Horacio Verbitsky, one of Argentina's most iconic journalists on the national media landscape, the use and power of government advertising and the crisis facing the media industry at large.
Horacio Verbitsky holds the distinction of being one of Argentina’s most famous journalists and, at the same time, one of its most controversial ones.
With a half-century of experience in the trade, he has published over 20 books and thousands of articles. His investigations have exposed massive government corruption during former president Carlos Menem’s administration, human rights violations committed during the last military dictatorship, the Church’s complicity with the Junta’s leaders and raised questions over Pope Francis’ behaviour in those dark days.
While his detractors accuse Verbitsky of being a double-agent (due to his previous affiliation with the Montoneros guerrilla movement) and criticise him for not investigating graft during the Kirchnerite administrations (which he was well-known for sympathising with), no-one can deny his ability to discover, disseminate, analyze and publish groundbreaking investigations. Nicknamed “El Perro” for his dogged determination in uncovering stories, at 76 years of age he shows no signs of slowing down.
At a time when the media industry is gripped in crisis, both in Argentina and globally, Verbitsky has suffered too. In his own words, he was pressured to leave his post as the lead columnist of the Pagina/12 newspaper, a decision that prompted him to begin his own digital publication, El Cohete de la Luna, last year.
With hundreds of journalists having lost their jobs over the past three years, the Times interviewed Verbitsky about this new era at his iconic, small office near the Supreme Court, which is plastered with pictures, article and magazine covers from periods of Argentina’s history. Wearing his trademark jacket, tie, and sweater, El Perro discussed the challenges that lie ahead and how we got here.
How do you evaluate the situation the media faces in Argentina these days?
Terrible, the situation is bad. It is one of the worst moments. It’s difficult to remember a worse time.
When you compare today to when you started in the 1960s?
In the 1960s when I began, journalism practically didn’t exist. Today, yes [it does].
Do you have an opinion about this era, where the value of a journalist is beginning to be measured by how many ‘likes’ they receive or the number of people that follow them?
I’m completely indifferent. It isn’t measured that way. I care about it as much as I care about what colour their ties are.
How do you analyze the evolution of the media, dating back to Carlos Menem’s administration in the 1990s, when the Internet had just begun, to the Kirchnerite era, when social networks began to have more influence, compared to today? In a period where the majority of advertising is spent on social networks instead of media outlets…
The issue of advertisements has to do with the sustainability of the media. The Menem administration manipulated government advertising funds but looking at it retrospectively it was naive in comparison to what is happening today, where there is a great perversity in this respect. Today, not only are they using the funds to reward and punish the media, but they are also using social networks to distort facts. In this sense, not only was Menem naive but also the Kirchners were, in the way they managed this issue. We are now at another level, [one] which is entirely distinct. And in this sense, the Cambiemos coalition has incorporated all the novelties that exist in the world.
How do you think this is affecting readership? Now, people are reading news completely different. They go directly to their social media accounts. Instead of buying newspapers, they read from Facebook or Twitter.
The reader is changing, but I think that there are things which remain the same. There are issues that interest them more or less. The reader tends to pay attention to the proliferation of sources and conflicting versions.
For example, in what we recently saw with the investigation into fake electoral campaign contributors [Note: Verbitsky was interviewed prior to the notebooks scandal breaking]. Well, this was revealed and investigated by a small digital media organisation. For a month, the large media companies and the government were persistently silent. However, a month later, the political issue began to grow stronger, and they couldn’t continue hiding it … when they perceived that that issue was hurting President Macri’s image, they acted rapidly. So, for example, the president calls the governor of Buenos Aires Province [María Eugenia Vidal] and says ‘Take care of it. You created this problem, not me, but it’s hitting me.’ And this forces the governor to lay off an advisor of extreme confidence, which she had designated for a high-ranking post the day before.
A small media outlet with a very young 25-year-old journalist was able to shake a whole power structure.
Would this have happened in the 1960s or 1970s, so easily?
No, for example, Rodolfo Walsh when he does his investigation into the executions of 1956, the massacre operation, he explains that he had thought his research would have enormous repercussions. He believed that news organisations would want the information but afterwards, not only did they not seek it, they silenced the news. He was able to very slowly spread the news of his investigation, after several articles in tiny, marginal newspapers, and publishing a book.
Now that book is considered the masterpiece of Argentine journalism. But at that moment, when he first released his investigation, it didn’t have even the smallest effect. I think in this day and age, Walsh would have had a much quicker impact then he did at that moment.
And what is your opinion about the global Internet giants such as Google and Facebook that are capturing 90 percent of the online ad revenue? Should some legal action be taken against them? Should the government step in?
I think there should be regulations. They can’t be on the open range hunting small animals with impunity.
In a recent article, you highlighted that it is not journalism that is in a crisis, but the means of communication. Do you think this will end well for journalists?
Well, that things will end well for journalists might be an excessive presumption to make. [But] there will always be space for journalistic work, as long as they fulfil a necessity. Now, doing this in precarious and marginal conditions, with scarce resources – it’s not good for the journalists or society. It demonstrates there is a stiff resistance, despite all the concentration and manipulation in the media sector. There are still open spaces. It’s not the same situation, as perverse as it was, during the dictatorships. There is a difference, and we need to take advantage of it. But I don’t consider this will end well (chuckles). Our situation is bad. But now the giant media conglomerates have lost a good part of their credibility. Not all of them, but some.
No. No, I won’t say in detail. It’s just a general reflection.
You also highlighted that the most significant news organisations are being used to obtain advantages from the state in lucrative businesses or in exchange for good relations. Are some trying to be more objective with the news? Or are they all partial in one form or another?
There are some that try to and others that don’t. There are differences without a doubt.
Which news organizations are trying to be more objective?
