La Gacetilla - Part I

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 3 (La Gacetilla: How Advertising Masquerades As News) by Joe Keenan in the book The Culture of Collusion: An Inside Look at the Mexican Press edited by William A. Orme, Jr.  It is important to note that this book was published in 1997.  Much has changed in Mexico since when the 2000 open election led to a new president in opposition member Vicente Fox.  This article is important because it serves to show how the media anywhere in the world are subject to social, economic and political forces that can lead to manipulations and distortions.

How do you get a story on the front page of a Mexican newspaper?  You buy it.  The printing of gacetillas, paid political announcements disguised as news stories, is a daily occurrence in all of Mexico's major newspapers.  Except for subtle clues, there is nothing to distinguish these paid articles from regular staff-written articles or to indicate to the reader that they are not the work of staff writers.  Nevertheless, these articles are the products of a press office, sent through the newspapers' advertising offices and printed in the papers for their monetary -- not news -- values.

On October, 1987, the day after the announcement that Carlos Salinas de Gortari would be the Institutional Revolutionary Party's (Partido Revolucionario Institutioncal -- PRI) candidate for the Mexican presidency, four major Mexico City newspapers ran front-page stories on a speech made by the governor of a northern state in support of the PRI's choice.  All four stories were published without a reporter's byline; all four highlighted the same part of the governor's speech.  Two of the four, published in competing newspapers, were identical -- word for word and comma for comma.

The next day three leading papers in the capital published accounts of a speech by the governor of a southern state in support of the Salinas' candidacy.  Again, the attention granted to one of Mexico's state governors seemed excessive, and again the wording of the articles was uncannily similar.  Far from coincidental, the publication of these articles was an obvious example of a gacetilla.  

In the following weeks, countless gacetillas would be printed in the Mexican press.  Not all would be declarations of "adhesion" to the PRI candidate: some were from officials who shared a podium with the candidate and were eager to make the event and connection known; some involved declarations from a government-owned company, trying to discredit a recalcitrant union; others, from another government-owed company, downplayed reports of a significant ecological disaster that had been blamed on the company.  The majority, as is usually the case, were from state governors -- announcing electoral plans, electoral results or just giving speeches, trying all the while to keep their names and activities in the eye of Mexico's capital-based officialdom.

How prevalent are gacetillas?  According to a number of newspaper editors and executives, every major capital city daily publishes them frequently.  Without access to the accounting books of a newspaper, it is hard to say exactly how often they are published.  Even with this information, in fact, it would be hard to judge.  The majority of newspapers do not keep separate accounts for gacetillas or "social and political advertising," counting them simply as advertising income.  But a safe estimate, based on a review of capital newspapers and interviews with some of their editors, is that every major capital daily publishes on average one fully paid front-page story per day.  Numerous other gacetillas, of course, are printed on the inside pages.

Despite their prevalence, gacetillas are hardly familiar -- and rarely mentioned -- outside political circles and the media industry.  The unwritten law in the industry is that competing media do not comment on each other's behavior.  "The lion does not eat its own flesh," as one editor puts it.  As a result, the practices of the press are simply not reported.  Nor is it financially convenient for knowledge of the practice to seep out, since the ability of the papers to charge more for a gacetilla depends directly on the article being interpreted as a genuine story.  Above all, since all papers publish gacetillas and profit handsomely from them, it is in no one's interest in the industry to break ranks.

The financial argument is, in the end, the strongest.  Mexico City has over 20 daily newspapers, each one scraping for a piece of the country's biggest advertising pie: government advertising.  The sweetest piece of this pie is the gacetilla, which pays on average two to three times the price of commercial advertising and even more for a front-page position.  An editor of a Mexico City broadsheet says, "Without [the gacetilla] this city would just have a handful of dailies, probably not more than four or five."

La Gacetilla - Part II

In Part I, we reviewed the general phenomenon of paid advertisements (known as gacetillas) disguised as news stories in newspaper in Mexico.  The practice was endemic for many years, and so it had the tacit collaboration of all the parties in the industry -- publishers, editors and reporters.  How do editors and reporters rationalize this egregrious breach of journalistic professionalism?  It is all about money. 

Publishing gacetillas can cause other conflicts and distortions in the paper's normal operation.  Editors must concern themselves with payoffs to reporters, not because it's bad journalism but because it's bad business.  There are subtler implications as well: according to one editor, reporters are sometimes promoted or given special beats according to their ability to bring in political advertisements.  Eager, young reporters learn to hustle after gacetillas, since they bolster the paper's revenues and make the reporter -- and the reporter's immediate editor -- look good.  A reporter who dedicates special effort to establishing good contacts often ends up using them to coax ads from press chiefs.  Given the number of newspapers in Mexico City competing for gacetillas, a hustling, well-connected reporter in a lucrative beat can be a real boon to a newspaper.

