The Media Today

Milei, the media, and the market

February 20, 2024
Argentine President Javier Milei leaves the St. Damasus Courtyard at The Vatican after a private audience with Pope Francis, Monday, Feb. 12, 2024. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

In November, the day after he was elected president of Argentina, Javier Milei promised in a radio interview to quickly get to work privatizing state-owned companies. “Everything that can be in the hands of the private sector will be in the hands of the private sector,” he pledged. This was a general statement of intent, but Milei telegraphed particular hostility toward public media, which he had previously accused of negative coverage of his campaign, and which amounted, he said, to “a covert ministry of propaganda.”

Earlier this month, Milei acted (via a somewhat complicated legal maneuver) to appoint lawyers to oversee the activities of public media, a move akin to initiating a thorough external audit. The decree announcing the move spoke of a need for increased “efficiency” in operations. But a journalists’ union in Buenos Aires suggested that the decree was an attempted end-run around Congress, which Milei’s upstart political party does not control, and described its implementation as “absolutely authoritarian.” An opposition bloc in Argentina’s Senate used similar language

At a glance, Milei’s move appeared to tee up yet another installment in the global battle between right-wing populists and public media (which I wrote about recently in the Polish context)—and, indeed, between right-wing populists and the media as a whole. The American ear may have heard echoes, in Milei’s approach, of Donald Trump, who, in addition to bashing journalists rhetorically, consistently proposed slashing budgets for US public broadcasters when he was president (without Congress ever agreeing to it). Indeed, Milei has often been compared to Trump more broadly: both bolstered their fame on TV; they’re both wildly outspoken political outsiders; both have unorthodox hair. This week, Milei will even speak at CPAC, the American conservative conference that has become a festival of Trumpism in recent years.

And yet, in key respects, the two men are very different, and entered power in very different contexts. Where Trump arguably lacks a coherent economic philosophy—and has some protectionist, even big-state impulses—Milei is an ideological libertarian and avowed “anarcho-capitalist” who was an economics pundit on current-affairs programs, not the host of a reality show. It is hard to imagine Trump naming a pet for the libertarian economist Murray Rothbard or inspiring kids to start reading the works of Hayek by recommending them on air. And Milei was elected president amid an extreme, long-running economic crisis in Argentina—one to which the commercial media industry, unsurprisingly, has been far from immune.

Milei’s apparent early intent to privatize public media companies should, perhaps, be seen in this economic light, as well as a political one. It’s unclear if the privatization will actually go ahead, but the threat of it (as well as moves that Milei has already made to cut state advertising budgets) suggests a market dogmatism—one that Santiago Marino, a leading media expert, told me “does not exist as a guide to communication policies even in the most ‘liberal’ economies, such as the United States.” If the political climate for media is increasingly difficult in many parts of the world, so is the business climate. Argentina’s media landscape is testament to this, as well as to the potential, and perils, of a public alternative. 

The role of public media in Argentina has been contested before. As various experts have noted, state-owned outlets have often favored the government of the day in their coverage. In the nineties, the then-government mulled the privatization of public outlets, only to stop short of fully implementing it—stalled by pressure from unions and from the media and cultural sectors, as well as a lack of political will. As Natalí Schejtman, the author of a book on Argentinian public television, told the Reuters Institute last year, the role of public media was a bigger election issue in 2015—due to its perceived centrality to the political messaging of the incumbent left-leaning political dynasty—than in Milei’s election last year. Recently, a lawmaker who oversaw public media under Mauricio Macri, the conservative who won the presidency in 2015, suggested that (with narrow exceptions) public media should not now be reformed but abolished altogether, due to its cost and perceived “propaganda” on behalf of prior governments.  

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According to data collected by the Reuters Institute last year (before Milei took office), public TV in Argentina has less reach and is less trusted than some of its private rivals, in part due to a perceived pro-government bias. Public media, however, cannot be reduced to public TV alone—as Eugenia Mitchelstein, a social scientist at the Universidad de San Andrés, told me, the sector in Argentina also includes educational, cultural, and sporting programming and resources, as well as a news agency that many private media outlets use, and a radio network with unique national reach. (Mitchelstein corresponded with me from close to Lake Futalaufquen in Patagonia, where this radio network was the only service available in her car.)

Commercial media, by contrast, has gaps in its coverage: in 2021, a study conducted by FOPEA, an Argentinian journalism organization, found that more than 15 percent of the population lived in areas that the group classified as “news deserts” lacking independent local press. And many media organizations that do exist, particularly outside of Buenos Aires, the capital, have struggled financially. Marino described their general situation to me as “one of an almost terminal crisis.”