It depends on the moments and issues. I prefer to pick out those that directly do not worry about being objective. For example, Clarín, where the first headline to the last story is in function of their economic, business interests, or to obtain a concession from the state, to enter another type of business… their intentions are very clear.
How do you compare the use of government advertising funds today compared to when the Kirchners were in power? In your book, Vida del Perro, you say that the previous government was very clumsy in how they handled the media.
Well, the fact that they took away government advertising funds from the media [outlets] that bothered the State; to me, it was a great mistake on the part of the government. And it didn’t end up giving them the result they wanted. Furthermore, to not pay attention to the ruling of the Supreme Court, or decisions from the Inter-American system in defence of human rights isn’t an intelligent policy.
How do you see the political transformation of the media? During the Kirchnerite-era, Clarín, La Nación, and Infobae, for example, were very negative. Today, how do you evaluate the evolution of Argentina’s newspapers and their editorial lines?
I think it is legitimate for a news organisation to have their political line, that coincides with some things and others not, and that they display this openly – as long as there is diversity in the media and a plurality of voices. The issue is the coherence of each news organisation. If it had a particular line, and then it modifies it when the government changes.
What do you think about the effect that fake news is having? In the United States, it had a significant influence on the previous election. In Argentina, how do you see the effect of fake news?
Well, first we need to define what we are referring to when we use such a broad term. In the US, since Jeff Bezos (Amazon’s CEO) purchased The Washington Post, President Trump and it have repeatedly accused each other of spreading fake news. Well, one of the two must be telling the truth and the other not. Evaluating it on a case-by-case basis is necessary. If you read The Post, every statement Trump says is false. And if you read Trump’s tweets, the media is the enemy of the people and the nation and is creating false narratives about reality.
The idea behind fake news is that the press is used as a weapon against an adversary. That is why we need to be careful and review it on a case-by-case basis.
For example, in Argentina when in the Clarín newspaper a journalist like Daniel Santoro publishes an article saying that [former security minister] Nilda Garré and Máximo Kirchner had a bank account in the US, with the Felton Bank, and that’s proven false. And then Clarín uses that fake news, and even when the bank denies it, Santoro doesn’t accept the lie. And when the US government then says that the account and the documents never existed, not only is that news false, it is deliberately false. For me, this is the most extreme example that we’ve seen of fake news in Argentina in many years.
I’m also referring to small media organisations that publish fake news, which is then shared by millions of people. Do you see this affecting Argentina?
Well, here the difference is that they aren’t small marginal media, but the most important newspaper in the country that spreads fake news. And that’s a significant difference.
With regards to the closure of news agencies, such as DyN, and how the state news service Telám laid off 300 people. What effect do you think this will have on news from the various local and regional areas in Argentina?
The issue of Télam is serious because, in reality, it was the only medium of communication that reached the whole country at a national level. It not only collected information but also distributed it throughout the country like a capillary network. This will be felt. But it’s what the government wants. It gives them free range to do their media operations, with their methods, votes, trolls and all the mechanisms that they know how to manage much better than anyone else.
Do you think the government should have a greater role in protecting the media? For example, publications that were closed, like the Buenos Aires Herald, due to corruption and poor administration. Should the State do more to try to protect small newspapers from dying off?
I think that in some cases the attempt to save them is justified. For example, you mentioned the Herald,[a paper] with a history with more than a century of existence, that played an essential role in the history of Argentina in the dictatorship. It would have justified support.
Now, it’s not easy to see how the State should have supported it.
Should the State have helped the company that led it to its bankruptcy?
Well, that is debatable. Without a doubt, there should have been a distribution of the government funding that allows for the sustenance of small, regional and national media, and the more legitimate large media.
But this isn’t a simple issue and requires the gathering of sectors from civil society, communicators, from those that produce media for consumption, so that they form criteria that would be acceptable for everyone. But I don’t think this government is willing to dialogue with those sectors.
Some experts say social networks are creating more polarised societies. Do you see this happening in Argentina?
Yes, I think so. Everyone watches or reads what interests them. And that in a way limits the richness of the flow of information. But I think there is a considerable disequilibrium because everyone is not on the same level. There is a sector that is much more powerful in the diffusion of information that can project its vision over the whole with much more ease.
With the disappearance of many media organisations, there are still new ones being created, such as your news website El Cohete a la Luna. It doesn’t have a primary sponsor or company supporting it. How do you see the future of this type of outlet? Do you think it will replace the need for a company with substantial financial backing or government funding behind it?
I don’t know if it will replace it, but at the moment they can coexist. And we are demonstrating this, but it’s uphill. It’s very hard. Now, these things were never easy. And I don’t idealise the past at all. I’m conscious of the problems in the present, and they worry me, but I don’t at all long for the past. The situation, as bad as it is now, is better than what we had to face in other periods of history.
And how is your site doing?
It’s going very well. We are having a lot of page visits, a lot of readers, and a significant effect. We are happy. Full-time, the team is very small. We are five to six people, no more. Then there are collaborators – but no more.
Do you have plans to expand?
Yes, in measure with the public interest for our news. But the numbers are growing.
You left Página/12 last October. Why did you leave exactly?
I left because the government threatened the newspaper and its owner after I published my investigation about the whitewashing and the president and his family’s undeclared funds. And I didn’t want them to use that as a pretext to close the paper. I said that publicly.
What were the threats exactly?
You should speak directly with the newspaper’s employees about that.
When will you publish the rest of the list of people who whitewashed their money?
I don’t know if I will publish the rest of the list. I will see.
And today how is your relation with Página/12 and its owner , union leader Víctor Santa María?
I sometimes read Página/12.
Do you think someday you will return and write for them?
I don’t plan to. But I also can’t say that it will never happen.