On June 24, a story in the Argentine daily Clarín reported a bombshell: a former ambassador, Eduardo Sadous, had privately testified to a congressional committee that the former president, Nestor Kirchner, knew about a web of corruption involving kickbacks in exchange for business deals with Venezuela. In return came a volley of epithets.
Kirchner called Hector Magnetto, the CEO of the Clarín Group, a “delinquent.” Anibal Fernandez, chief of staff for Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner—the former president’s wife and the current president—called him “perverse and shameless.” Magnetto, generally a publicity-shy executive, fired back in the newspaper.
It was just another day of verbal pyrotechnics in a two-year conflict pitting the Kirchners against the Clarín Group, Argentina’s media behemoth. With Clarín as its flagship, the group has holdings in radio and television, cable TV, Internet, newspapers, newsprint, and a news agency. Argentine pundits speculate endlessly about the stakes in the ugly conflict. But no matter which side eventually prevails, professional journalism will be the main casualty.
When Nestor Kirchner passed the presidential sash to his wife in December 2007, no one could have predicted that Clarín would soon become the Kirchners’ media bête noire. It was hardly Kirchner’s mouthpiece during his administration, but Clarín served up kid-glove treatment of administration policies. Unlike La Nación or the Perfil news group, Clarín didn’t frequently dredge up cases of wrongdoing. And Clarín columnists often received big scoops from the Kirchners’ inner circle. Presidential decisions, such as extending the period of television licenses and merging the largest cable systems, benefitted Clarín’s far-flung business interests. But the Pax Claríniana is over.
The Kirchners and Clarín parted ways in early 2008, when the Fernandez de Kirchner government was facing a countrywide revolt against a substantial tax increase on agricultural exports. Kirchneristas viewed Clarín as carrying water for powerful agribusiness interests, which were fueling protests that dominated headlines and brought the economy to a screeching halt. As in many dissolving marriages, the divorce wasn’t exactly civil. Irreconcilable differences were laid bare when President Fernandez de Kirchner accused Clarín of sending a “mafia-like message” when Hermenegildo Sabat, a respected cartoonist, drew her with an X across her lips, suggesting that she had been gagged.
Since then, the conflict has often reached a boiling point. Clarín, along with a group representing press owners, has condemned several events it interpreted as acts of official press intimidation. Pro-government groups, in turn, have demonstrated in front of Clarín’s building several times. In September 2009, in a confusing episode that triggered much speculation, tax inspectors raided the newspaper’s offices.
In April 2010, the battle seemed to escalate. The city of Buenos Aires was plastered with anonymous billboards displaying pictures of the Clarín Group’s most prominent journalists, calling them lackeys for a media owner accused of “appropriating” children of people who had disappeared during the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976 and 1983, a terrible historical touchstone for Argentina. The billboards referred to Ernestina Herrera de Noble, Clarín Group’s majority shareholder and the widow of the newspaper’s founder.
The charge reflected the long-held conviction among human-rights groups, who have been strong Kirchner supporters, that the Noble Herrera children, thirty-four-year-old Marcela and Felipe, were born to parents who had been kidnapped and then murdered by the junta. The siblings were adopted in 1976, during the early days of the military dictatorship. The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a human-rights group that has helped identify and recover more than 100 children stolen from political prisoners during the dictatorship, is the plaintiff in a court order that required the Noble Herrera children to undergo DNA tests to determine their identity. The Kirchner camp insists that Clarín for years has used its power to prevent the DNA testing. Last December, Marcela and Felipe voluntarily submitted DNA samples to a forensic center that is under the oversight of the judiciary, but the samples have not been examined. They refused to be tested by the National Genetic Data Bank, which is under the executive branch, arguing that the results could be manipulated for political gain. In June, the issue gained wide visibility after the police raided their house and forced the siblings to hand over pieces of clothing to get DNA samples. When it was announced that their clothes contained DNA from different people, the rumor mill went into overdrive around the possibility of foul play.
Since the Kirchner-Clarín fight broke out, the government has taken actions unequivocally aimed at damaging Clarín’s business. It convinced the national soccer association to take away Clarín’s cable broadcasting rights and assign them to state-run Channel 7, which broadcasts over the air and does not require cable. Officials explained that the measure was intended to democratize citizens’ rights to watch the popular sport. In a country where fútbol is big business, as well as a patriotic badge of honor, the decision was an act of political bravado. In contrast to most politicians’ gentle handling of any matter affecting Clarín, which exerts unmatched influence in Argentine politics, the Kirchners have displayed unusual chutzpah. Such attitude was also evident in the government’s decision to take over Papel Prensa, the national newsprint company in which the state, Clarín Group, and La Nación have been partners since the early 1970s.
The Kirchners’ recent media “reform” effort is also inseparable from the conflict. President Fernandez de Kirchner sent a broadcasting bill to Congress in early 2009. Officials touted it as much-needed legislation to democratize broadcasting, by putting limits on cross-media ownership and securing a third of broadcasting licenses for community organizations. But even those who recognized the merits of the law believed the effort was driven by different goals, namely, to curb the Clarín Group’s power and strengthen the official media apparatus. Although Congress passed the law in October 2009, provincial judges held it up. The Argentine Supreme Court revoked the suspension in June 2010, clearing the way for the law to take effect.
Tensions keep escalating. Clarín offers a daily dose of news critical of the administration. And the Kirchners frequently lambast “the media monopoly” and quip that the acronym TN of the Group’s cable news channel Todo Noticias stands for “Todo Negativo”—“All Negative.” In a phrase that has entered the vernacular, Nestor Kirchner taunted, “What is the matter, Clarín? Are you nervous?” to criticize what he portrays as deceptive and malicious news. Kirchneristas see the Clarín Group as a rattled powerhouse that has met its political match.
Clarín, in turn, a news company that rarely wears its politics on its sleeve, has pretty much abandoned balance. Its star columnists see little but disaster in the Kirchners’ policies and political style. The publication of the ambassador’s kickback charges came in the wake of a series of stories rifling through the government’s closets. Members of the Kirchners’ political circle, including several cabinet members, are regular targets for exposés.
Unsurprisingly, the conflict has gripped the media themselves. Clarín’s towering presence generates a range of opinions and emotions. Hardly anyone in an Argentine newsroom feels indifferent about the company. Scores of journalists, including many influential columnists, have worked in its newsrooms. Journalists have not simply been spectators in a gritty fistfight between two giants; they have been drawn in. The world of Argentine journalism is divided between “journalists K” (for the Kirchners) and “journalists anti-K.” Old friends and colleagues on different sides of that fence no longer talk to each other. Some reporters with pro-Kirchner sympathies have left Clarín for news organizations identified with the administration. Name-calling often replaces reporting. News shows in state-run media regularly ambush columnists who criticize the government. Anti-Kirchner pundits frequently blast journalists who toe the official line. Old debates about “professional” versus “activist” journalism have been reopened.
As a result, the middle ground for journalism with nuance, distance, equanimity, evenhandedness, and even accuracy has narrowed. The lines are so firmly drawn that journalists couldn’t even cross them for an issue that ought to unite them. When President Fernandez de Kirchner sent a bill to decriminalize injurious calumny against public officials in September 2009—a longtime demand of press organizations—K and anti-K journalists could not come together to support the measure. A divided journalism undermines dialogue and consensus building, two urgent needs in a democracy on a march toward polarized politics.