BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone. Bob Garfield is away but WNYC’s Marianne McCune joins me this hour, as we report this week from Mexico. What’s happening here now will have a resounding impact on both sides of our poorest problematic border.
MARIANNE McCUNE: Mexico is the U.S.’s third largest trading partner. One in ten Americans is Mexican-American, and we’re also tethered together by an inconclusive, bloody, seemingly endless drug war, and the cynicism it breeds.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Today, Mexico City’s highways are crammed with campaign banners, its airways with political chat and its narrow streets with protesters, angry and eager. It’s been dubbed “the Mexican Spring.” That analogy may be a little overwrought but July 1st’s presidential election marks a significant shift.
MARIANNE McCUNE: It’s Mexico’s third presidential election, since the ruling PRI Party was toppled after seven decades in power. Twelve years later, as Mexico battles a rising crime and a bad economy, the PRI is poised to win again.
Students, tens of thousands of them, are filling the streets in protest, not just against the PRI’s candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, they’re even angrier at Mexico’s TV monopoly, its skewed election coverage that seems to make his win inevitable. Some protesters wear mock TVs on their heads, a satirical comment on the power of the Mexican TV monolith, Televisa.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Many of these marchers were mobilized by a notorious political blunder by the PRI back in May, when Peña Nieto showed up at a prominent university full of what he assumed would be complacent middle class kids, and then was shockingly shouted down.
ALEJANDRO PISANTY: This is supposed to be a very controlled environment. You know, rich people send their children there because there are no rabble-rousers there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Alejandro Pisanty, head of the Computer Sciences Department at National Autonomous University, said the fire under the current national protest was lit by a PRI spokesman, who blithely dismissed the angry students as outside agitators and paid opposition stooges.
ALEJANDRO PISANTY: At the moment these guys say that people who will be supportive of Peña Nieto resent that the Peña Nieto campaign resorts to these kind of arguments which are, you know, what the country has fought against by removing the PRI from power for a few years.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Televisa and TV Azteca, the TV monopoly, or duopoly, as expected, minimized and belittled the protest but the incident was streamed live online. Later, 131 of those demonstrators posted videos of themselves on YouTube, holding up their student IDs. Thus was born the movement called Yo Soy 132, I Am Number 132. It all went viral.
[PEOPLE SPEAKING IN SPANISH]
ALEJANDRO PISANTY: Certainly in the PRI times, it would have been a non-event which was only known in the underground, and always questioned. Was it real? Was it manipulative? Is the information real? Ten years ago, this would have gone down as an urban legend, and today it was a campaign turning point and a fact.
MARIANNE McCUNE: Hey Brooke, I’m walking along here with all these young people, and I met up with my friend Diego Bucio from when I lived here nine years ago.
DIEGO BUCIO: I’m here to prove that this movement is true. Most of the people in, in Mexico is informed through the television and radio, Televisa and TV Azteca. So they said that this movement wasn’t real.
They said that all these protests and all these demonstrations were paid, so that awakened this spirit of “Hey, that’s a lie and that is not democracy.”
ANTONIO MARTINEZ VELAZQUEZ: I mean, we are talking about media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Antonio Martinez Velazquez works for Article 19, an international free speech organization.
ANTONIO MARTINEZ VELAZQUEZ: It’s really a rare election because we are talking seriously about media, about how they cover the election, about the factchecking, about the journalism, about the deals between media and politics, about transparency, about accountability. I mean, we are talking about these issues in the street.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And not just in the street.
BENITO NACIF: I’m Benito Nacif, I am a member of the General Council of Mexico’s Fair Elections Commission.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In a government office, he seems just as appalled as the protesters by the collusion between politics and media. He is charged with implementing a recent law that bans candidates from directly buying ads during the 90-day campaign. The Commission pays for them, allots them to each party, according to a formula, and strictly controls the airtime. Sounds kind of, refreshing?
BENITO NACIF: Yeah, well one of the things that worries me is that the ban created an incentive for a black market of editorial time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Buying commentators?
BENITO NACIF: Absolutely, buying interviews, buying mentions of candidates, buying favorable reports and favorable news, as well.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you think there’s a possibility that it might have actually made things worse?
BENITO NACIF: In some respects, yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Nacif says the new law has unleashed a tide of unintended consequences. Now, the FEC monitors the ads for slander and libel. Imagine that. That takes time, reducing a campaign’s ability to respond and maneuver. For instance, back in 2006 when the frontrunner declined to take part in the first debate, that night his opponent aired an ad showing an empty chair. Now the system is too slow to accommodate such sudden bursts of inspiration. But TV news shows can.
