting it for others, but you don’t know the country because you don’t really live in it. You spend twenty hours a day in seclusion from the country. You have no basis for judgment because to you Iraq is out there, the red zone, and the pace of filing can make this even harder.

U.S. journalist and reporter, Nir Rosen in “A Critique of Reporting on the Middle East” (Jadaliyya, “an independent ezine produced by Arab Studies Institute)

I am thankful to the Agonist, for its link to Rosen’s essay, since a journal for Arab affairs nerds is not my normal reading:  narrow specialization in our own field being an industrial ailment to which scholars and journalists (even self-defined ones) are particularly prone.

The essay is well worth reading, whatever our specialty.  What Rosen writes about about U.S. (and “western”) journalists in the middle-east applies as well to any of us writing about countries not our own, even when the reporter is someone like Rosen, a bona fide scholar of the particular corner of the planet he happens to write about, and where he lives, and who can make a living from his writing, with paychecks from heavy hitters like Rolling Stone and the New York Times.

Too often consumers of mainstream media are victims of a fraud. You think you can trust the articles you read, why wouldn’t you, you think you can sift through the ideological bias and just get the facts. But you don’t know the ingredients that go into the product you buy. It is important to understand how knowledge about current events in the Middle East is produced before relying on it. Even when there are no apparent ideological biases such as those one often sees when it comes to reporting about Israel, there are fundamental problems at the epistemological and methodological level. These create distortions and falsehoods and justify the narrative of those with power.

According to the French intellectual and scholar Francois Burgat, there are two main types of intellectuals tasked with explaining the “other” to Westerners. He and Bourdieu describe the “negative intellectual” who aligns his beliefs and priorities with those of the state and centers his perspective on serving the interest of power and gaining proximity to it. And secondly, there is what Burgat terms as “the façade intellectual,” whose role in society is to confirm to Western audiences their already-held notions, beliefs, preconceptions, and racisms regarding the “other.” Journalists writing for the mainstream media, as well as their local interlocutors, often fall into both categories.

While I have carped for years that Latin America receives much less attention from the media than it deserves, and sometimes am happy enough to see Latin American news in the mainstream media, even when it is less than as detailed as I would like, it seems that Rosen’s “Critique” applies equally well to this part of the world.  We fully expect ideological biases when the subject is, say,  Cuba or  Venezuela (knowing for certain anything in the Wall Street Journal or Miami Herald will be uniformly negative), it isn’t so easy when the subject is, for example, Mexico.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t good journalists (mainstream and otherwise) who aren’t doing a good job in Mexico, or elsewhere in Latin America, but that they operate under the same limitations as any journalist in any “outside” culture.

The ideological biases are perhaps more subtle (no one “explains” Mexico by crude half-baked notions of Roman Catholicism, the way Arabs are “explained” in terms of a shallow sense of Islam, for example) but the ideological biases certainly exist.  I’ve heard more than one good reporter complain privately or publicly that even if they want to write about something else, they have to bring in the “drug war”.   … or whatever the euphemism is today. Ganchoblog — Patrick being one of those who sometimes is a mainstream journalist and has to make a living — has complained about this, as have other journalists (off and on the record), proposing the “Crowbar Award” for those reporters who somehow manage to slip in mention of narcotics smuggling into any news item about Mexico.

Rosen mentions something similar, writing, “I once asked my editor at the New York Times Magazine if I could write about a subject outside the Muslim world. He said even if I was fluent in Spanish and an expert on Latin America I wouldn’t be published if it wasn’t about jihad.”  Had he been sent to Mexico, undoubtedly, he would have been expected to write on supposed jihadist activity in this part of the world (don’t laugh… even National Public Radio found it necessary to report on length on a “latino” Islamic convert suspected of terrorist activities, as a worrisome trend).

Countering “jihad” is the justification for U.S. belligerence in the Middle East, therefore, to support the ideology, “jihad” is the focus of U.S. media attention.    Similarly, U.S. intervention in Mexico is justified for now on the premise that it is designed to counter narcotics smuggling making it ideologically unwise to focus attention on the very good reasons the narcotics industry exists (like the damage done to Mexican agriculture by NAFTA).

When I first moved here, every mention of a Mexico City neighborhood that wasn’t one where the mainstream media types lived (or, rather, where the official sources lived) was described as the “teeming slums”.  I half-seriously suggested that “teeming slum of” was the name of most colonias in Mexico City .  I hadn’t heard of Francois Burgat, but his terms make perfect sense.  “Teeming slums” was short-hand for “desperately poor” (and, by extension “not our kind” — “façade intellectualism” meant to explain the popularity of, at that time, the  “leftist firebrand,” Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.  It was left to the  “negative intellectuals” to explain (as they did ad naseum in the mainstrem press) that  “populism” was an ideological danger equaled only by “jihad terrorists”.

The problem is that the reading public is cheated.  Both the “terrorism” we read about in the mainstream press in connection with the Middle East, and populism of the Latin American variety are reactions to the imposition of policies based on social and political biases not shared by the people (among whom the journalists really have no connection).

Certainly, those of us foreigners who fancy ourselves ” local interlocutors” share many of the same traits as the mainstream journalists.  While a few of us have come close to living as “impoverished locals”, the reality is we are conscious of that impoverishment (and write about it in foreign languages) as an experience of the “others” — as poverty tourists.

More than a few who comment from (and on) Mexico manage to live secluded from their neighbors and from those outside their own social class.  We are always tempted to make generalizations about the country and its cultures (if we remember there are many cultures, and many different classes in the country) based on very little direct knowledge of anything outside our own narrow experience.

Not expecting any ties to the power elites here, I hope to at least have avoided falling into the trap of becoming a “negative intellectual” and my own biases (unapologetically admitted and openly expressed)  have seldom aligned with the “official” biases expressed in the mass media, and hopefully saving me from working as a “façade intellectual”.

Of course,  this is not, and never will be a “mainstream media” site.  Or all that influential.  Not that it was ever intended to be either mainstream or influential (though I’m pleasantly surprised it has some minor influence).  It’s more important to me — and more important for those who care about Mexican events — that more focus be put on “the ingredients that go into the product you buy.”

That product is largely the creation of  both negative and façade intellectuals of the past, which just happens to the subject of a book I’ve been putting off, and need to put my time into.  At the end of this month, I’ll be on indefinite “sabbatical”, posting Mex Files only occasionally.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 21 May 2011 9:01 am

    Good luck with your next book Richard. If you can top “Gods Gauchupines and Gringos” then more power to you. Your writing style is very balanced and you provide much food for thought.

  2. 17 June 2011 12:54 am

    I have heard excellent comments about “Gods Gauchupines and Gringos”, my couin toldme that is is a thoughtful and insightful analysis of mexican culture, it has got to be my next book to read.

    I will share this post witn my clasmates, its interesting, thanks

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