Lately the Buenos Aires Herald has been the subject of public debate and unfairly downgraded to “pro-government rag” or ever worse, a cursed publication.
Before I begin, and in the spirit of full disclosure, I would like to clarify that I was a part of the Herald.com staff for more than three years. And while my former colleagues certainly don’t need my help to defend themselves, as someone who was indirectly involved in the developments of the last few days I believe I have a responsibility (or at least the right) to chime in and clarify a few things.
Since the whole scandal surrounding the death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman began, the Buenos Aires Herald (the newspaper) and the Buenos Aires Herald.com (the website) have come under heavy criticism. First, for allegedly being in cahoots with Cristina Kirchner’s government, and second, for allegedly abandoning one of their own journalists, Damian Pachter, and/or throwing him to the wolves after he felt threatened and decided to leave the country.
I will not dwell into the Herald’s past and defend its actions by describing how Argentina’s oldest English newspaper played a key role in society during the last dictatorship, since it was the only publication that dared openly address the fact that the military government was making people disappear. On the contrary, I’d like to defend it by focusing on what the Herald stands for today.
I made a distinction above between the newspaper and the website because, while in the eyes of the general population they remain one and the same, they are, in fact, two different companies with two different newsrooms, different staff, different directors, different content and yes, they are even located on different floors. It’s true that the website inherits content from the print edition everyday, but their interaction is minimal and most of the time they function as two separate entities.
Most people, however, ignore this fact and see the Buenos Aires Herald brand as whole.
So when Pachter broke the story of Nisman’s death two weeks ago, it didn’t matter that he was a member of the Herald.com staff. To the world, he was a journalist working at the Buenos Aires Herald, period.
The rest of Damián’s week is now of public knowledge: his differences (and tension) with his editor at the time of breaking the story (tension that exists in any respectable newsroom, I might add), his exposure to the local media as the star journalist who broke the story, his decision to leave the country after fearing for his life, and eventually the letter he wrote to the Herald after landing safely in Israel, in which he categorically denied having a bad relationship with his editors.
The one highly questionable move since Damián left was, without a doubt, the decision to publish his flight itinerary on the Herald’s website, an action that was seen as confirmation that not only the newspaper was siding with the National Government, but it had also turned against one of its own journalists and joined the hunting party. The morning after, the print edition barely dedicated a line to mention Damián’s flight information but the damage had already been done.
Condemnation against the Herald was pervasive, even though the story was only featured on the homepage of the dot com. Sebastián Lacunza, the Editor-in-Chief of the newspaper, decided to fight criticism with an article in which he explained how the entire staff had stood by Damián, even though he admittedly only had “occasional dealings” with him due to the fact that they worked in separate newsrooms.
Unfortunately, and going by today’s article about the existence of a curse on the Herald, clarifications haven’t been very effective, at least not with those who don’t want to listen.
Then there’s the accusations of the Herald being nothing but a tabloid of government propaganda, a subservient bulletin that publishes daily and uncontested the many lies spewed by this poisonous administration. Accusations that are, again, inaccurate, but exploded last week after President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner used this Herald front page on one of the letters she posted on her personal website after Nisman’s death, as evidence that he didn’t have a case against her.
“I believe no one can accuse that English language newspaper of being close to or being co-opted by the Government,” she said. She couldn’t have been more wrong. But so were those criticizing the paper.
While the Herald does indeed write articles that cast a positive light on the government (I mean, if you think Cristina is doing something right, why shouldn’t you say it?), it also does the opposite, directing attention to its many problems, that range from failure to tackle climate change to drafting a bill that promotes state-sponsored xenophobia. There are also many columnists writing for the Herald on a regular basis. Some of them like the government, some of them don’t like the government.
Even this week, the Herald echoed the disappointment that came after the bill calling for the creation of the Federal Agency of Intelligence (AFI) was unveiled, and showed that most of the Secretariat of Intelligence’s spies would simply be transferred to the new AFI, meaning that the alleged overhaul was nothing more than a superficial change. “New intelligence agency, same old spies”, the headline read. Or, in other words, “nothing new”. A variation of the now infamous headline that Cristina posted and that many of those who back then shook their fists at the newspaper for its “staunch pro-Government” stance now failed to notice.
The Buenos Aires Herald’s deadly sin, if it could even be considered as such, is trying to walk the tightrope in a highly polarized, toxic, Hunger Games-like environment in which you’re expected to proudly display your loyalty to the antis or the ultras. Coloring outside the lines is strictly verboten, and failure to pledge your allegiance means immediate treason.
When you refuse to observe reality in the blackest or whitest of terms, you can be sure backlash is coming. Not from one side, but from both.
A few days after Nisman was found dead, we posted on The Bubble an opinion piece by Colin Docherty titled “Cristina Didn’t Kill Nisman. Here’s Why”.
As an op-ed – not a news article – Colin expressed why, in light of the information he had gathered in the case, he believed it was unlikely that the President had been personally involved in the murder of a high-profile prosecutor.
His opinion didn’t resonate well with many readers who not only criticized Colin and labeled him a Kirchnerite, but also accused The Bubble of siding with the National Government. Colin’s transgression – defying the preconceived notion that Cristina had already been taken to trial, found guilty of murder and convicted by public opinion – was an affront, and it didn’t matter that he was only expressing his personal opinion. In the eyes of many readers (some of them who didn’t even bother to read the piece), this website had decided to jump out in defense of Cristina and was complicit in Nisman’s murder.
Because when you’re inside the crowded sandbox of ideological polarization, there is simply no room for dissent. Op-eds equal editorials and you must either stand with or against.
After the President elevated the Herald to the national conversation last week, Lacunza was invited to tour the evening TV shows and explain why his newspaper, once a champion of human rights, was now defending an administration that in the eyes of many – including mine – will go down in history as a legion of corrupt, delusional fanatics who, despite taking former dictators to trial and passing landmark legislation such as the Universal Child Allowance or marriage equality, would stop at nothing to achieve their goals.
He accurately replied that the role of a newspaper “is not to satisfy its readers’ preconceived notions and speculation,” but to report the facts.
As the media industry continues to struggle for revenue and newspapers, radios, websites and networks accommodate their content to satisfy their polarized bases, it has become a nearly impossible challenge to remain steady on neutral ground, an outdated quality once attributed by many to the so-called “golden age” of journalism. These days, the pursuit of balance and journalistic ethics comes with a price.
That, I believe, is the true curse of the Herald.