BENITO NACIF: What effect is this having? Making the commentators on TV and the editorial time more important. You cannot circumvent them. You are making these TV channels even more powerful than in the past. It’s completely the opposite of what they wanted.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There’s a group in the Mexican Congress composed of legislators who aren’t merely in the pocket of broadcasters, they are broadcasters, and they are poised to win more seats. Broadcast legislators recently sought to kill network neutrality and allow Internet service providers to block or filter, as long as they were open about it. Alejandro Pisanty of Mexico’s National Autonomous University fought it.
ALEJANDRO PISANTY: A company should not abuse their ability to manage the network in order to favor someone commercially or politically. We describe it here in Mexico as the ”five alls.” You should have access to “all ports, all protocols, all content, all origins and all destinations.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, what happened to the network neutrality vanquishing bill that these Congress people presented?
ALEJANDRO PISANTY: It was defeated in four days by a Twitter-based movement and the session in the Senate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But next time they could win.
MARIANNE McCUNE: Broadcast industry candidates are being fronted, not just by the PRI but by the PAN, the party that now holds the presidency but is running third, and even the PRD, the party of student favorite, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Many of today’s demonstrators have moved from the streets to Mexico City’s main square, to watch one of only two televised presidential debates on a big screen. They sound like soccer fans.
They boo Peña Nieto.
Initially, it seemed that Mexico’s two main broadcasters were not going to air this debate. The clamor organized online forced a reversal, Another win. But here, as everywhere, the Internet offers no guarantees. Only about 30 to 40 percent of Mexicans are online, and a much smaller portion engages in social media. Most rely on Televisa and TV Azteca which, as we heard, do a bang-up business quietly selling positive coverage to candidates with deep pockets.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what’s at stake here? Corrupted media thrives on and perpetuates a corrupt political establishment, breeding a kind of frustrated resignation. But during that lively march through Mexico City, we saw frustration transmuted into street theater and humor.
GREG BERGER: The fact that you can make jokes about extremely tragic subjects is something that people are experts at here in Mexico.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Greg Berger covers the twin travails of Mexican democracy and the drug war for the website, Narco News.
GREG BERGER: People here know me as Gringoyo. I moved to Mexico in 1998, and for the better part of that time I’ve been making political satire alongside Mexican social movements, pieces based around archetypes of characters from the United States, like the revolutionary tourist, the greedy businessman, the misinformed reporter. There’s a DVD called Narco-Mania and Other Satires that use those characters.
Everything I learned about political humor I learned from my friends here in Mexico. And one day we were sitting around having some beers and saying, you know, all these crazy, absurd myths about the war on drugs - you know, this cartel was broken up, that cartel was broken up. The next thing we know they’re gonna say that they brought down Yoko Ono to get married to Chapo Guzman to break up the Sinaloa cartel.
Then there was a pause for about 30 seconds, and we said “Eh, that’s our next video.” So we made a video with a Beatles theme, and it opens it up with a shot-by-shot recreation of A Hard Day’s Night –
- with widows of drug war violence chasing four agents from the U.S. Embassy around Mexico City.
[GROUP SINGING/W MEXICAN ACCENT]:
It’s been a hard day’s night, and I’ve been working like a dog.
[SINGING UP AND UNDER]
And then it’s just one Beatles joke after another. And the thing is, is that the Beatles are actually more popular here with young people than in the United States.
I actually ran into a teenager at an event in Cuernavaca, and we started talking about the video, and he said, “Oh, you made that?” And I said “Yeah.” “Oh, I’m a big Beatles fan, and I didn’t know about this movement against the war on drugs until my friend showed me this video on the Internet, 'cause I watch everything that has to do with the Beatles.” That’s exactly why we make these videos. When you make jokes about the most tragic of subjects, you can actually engage in some very profound communication.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mexicans smile, not happily, when asked about the justice system. More than 90 percent of murders go unsolved. For murdered journalists, it’s closer to 100 percent. In states controlled by the cartels, reporters are increasingly picked off and returned in plastic bags. Murder is a state crime but in some places there is no state. Reporters dare not report.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
Last November, On the Media reported on a constitutional reform in Mexico that would make the murder of journalists a federal crime. Somehow, we thought it would have become a law by now. It hasn’t. MARIANNE McCUNE: Coming up, covering or not covering the cartels. I’m off to Juarez now. Is there anything I shouldn’t ask the mayor there?
MIKE O’CONNOR: When you see the mayor, make it the last day, and make sure your cab to the airport is outside and still running.
MARIANNE McCUNE: It’s scheduled for the first day.
MIKE O’CONNOR: Leave on the first day.