Wednesday, May 29, 2024

OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 20-04-2024 06:07

The worst journalists in the world

Milei wants to control the narrative and, by doing so, change the way Argentines think about the world. Does hurling insults at journalists help win him more adherents?

After several months in office, Javier Milei has come to the conclusion that the Argentine press is “the worst sewer in the universe.” Is he right? When it comes to deciding which country’s journalists are the vilest and most venal on the planet, if not the entire universe, the competition is fierce. In other parts of the world, there are plenty of public figures, such as the UK’s Prince Harry, who think that the journalists who pester them are by far the nastiest to be found anywhere on earth, and it may be assumed that in the US Donald Trump takes a similarly low view of those who work for the presumably obsolete “legacy media” and take delight in attacking him and his supporters.  

Seeing that the long duel between the Bad Orange Man and The New York Times, otherwise known as “the Gray Lady,” greatly benefits both of them, it is likely to continue until the two have departed this life. Getting berated by leading politicians helps boost the circulation of newspapers which find it is in their interest to give those they most hate huge amounts of free publicity. Had it not been for its frenetic campaign against Trump, North America’s best-known daily could have gone the way of many others which had to migrate from print to computer screens. For Trump, the hostility of media that cater to the college-educated “elites” is a valuable political resource.

No doubt in most other countries there are many politicians who, like Milei and Trump, feel, or pretend to feel, that the local press treats them most unfairly and deserves to rot in hell for its sins, but unless they are extremely naïve, they are well aware that being the target of trenchant criticism can be far better than going unnoticed. As Oscar Wilde once put it, “There’s only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” This has always been true for men and women whose income or status depends on their personal image.

The image consultants who are close to the president will have taken note of the Trump phenomenon and may well have decided that squabbling with journalists should go down well with parts of the electorate they have yet to win over, but rather more influential than such political calculations will have been Milei’s famously explosive temperament. He skyrocketed to prominence and then went on to win last year’s elections by flailing out wildly against anyone who came with range. That did him no harm, so perhaps he sees no good reason why he should assume a more measured and statesmanlike posture.

Like Trump, Milei takes it for granted that “social media,” the endlessly proliferating electronic channels through which people can communicate with one another and by doing so shape public opinion, are replacing the newspapers, magazines and big television companies that once had the field to themselves. They can take heart from the knowledge that the average age of the people who regularly read print media tends to go up, with the younger folk who are replacing them relying on what comes to them through their laptops or smartphones. They also know that a catchy slogan can be much more effective than the most brilliantly argued economic or philosophical treatise.

To make the most of the changes being brought about by headlong technological progress, savvy politicians are raising armies of trolls, many of whom are volunteers who do not get paid for their services.  Assisting them and keeping them in line are mercenaries who are in it for the money. They all take it upon themselves to steer public opinion in the direction their leader thinks is most desirable.

Just how effective trolls are is an open question. Milei, Trump and others may have been helped by their friends in social media, but their adversaries surely made a far bigger contribution to their electoral successes than any “influencer” who contrives to pile up millions of “likes” on some popular electronic platform.

There is little really new about any of this. Much the same happened under the old “legacy media” dispensation which lasted for a couple of centuries until the Internet arrived and the tech giants quickly deprived newspapers and magazines of most of what they earned from advertising. Back then, politicians allied themselves with “press barons” who told their journalistic vassals what to say and what to overlook, but as just about everybody knew perfectly well what was going on, it was on the whole far easier to distinguish between blatantly dishonest propaganda and straightforward reporting. What is more, in the most respected newspapers, editors did their best to distinguish between opinion or analysis on the one hand and factual information on the other.

In the age of social media, making sense of what is happening seems far harder than used to be the case. There are now so many different sources of information, with new ones managed by individuals few have heard of constantly appearing, that even those who spend their time trying to keep track can be easily confused. Fewer people than was once the case show even a fleeting interest in current affairs and, with education in crisis in most Western countries, the minority that knows enough about the past to put things in an historical context is shrinking fast.

Milei wants to “control the narrative” and, by doing so, change the way Argentines think about the world. Does hurling insults at journalists who express their disapproval of his behaviour compare him with Néstor Kirchner, or ask inconvenient questions about the “four-legged children” he is devoted to, help win him more adherents? He seems to think so, but his evident inability to put up with even mild criticism, or what he assumes to be such, only hands more ammunition to the many who want him to come crashing down to earth not because they think he is dangerously unstable but because they want Argentina to continue to be a corrupt and corporatist country in which those with political connections can prosper mightily with the rest being reduced to poverty.

Many targets of the presidential wrath are, broadly speaking, on his side. People like Jorge Lanata, Joaquin Morales Sola, Jorge Fernández Diaz and, of course, Perfil’s creator Jorge Fontevecchia, know perfectly well that, unpleasant as belt-tightening most certainly is, public spending must be cut to the bone and that for Argentina to have a decent future, she will have to embrace free-market capitalism with considerable fervour. While all will disagree with some aspects of Milei’s programme, they have no interest in ensuring that it shares the fate of so many others that, after chalking up some early successes, petered out leaving the country even worse off than it had been before.

James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).


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