Argentina is boiling up — again — and facts there aren’t easy to find

September 4, 2019
Category: Fact-Checking,IFCN

Argentina is a country globally known for its wine, beautiful glacial landscapes, and, in recent years, worsening financial turmoil.

It seems that the country’s issues with debt and inflation never stay out of the news cycle for too long — just last week, President Mauricio Macri told the International Monetary Fund his government would need more time to pay back a $56 billion loan it received months ago.

Macri’s economic nightmares have worsened since former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner won an unexpected victory in the presidential primaries, and the stock market plunged. De Kirchner is now running as the vice-presidential candidate with Alberto Fernandez (no relation). Her unexpected political comeback is only the latest installment of the great saga that is Argentine politics.

Last summer, I spent two months in Buenos Aires working and conducting research with the fact-checking organization Chequeado. I found myself desperate to understand de Kirchner’s legacy and how it had come to shape the world of media in the country. I figured that if I spoke to enough people and consumed enough news, I could uncover the one, neat, holistic account of Argentina’s political reality that I thought existed.

The problem was that, of course, there is no one, neat account.

Chequeado, the sole fact-checking organization in the nation, was founded in 2008 on the premise that Argentines have become so deeply embroiled in a political battle over truth that they have lost the ability to effectively demarcate their own reality.

Pablo Fernandez, a journalist and media professor who’s currently working as one of Chequeado’s directors, said that polarization had gotten so extreme in some topics that different political affiliations meant entirely different recounting of events and constructions of factual narrative.

He noted that politics in Buenos Aires had become such a polarizing factor in society that being “in the gray” — not having a particularly strong political leaning one way or the other — was seen as a negative, almost suspicious, characteristic.

Everyone was plugged in to the news, everyone had an opinion, and everyone hated the side opposite to theirs.

This tense state of affairs could, in large part, be traced back to the controversy-filled presidency of de Kirchner, which lasted from 2007 to 2015. During that time she became embroiled in a dramatic war with Clarín, the country’s largest and most influential media conglomerate. De Kirchner’s husband Nestor had been president before her, and the two formed a formidable political power couple who led Argentina through worsening economic conditions and a barrage of corruption scandals that have only recently begun to be uncovered.

Corrupt government contracts proliferated throughout Cristina de Kirchner’s administration, and according to Ricardo Kirschbaum, the editor of Clarín, this was what caused an initial rift between her and Clarín.

“We realized that what the de Kirchners wanted was to control the press,” he told Harvard Political Review in 2017. “The owners of Clarín didn’t want to cut deals with the government, as many other businesses had done and gotten rich from doing.”

In 2009, the government introduced the Audiovisual Media Law, which would have broken up Clarín Group so violently that the company would probably not have been able to continue printing its newspaper.

For years, de Kirchner and Clarín went back and forth, bitterly criticizing and accusing each other of fabricating falsehoods and battling over the Audiovisual Media Law in the courts. De Kirchner’s administration launched a publicly-funded campaign called “Clarín miente,” or Clarín lies, in an effort to convince the country of the paper’s illegitimacy.

The Audiovisual Media Law was ultimately passed after a long series of Supreme Court squabbles, but by the time Mauricio Macri took office in December of 2015, it had yet to be implemented. Thus, a new administration dawned over the aftermath of a war that saw no fatalities except the death of the public’s trust in its most powerful institutions.

Cristina de Kirchner certainly wasn’t the first nor the last president to be aggressive toward a newspaper, but I was still surprised, as a student researcher who’d left the United States to go study something abroad, how familiar the country’s frenzied and chaotic news cycles felt. The polarization and political angst that was channeled daily by protesters, journalists and politicians were recognizable — these weren’t Argentine trademarks, but globally occurring side effects of populism and digital media crashing into each other.

Fact-checking has been on the rise for about a decade across all corners of the globe. I suspect its popularity has much to do with what I witnessed in Argentina: Fact-checkers are journalists eager to claim a new kind of authority over the news, one that’s better suited to the needs of modern digital consumers who often find themselves lost in an informational storm of partisanship, bias and junk news.

My mission was to investigate as much as I could about the interworking of Chequeado as well as its relationship to other media in the city, but I quickly found myself lost in the intense and rapidly-changing world of tumultuous Argentine politics. In order to better understand the country’s current grapplings with polarization and how the media were implicated in it, I interviewed four journalists, two from Clarín and two from its ideological opponent, Pagina/12, which had been sympathetic to de Kirchner throughout her presidency.

I wanted to see if I could use four traditional journalists from the country’s most respected papers to put together an honest portrait of Argentina’s political scene. But beyond that, I wanted to see whether Fernandez’s prediction — that different political ideologies would produce entirely different accounts of reality — would hold up.

I asked each journalist the exact same question: Can you recount to me the events that transpired between the media conglomerate Clarín and the presidency of Cristina de Kirchner?

The results of this were astonishing. Fernandez had not been exaggerating when he spoke of polarization so strong it literally produced two different worlds.

While Silvia Naishtat and Pablo Blanco of Clarín told me of the evils of de Kirchner, the torment they had to suffer under her regime and the oppressive, authoritarian motives behind her actions, Werner Pertot and Victoria Ginzberg of Pagina/12 spoke coldly of a transactional disagreement that had made its way through the courts, mostly resulting from corporate greed on Clarín’s side. Neither of the Clarín journalists mentioned the Audiovisual Media Law, while this was all the Pagina/12 journalists spoke about.

Fernandez was not surprised. This split in reality is, after all, exactly what he and his team at Chequeado have been working tirelessly for years to solve.

By tying themselves to a strict methodology that relies exclusively on verifiable facts and primary sources, Chequeado’s fact-checkers have created a new form of journalistic authority within Buenos Aires’s political media scene. Their hope is that this might be able to provide people with an archive of reliable knowledge, and that someday, that smooth, sole, uncontested account of Argentina’s political reality that I was so desperate for at the beginning of my trip might actually exist.

I told myself that I’d spend my evenings watching Argentine news, but the truth is, I could never bring myself to do it. After a full day at Cheqeuado’s offices, listening to heated discussions over politics, abortion rights, the economy, protests happening downtown, and the weather, all I wanted to do when I got home was watch reruns of “How I Met Your Mother,” which was on every night starting at 6 p.m. in a hilarious Spanish dub.

I love this show for lots of reasons — how it isn’t afraid to be theatrical, how its characters develop over time, and how it keeps inside jokes running season after season. But what makes it one of my favorite sitcoms of all time is the way it plays with narration, exaggeration and reality.

The structure of the show is based on the idea that Ted Mosby, the central protagonist, is telling his unwillingly patient children the story of how he met his wife, though with Ted’s tendency to ramble, it takes nine seasons of storytelling to get the job done. Ted doesn’t always remember the details of things super accurately, like when he forgets why he and his friend Lily were angry with each other; and he sometimes blatantly exaggerates details, like when he turns a grade-school basketball team from children into adults to make it less humiliating that his friend Marshall’s kindergarten team lost to them.

Ted takes significant liberties in editing his life story, and the magical part is that the show adapts to his editing. The show relinquishes any claim over accuracy and instead reminds the audience that this is not the truth; this is someone’s version of the truth, altered and edited after decades of storytelling and re-telling. It is based on the premise that, as another character named Barney mentions eloquently in one season, “A lie is just a great story that someone ruined with the truth.”

Argentina is a country of great stories. I can only wonder what will happen in October with the elections, but I am certain of one thing: It will include a fantastic set of tales from the Ted Mosbys of Argentina, and Chequeado will do its best to ruin them all with the truth.

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