By RICARDO CASTILLO
The rumblings of a head-on clash between Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) press secretary, Jesús Ramírez Cuevas, and journalists could be heard loud and clear since the last week of February.
Back then, during a conference at the School for Social and Political Sciences of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), Ramírez Cuevas announced that former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto had shelled approximately 60 billion pesos in ads. Besides announcing that the 2019 budget would be 4 billion pesos for perfectly legal government advertising, some 15 opinion columnists had received advertising contracts for about a fourth of the 10 billion pesos paid out in 2018.
Over the past week, AMLO stated that he had received a request for that list of journalists, but that he was passing it over to the National Institute for Transparency, Access to Information and Personal Data Protection (INAI, for short) to do whatever it saw fit with the list.
Suddenly, and apparently out of nowhere, a list of 15 journalists who had allegedly received the funds showed up. Every “big name” journalist in Mexico was on it, ranging from Joaquín López Dóriga (who just received an award for ethical journalism from King Felipe of Spain) to popular talkshow hostess Adela Micha and columnist/historian Enrique Krauze, to name a few fat media “opinion leaders.”
Then again, on Friday, May 24, as if by magic ,a second list was released, containing not only the names of the 15 previously tagged Mexican journalists – mostly radio and television personalities – but expanded to 36 names.
AMLO immediately washed his hands of the matter, saying:
“I want to make it clear that what INAI requested from us is information about media columnists and it is not government advertising, that’s something else. Advertising expenditures for last year were 10 billion pesos.” AMLO did not name names.
Over the weekend, the cries and moans of those on the list were being heard, with many of them admitting to having received the monies and billing for electronic webpage “banners,” while others claiming that they had done “tailored imaging” of Peña Nieto’s presidency.
Let me quote daily newspaper Excelsior political columnist Francisco Garfias, who, on Saturday, May 25, admitted to having received last year over 8 million pesos for advertising on his webpage called, which, like his column, is called “Arsenal”:
“I did not commit any crime; I did nothing crooked. Those were commercial pauses that included banners or videos, and not bribes, or ‘chayote,’ to speak well about the former administration as the president suggests. I never received a penny for mentions or advisories.”
On the other hand, historian Enrique Krauze said that “the selective list of journalists and advertising made known yesterday is an evident show of intolerance and persecution and ill will on the part of the administration. This is another attack on freedom of expression. I shall not be intimidated.”
Now pardon me “a pause” to explain the word “chayote.” The Oxford Dictionary describes it as “a succulent. green. pear-shaped tropical fruit that resembles a cucumber in flavor, the tropical American vine that yields the chayo.” But in Mexican journalism slang, the word refers to an age-old practice of paying journalists handouts (succulent checks, if you will) to control their opinions. It is a practice mainly used by corrupt politicians. The payment is known as “chayo.” (Succulent, by the way, is the word biologists use to describe cacti plants.)
This said, let me get back to the alleged “chayoteros” (chayote receivers) in the aforementioned list. By Monday, the number of political columnists mentioned in the list has grown exponentially, but they all firmly insisted that at no moment had they received a penny for “selling out my opinion,” as one journalist on the list put it.
It must be said that AMLO made it clear that, besides the 10 billion pesos spent in advertising, the Peña Nieto administration (2012-2018) signed contracts with the “chayoteros” for 1.26 billion pesos “that were handed out to columnists and journalists for services.”
In that same Friday press conference, Ramírez Cuevas – who spoke to the managers of the media outlets where the listed journalists work – stated that the criteria to include them on the list was that result of an agreement with the board of directors of each of the companies that did sign advertising contracts with the government. He hinted, of course, that the columnists made money on the side.
The source of this publicity came after a YouTuber named Ignacio Rodriguez Chapucero requested from INAI the names of the journalists, a request that by law any citizen can make. Only Rodríguez Chapucero made it public. Also publishing the list was the conservative daily Reforma.
Other well-known columnists also named included Callo de Hacha, Raymundo Rivapalacio, Ricardo Alemán (who once called for volunteers to assassinate AMLO), Adela Micha and Luis Soto.
Add to these the names of “Little Pinochet” Pablo Hiriart, José Fenrández Menéndez, Francisco García Davish and José Cárdenas.
The mention of these plus at least 20 more names is indeed not just another tempest in a teapot in Mexican politics. These are people who claim to have audience credibility. Their prestige for now is hurting and, surely in the near future, they will see their ratings be badly mangled, if not disappear.
As a final comment, I want to recall the words of my journalism professor and dean at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Fred Friendly – producer of the historically famous Ed Morrow newscast at CBS News – who gave us one piece of advice as journalists: “There’s nothing wrong with making money, but you must always distinguish the difference between public relations and advertising, and true journalism. There’s no compassion in advertising; journalism is about compassion.”
Incidentally, this journalist feels he should not be writing about this subject because in Mexican journalism, “dog does not eat dog,” namely journalists do not talk ill of their peers. But all this is the talk of the day in the Mexican news.
But no apology and, as Snoopy of Charlie Brown cartoon fame used to say: “Good grief!”