The relationship, of course, works both ways.  Press officers with lucrative beats have a great deal of input in approving or vetoing reporters sent to cover their fuentes.  Thus, journalists with a reputation for aggressive reporting can be refused politely by a press chief, who has thousand of dollars of gacetilla buying power to back up his opinion.  "It's usually done on a very personal level," says the Mexico City broadsheet editor, explaining that if the editor sends a reporter considered to be ideologically unsuitable, "he might get a call from the press chief who'll say, 'Why'd you send me that guy?  Why not send Paco instead?'"

Within the company, promotion to a "good" beat can be used to reward a reporter, just as assignment to a non-paying one can be a form of punishment.  As a general rule, reporters receive a 15-percent commission on the gacetillas that come in from their beats; a recent innovation, pushed by some of the newspaper unions, stipulates a payment of 10 percent to the reporter and 5 percent to a "common fund" for all other employees.  The common fund idea, instituted in an effort to redistribute the wealth earned from gacetillas, also broadens the base of employees with a vested interest in seeing the reporting bringing them in.  A reporter who imperils relations with a "good" source by printing aggressive articles or who, for reasons of principal may even meet with criticism for endangering an important source of income for the paper and its employees.  The reporter's journalistic talents risk being overshadowed by his or her ad-selling skills, as the latter are rewarded -- monetarily, as well as by colleagues' approval -- and the former, if not necessarily frowned upon, can get in the way.

The predictable result is often a distortion of the reportorial staff.  Eager, hardworking reporters who know how to avoid offending key clients end up with the best-paying beats: certain ministries and, for example, the Mexican Petroleum Company (Petrσleos Mexicanos -- PEMEX).  In the process, these well-paying beats collect a press corps accustomed to the rewards of non-critical reporting.  Non-paying or low-paying beats, meanwhile, are considered backwaters.  Areas that are important for their news value but that shun gacetillas -- foreign relations is the commonly cited example -- can have trouble getting good coverage and attracting top reporters, who for strictly financial reasons would generally prefer a less-important but better-paying beat.

The difference between having a "good" beat and a "bad" beat can be appreciated readily in the different standards of living of the privileged and non-privileged reporters.  "When a reporter gets a good [well-paying] fuente, you can see it immediately in this clothes, the rings he wears and the car he drives," says the broadsheet editor.

The practice of rating reporters by their ability to draw revenue to the paper reaches grotesque proportions at some newspapers, where lists of the reporters' gacetilla earnings are posted alongside the earnings of other reporters at the paper and next to a chart showing the same fuente's purchases in competing newspapers.

The extra pay that gacetilla bring to the newspaper's employees, both directly and indirectly, is one of the strongest arguments in their favor for newspaper editors and publishers.  Like tips for waiters, gacetilla commissions are considered a normal and legitimate "bonus" paid to staff members.  It is a bonus, naturally, that allows the paper to save on payroll costs, though the results can be unsettling to an editor eager to enforce standards on  his reporters.  One editor says, "At any given moment, I have to be aware [when dealing with reporters] that the company in many cases is providing less than half their income.  What's more, because of embutes (direct payoffs to reporters), I can never be sure how much they are earning from outside sources."

(Los Angeles Times)  Paying for the Press in Mexico.  By Chris Kraul. August 29, 2004.

The local press was ignoring her state congressional campaign here, so Maria Dolores Mendivil started asking people in her party why. The answer shocked her. To get any attention, she'd have to fork over $1 million.

That's the going rate for a convenio, or deal, that candidates in many Mexican states pay to local media during the campaign season to get favorable stories — and avoid unflattering ones.

"I would say to reporters in the cafes, 'You interviewed me — why don't you publish anything?' They told me that the National Action Party candidates were banned, obviously because we hadn't paid," Mendivil said.

She was trounced in the July 4 elections here in the central state of Zacatecas, as were most other candidates on her National Action Party, or PAN, slate.

Mendivil, 39, a political neophyte who immigrated illegally to Texas as a teenager and returned home with dreams of making a difference in her native state, ran head-on into a reality that more seasoned politicians — and some less seasoned, including sports stars, singers and businesspeople — were only too aware of: Press coverage in Mexico often carries a price tag.

"I came thinking the press was open and free, something cleaner," Mendivil said. "But in reality it is very dirty."

In many ways, Mexican news media have come a long way since the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, began loosening its grip on most facets of Mexican life more than a decade ago. State-owned television and radio stations have been privatized, and newspapers have modernized. Some news outlets that were once government mouthpieces are now more independent, especially those in the northern border states.

