Wednesday, April 8, 2020

OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 03-03-2018 13:00

Marcos Peña and the paradox of free speech

The letter delineates its vision for the media ecosystem. In what purports to be a defence of free speech lies a thinly veiled message to traditional media companies essentially telling them to sink or swim. On their own.

The death of traditional media has long been predicted. Newspapers have been agonising since before the dot-com bubble, while Netflix and other streaming services are expected to finally destroy television, the dominant platform for the past half-century. For many, this is just how it should be, as natural selection weeds off the weak and gives way to those best adapted to the present and future. Yet, this vision of reality could cause great damage to society, as the progressive depletion of newsrooms continues in the face of a difficult digital environment where technological platforms like Google and Facebook have squeezed media companies to the point where many journalists are being fired.

It is troubling to see that many in the Mauricio Macri administration feel this way. This week, the Office of the Cabinet Chief, Marcos Peña, put out its tenth public letter, titled “Freedom of Expression and Public Media,” where it delineates its vision for the media ecosystem. In what purports to be a defence of free speech lies a thinly veiled message to traditional media companies essentially telling them to sink or swim. On their own.

“The government understands that the media industry is changing, through a period of transition that hasn’t given way to a sustainable model after the rise of digital tools,” reads the letter, noting that, “recently several media companies have closed down, including century-old titles like El Gráfico and the Buenos Aires Herald, taking with them jobs and cultural richness.” The causes of said demises, the letter lists, were a dependence on official advertising budgets, indolent owners failing to make the effort to adapt to the “new rules of the game,” and “defeat” at the hands of technological change and fragmented audiences.

In a brilliant column titled “Spielberg’s Message to Macri,” Perfil’s CEO Gustavo Gonzalez uses the film The Post as an excuse to compare the media ecosystem in the 1970s, when the Washington Post published the Pentagon Papers that helped topple the presidency of Richard Nixon, and today. While our current readership is the largest its ever been (because of the web), that “success hasn’t translated into economic sustainability,” Gonzalez argues, as we’ve lost 2,000 newsroom jobs in Argentina since 2015, while the United States has seen its journalist population decimated, falling from 55,000 to 27,000 over the last decade.

Close to Macri and Peña, traditional media companies are seen as archaic. Like any other business, they must adapt to the brutal reality of the market, and if they cannot become economically successful, then they must perish. Survival of the fittest. At the same time, communication is about efficiency and emotion, and therefore social media — not traditional media — is where the battle for the heart and soul of the nation is fought, and won. As Gonzalez puts it, “the Macrista instinct, by nature and age, wasn’t formed in the republican schools of the 20th century but in the hypermodernity of the 21st. Its essence comes not from political science but business school and private industry.”

In their new metaphysics of power, politicians, like celebrities and athletes, can speak directly to the population without the intermediation of journalists. Facebook, Twitter and SnapChat generate transparency, as Mauricio Macri, Juliana Awada and their young daughter Antonia are constantly in plain sight. “No one cares about politics,” said Julian Gallo, head of Macri’s digital strategy in a radio interview with María Laura Santillan in late 2016, “what we are seeing across the globe is that people search for topics that interpret what’s happening in their own lives.” Gallo, who has predicted the end of traditional media at the hands of Facebook and other social platforms, literally acknowledges that the government’s communication strategy is based on the creation and use of filter bubbles.

Internet activist Eli Pariser coined the term “filter bubble” to refer to the tyranny of the algorithmic personalisation of the web, where one’s own views and prejudices are deepened by Google and Facebook’s attempts at showing you what they think is relevant to you. In a polarised and digitally connected world, filter bubbles allow for the rise of fake news and misinformation campaigns, while at the same time allowing tech savvy strategists to help the unexpected election of political underdogs such as Macri and Donald Trump.

The cure, of course, is to replace computers with people when it comes to informing the public. Professional journalists and media organisations that put their name and reputation on the line with every story. Editors and publishers willing to take risks, legal and physical, for a story they consider important, as Ben Bradlee and Katharine Graham did when they decided to publish the Pentagon Papers in the 1970s. Or as Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak did, investigating the ties of Prime Minister Robert Fico and the Italian criminal organization ‘Ndrangheta. Kuciak, 27-years-old, was gunned down last Sunday along with his girlfriend in the town of Velka Maca, 65 kilometres from Bratislava. His story, unfinished, was published posthumously on Thursday.

In Argentina, professional journalism uncovered deep seated corruption in the governments of Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner years before the courts. We also ask questions about the Macri family’s business dealings close to the state, or the undeclared hedge fund run by Finance Minister Luis “Toto” Caputo, much to the government’s annoyance.

Marcos Peña is right in telling media companies to adapt to the future, as “the State has a limited capacity to generate the conditions for full freedom of speech,” as media companies and journalists are responsible for creating a new business model that is economically sustainable. Yet, it should work closely with media organisations in order to guarantee that “the conditions for full freedom of speech” aren’t obliterated by the power of digital transformation and the monopolistic dominance of Google and Facebook.

Agustino Fontevecchia

Agustino Fontevecchia

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