After Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (known as AMLO) accused The New York Times of a lack of ethics when it published an article claiming that his government was underreporting the number of coronavirus deaths, Mexico News Daily found a subtle way of defending The Times. It did so not by confirming the contested facts of the Gray Lady’s article, but by finding a way to lightly mock AMLO’s discourse, much as The Times mocks US President Donald Trump’s behavioral tics.
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The Mexican president “blamed ‘neoliberalism’ — his favorite punching bag — for a deterioration of journalism in Mexico and the wider world, asserting that ‘alternate models’ need to be created ‘with the participation of the citizens,’” the website reports. Mexico News Daily gets in its dig while at the same time accurately conveying not only AMLO’s words but his ideas as well. The deliberately placed part about the punching bag suggests that AMLO, like Trump, sometimes lets his enthusiasm take his discourse beyond what is justified by the facts.
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Models of democratic communication that because they are at odds with the existing ones will never be tolerated in a global economy that continues to be governed by the rules of neoliberalism, in which only platforms built to make a profit deserve to have an audible voice in the community
Calling neoliberalism AMLO’s “favorite punching bag” suggests that his criticism is little more than a fabricated meme or a rhetorical trick, on a par with Trump’s mantra of “fake news.” That may be slightly disingenuous, but the Mexican journal does make a laudable effort to honestly and fairly describe the president’s position. In contrast with Trump’s usual stream-of-consciousness pronouncements, AMLO’s remark is not devoid of logic and deserves serious consideration. Many would agree that the “deterioration of journalism in Mexico and the wider world” is a correct description of reality.
Rather than simply complain, Lopez Obrador asserts that society should be seeking ‘alternate models’ for reporting the news. As one of the rare remaining left-wing presidents on the global scene, he logically opposes the neoliberal order to which The New York Times belongs and whose values it defends. AMLO claims — as The Daily Devil’s Dictionary has frequently done — that the Gray Lady has a habit of distorting the news even when it produces articles populated with facts, statistics and significant quotes. That doesn’t mean The Times isn’t a reliable source for news. It means that its interpretation of the news may — and often does — contain serious bias and, catering to a certain socio-professional elite, systematically excludes different perspectives.
Lopez Obrador would like to see news sources that are to a lesser degree captive of professional journalists and beholden to the commercial goal of optimizing their choice and presentation of the news to meet the biases of their subscribers and the interests of their advertisers. He evokes the idea of news outlets that are run “with the participation of the citizens.” Though appearing to be a utopian ambition in a world dominated, in its binary structure, by either government propaganda or corporate-run news providers, no one can deny that in the logic of democracy, if feasible, this would be a model “devoutly to be wished.”
CNN en Español offers a further quote in which AMLO explains what he means by “alternate models.” The president explains: “There is controversy and questioning, criticism is exercised and there is democratic public life, it is very good that this is happening, everything that can be debated, even with fake news that doesn’t last and has no effect.”
Some would say that he’s describing the internet as it is today. But even if the “voice of the people” is in some sense present on the internet, its visibility is limited. Although Europeans have developed a taste for citizen debate on their nationalized news media and even on privately-owned TV channels, the kind of productive debate AMLO envisions doesn’t appear to interest North American news outlets. Consequently, the sources of “controversy and questioning” that can be heard on the internet lack weight and potential clout in their competition with corporate media.
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador sees alternate solutions as desirable, but wishing for alternatives to the existing order can be risky. At the very beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency in 2017, his spokeswoman, Kellyanne Conway, notoriously invoked the idea of “alternative facts” to explain away Trump’s perception of the crowd at his inauguration as the biggest in history. Experts estimated it at about one-third of former President Barack Obama’s.
This hyperreal incident turned into the official act of recognition of the age of an alternate reality. Proposing a single alternative and dignifying it with “equal rights” has become the active principle of an increasingly polarized society and immobile society. The sclerosis of the two-party system in the US is one example. Brexit in the UK was another. In both cases, nuance and constructive debate have been excluded.
The growing polarization of political confrontation, particularly in the US, has infected the news itself. In such circumstances, for anyone committed to democracy, the idea of looking for an alternative to the current system can only be appealing. But several obstacles oppose the creation of a viable alternative. The first is government itself. AMLO is one of the rare heads of state to call for open debate, “controversy and questioning.” In some sense, it’s easy and logical for him to do so. The vast majority of corporate news outlets are opposed to left-wing leaders who call into question their legitimacy on the grounds of their purely commercial logic.
News media in a neoliberal economy must, at the very least, break even or cease to exist. To reach a significant audience, they must make a significant profit. To achieve profitability, they must invest in the resources that allow them to generate, produce and manage news that attracts a wide audience. To achieve that, they must not just be informative but also entertaining. Once news media recognized this imperative, they realized that the priority was to be entertaining.
Over recent decades, the news media in the US have discovered that the key to being entertaining is to become addictive. Nothing works better than to appeal to a polarized group of spectators. Hearing their own point of view repeated endlessly and illustrated through topical anecdotes turns out to be the key to making the news entertaining. Fabricating topical anecdotes has become a journalistic art form.
There is no way of pulling away from the requirement of being entertaining without sacrificing one’s profitability. As a result, the most successful news organizations seek to please rather than inform their audience, to provide them with what they want to hear or read. This is true even of the Gray Lady, who may maintain an image of black and white seeming objectivity but designs the news in colors adapted to the tastes and expectations of her audience.
Fair Observer (full disclosure: the author is the chief strategy officer) exists as one possible modest response to AMLO’s wishes. We invite and publish multiple voices of people with stories to tell and insight to share. All contributors are expected to produce not just a point of view, but some original take on news that isn’t necessarily covered by the entertainment-oriented traditional media.
What AMLO hopes for is something broader and more comprehensive, something that resembles a public forum. It should be as visible as commercial media, on an equal footing with mainstream news, but with this difference: the people have at least as strong a voice as the professionals who produce the media. Today’s technology makes that possible. But AMLO is also right to regret that, so long as it remains dominant, the neoliberal order — in which money, rather than people, makes all the critical decisions — will never allow that to happen.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.