One source of revenue for commercial media companies has been state advertising expenditure, be that from the central government, arm’s-length bodies or state-owned companies, or local and provincial governments. Edgardo Litvinoff—the editorial director of Ruido, a collaborative network of regional journalists that was founded in response to the news-desert phenomenon and related problems in local coverage—told me that local outlets have often been dependent on advertising revenue from the latter source, which in some cases, Litvinoff says, can make up 70 percent of an outlet’s income. For Litvinoff, this dependence isn’t a good thing: he alleges that it has stymied local outlets’ willingness to take on officials, and says that Ruido refuses to take state money on principle.

After taking office, Milei moved to suspend the media advertising budget of the central government, a move that has mostly affected national outlets based in Buenos Aires. Litvinoff told me that this sort of move could end up being a good thing, in that it could “generate more independent journalism that is critical of power.” At least in the short term, though, the loss of this revenue will be felt, particularly by smaller outlets that received it, Marino told me. 

As for Milei’s plans for public media, it’s hard to say what might happen next. At least in theory, plowing ahead with privatization would require congressional approval; recently, Milei tried to push through a bill giving him expansive powers to privatize state-owned companies, among other things, only to send it back to the drawing board after it became clear that lawmakers did not fully support it. Even if Congress were to authorize privatization, it’s not clear who might want to buy and run the assets of public media, particularly in such a forbidding private market. And, as experts I spoke to for this piece pointed out, Milei is, perhaps above all, unpredictable and erratic in his decisionmaking. “It is difficult for me to examine motives as if he were just another politician,” Mitchelstein told me.

At minimum, Milei’s early actions toward public media and state advertising in private outlets look ill-conceived and underbaked—both areas are legitimately complicated, and could use thoughtful reform to improve the media’s independence and financial viability, and yet Milei seems to be taking an instinctive slash-and-burn approach in keeping with his wider libertarian philosophy. Those who want to see reform need to be clear with struggling voters “why the state is important, and [where] it has failed. It’s not just [about] saying, The state is important, the state is marvelous, please don’t touch this,” Schejtman told me. “We are seeing a change in narrative: We can’t do anything correctly, so we have to close things.… We must use our imagination.” 

For Litvinoff, public media has gone from being a “loot” for the government of the day, stuffed with “partisan militants,” to something the government wants to sell off, rather than seek to improve it by following the example, for instance, of the BBC and other truly public models. When it comes to media policy in Argentina, Litvinoff told me, “we go from one extreme to another.”

Other notable stories:

  • The Atlantic’s Jerusalem Demsas takes aim at the widespread framing that there is a “migrant crisis” in cities such as New York and Chicago, arguing that “if New York City is overwhelmed, that will not be because of migrants, but because of native-born political dysfunction.” To “call this moment a ‘migrant crisis’ is to let elected federal officials off the hook,” Demsas writes. “But a ‘crisis of politicians kicking the problem down the road until opportunists set it on fire’ is hard to fit into a tweet, so we’ll have to make do.”
  • Last month, the Houston Landing, a buzzy nonprofit news startup in Texas, made headlines after the CEO fired its editor in chief and an experienced investigative reporter as part of an ill-defined strategic “reset,” a decision that went down poorly with staff. Now a majority of eligible employees at the Landing have moved to unionize, to fight for better job protections and a greater say in decision-making. The news follows a mini-wave of unionization efforts at nonprofit newsrooms in Texas, including the Texas Tribune
  • For the San Antonio Express-News, Tom Orsborn spoke with three French journalists who have relocated to the city to cover Victor Wembanyama, a French basketball star who plays for the San Antonio Spurs, as well as a fourth journalist who visits frequently from New York. (“Texas is very legendary and exotic for us,” that journalist said.) The quartet have faced challenges including “lodging issues, transportation problems and dealing with media rules that limit their access to Wembanyama” and differ from those in Europe.
  • Semafor’s Martin K.N Siele explores why African filmmakers are rarely behind the numerous nature and conservation documentaries that are shot on the continent every year. “Local producers say opportunities for African filmmakers in the field are few and far between due to factors including limited access to parks and reserves, and the prohibitive cost of equipment, production, and distribution,” Siele writes. But “a number of organizations have in recent years sought to change this.”
  • And Ross Gelbspan—an investigative journalist who exposed fossil-fuel-industry efforts to stoke climate denial, and criticized his colleagues in the media for indulging a false balance between scientists and climate skeptics in their coverage—has died. He was eighty-four. “I didn’t get into the climate issue because I love the trees—I tolerate the trees,” he once said. “I got into the issue because I learned the coal industry was paying a handful of scientists under the table to say nothing was happening to the climate.” 

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.