BOB GARFIELD: Dan Grech covers Latin America for American Public Radio's Marketplace. He spoke to us on Thursday from Mexico City. Also on Thursday, we got in touch with Sergio Sarmiento, editorial board director for TV Azteca, one of Mexico's two big broadcasters. Sarmiento told us that not calling the election on election night was a no-brainer.
SERGIO SARMIENTO: No pollster in the world would release the results of an exit poll that falls within the margin of error. In our case, the difference was 0.3, and our margin of error was 1.5. The point is that it is our pollsters, the mathematicians, who actually control the polls, who tell us that they cannot predict a winner. We went on the air and we said our exit poll was too close to call, and we would wait for the quick count that would give us more information later on that night. And we waited for that, but it was still too close to call. So we said all along that it was too close to call.
BOB GARFIELD: What you're saying to me makes perfect sense. However, some of Obrador's supporters have taken a slightly more paranoiac view, and at least one local muckraking magazine, called Procesco, said that Interior Ministry officials in Vicente Fox's administration actually persuaded the networks to keep silent on the issue of exit poll results. Is there any truth to that report?
SERGIO SARMIENTO: Well, Procesco, as everyone knows in Mexico, is a magazine that is, you know, very closely aligned with Lopez Obrador, and they were clearly preparing the ground to be able to present the mobilization to contest the results of the election. They always said they were going to do that, so I'm not surprised.
BOB GARFIELD: Did you confer with any other news organizations and kind of put your heads together to decide what to do as it became clear that this race was so tight?
SERGIO SARMIENTO: I had information of basically five or six organizations, both news and party organizations. We do that for the purpose of just making sure that we're, you know, roughly on the right track. But every organization makes its own decision.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, under Mexican law, news organizations are not allowed to release public opinion polling in the week before an election. Considering that the challenger, Obrador, had, at one point, a very substantial lead that kept narrowing and narrowing, do you think the fact that the public was not aware of how much it was narrowing ended up creating a kind of shock on election night?
SERGIO SARMIENTO: Yes. Most people who are – at least, I personally - who didn't have access to public opinion polls on the week before the election assumed that Lopez Obrador was going to win by two or three percentage points, and I think a lot of people did. And that happens when you don't have public opinion polls on the week before the election, which is when many of the undecided make up their minds.
BOB GARFIELD: So the blackout actually contributed to some confusion and frustration. After this is all over with, do you suppose that there will be a move for more transparency in the lead-up to a vote?
SERGIO SARMIENTO: I doubt it. On the coattails of the good result of Lopez Obrador, the alliance of leftist parties that supported Lopez Obrador actually had a very major increase in seats in Congress. And Lopez Obrador's party has always blocked any liberalization of our public opinion poll legislation.
BOB GARFIELD: Calderon is the candidate of the National Action Party, which is the party of incumbent president Vicente Fox. National Action won the presidency from the PRI, the dominant political force in Mexico for decades, and PRI had a history of unscrupulousness in elections. Is TV Azteca doing anything to try to determine whether, in fact, National Action Party has followed in the footsteps of its predecessor, PRI, in fraudulent elections?
SERGIO SARMIENTO: Well, the government doesn't organize the elections. It's an independent body that organizes the election, and certainly I haven't seen any indication that there was any rigging of the election. Of course, I'm open-minded about that or any other accusation, although I do usually want to see some evidence.
BOB GARFIELD: What can the media do in a case like this to act as watchdogs and sort of independently certify the results of the commission?
SERGIO SARMIENTO: We cover every claim of irregularities. We try to look at the evidence. We have, in our TVs and newspapers and radio shows, members of all political parties. If there is any evidence of wrong-doing, we try to follow that evidence, and very often we are successful. In fact, I was one of the journalists who actually uncovered the so-called "Pemexgate" scandal in the 2000 election in which we discovered that the oil monopoly Pemex had actually given money illegally to the campaign of Francisco Labastida, the candidate of the PRI party. We do that as a matter of course. That's what we do.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Sergio, thank you so much.
SERGIO SARMIENTO: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Sergio Sarmiento is editorial board director for TV Azteca television network and a columnist for the Daily Reforma. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, a series of unsolved murders casts reporters as gumshoes in Juarez.