Newspapers such as Zeta of Tijuana wage fearless campaigns against corruption in high places. Proceso magazine and Reforma newspaper, which serve nationwide audiences, say they enforce a strict code of ethics. Freedom of expression has improved, analysts agree, since the 2000 election of President Vicente Fox, who ran on a platform of transparency and change.

But candidates and government officials from Chihuahua and Veracruz states, from Oaxaca and Nuevo Leon, say that many old corrupt practices, such as the convenio, remain in place. They say they have no choice but to enter into the deals with owners of local media or watch their careers or candidacies suffer from negative news coverage or neglect.

Press experts say they know of no instance in which anyone has been prosecuted for paying convenios or receiving them. They add that convenios are much more rare — but not unheard of — in big-city media than in those of the outlying states.

On top of the convenios, which function rather like long-term contracts with media bosses, there are the chayotes — one-time direct payments to reporters. Although much less common than 25 years ago, when reporters received cash-stuffed envelopes at Christmas and President Jose Lopez Portillo gave those covering him Rolex watches, chayotes are still very much in vogue in outlying states. The chayotes, whose name comes from the Spanish word for a tasty but spiny squash-like vegetable, can take the form of commissions for "publicity packages" that reporters sell to candidates or, in the case of Morelos state, even title to small parcels of land.

What many Mexicans don't realize is that much of the money paid out to the media in the under-the-table deals comes out of public funds.

Such payouts, which come on top of legitimate advertising, ultimately hurt the Mexican economy by diverting resources from more productive enterprises. The arrangements also distort the political discourse in a number of ways, most obviously by keeping underfunded or overly scrupulous candidates from running at all.

"To run, candidates have to link themselves to people with resources. In no way does that contribute to democracy," said Francisco Lopez, the PAN candidate for Zacatecas governor who lost along with Mendivil.

The convenios are typically unwritten but quite specific in terms of what the politicians' money entitles them to — so many stories and photos per week in newspapers and a fairly specific number of references on TV and radio programming. Just as important, the deals give the client insurance against negative stories.

"The deals guarantee you favorable appearances on the local TV station or in the newspaper, all with a positive spin, of you visiting an old-folks home, or cutting a ribbon at a school for handicapped children, or denouncing the lack of public security," said a former federal congressman from Nuevo Leon state who asked not to be identified.

Politicians who don't pay up may find themselves mentioned in stories, often fictional, about officials who nap at public meetings, or car wrecks involving politicians' relatives that leave bystanders disabled. Weak Mexican libel laws give politicians and ordinary citizens little legal recourse to demand retraction of or compensation for such stories.

"You may open the paper to see photos of your wife looking fat or with her hair disheveled," the former lawmaker said.

The deals cost millions of dollars, especially during the campaign season that is in full swing in many Mexican states this year. Officials in both the PAN and the PRI say candidates paid huge sums to the media in Nuevo Leon state last year and are paying similar amounts in Veracruz, where voters go to the polls Sept. 5 to elect a governor and state congress.

An estimated $50 million was spent on bribes to the media in the 2001 gubernatorial race in Tabasco state, according to Mexican press reports.

Although the deals are usually under the table and only rarely become public, most Mexicans are aware of the corruptibility of the Mexican press as an institution. It is why so many are as cynical about the freedoms of speech and press as they are about having equal access to education, legal recourse and economic opportunity.

One deal that did come to light happened on the eve of Oaxaca state's Aug. 1 gubernatorial election, when the local newspaper Noticias published a front-page story accusing its main rival, Tiempo, of taking $30,000 a month from the PRI-controlled state government to print favorable news of its candidates. Noticias reproduced alleged receipts to support the accusation.

The next day, Tiempo struck back, accusing Noticias of taking even more money — $100,000 a month — from the state government for positive coverage of the PRI and also printing alleged receipts. Neither newspaper denied accepting the amounts.

Even when there are no elections, Mexican state governments routinely pay out enormous sums of public funds to local newspapers, radio and TV stations, sums that are far above the nominal advertising rates. The extra money is referred to as "understood value" to pay for favorable news coverage, usually of the governor.

The government of Veracruz state, for example, this year budgeted $8 million for publicity, of which about 40% was thought to go toward illicit payments to media owners and individual reporters, said a columnist in the state capital, Xalapa, who spoke on condition that neither he nor his newspaper be identified.

The benefit for Veracruz Gov. Miguel Aleman, who is considering a run for president in 2006, is apparent to readers of the Xalapa papers. One day this month, his picture was on the front page of five of the city's six main newspapers, typical of the press attention he gets daily, locals say.

An official in his government who also asked for anonymity acknowledged the practice, saying convenios were decades old and were observed everywhere in Mexico.

"It's a black hole," the official said. "Millions of pesos go into this system of paying the media in Mexico."

The subsidies make possible the existence of far more Mexican newspapers than a market would normally support, said Claudio Lomnitz, a history professor at New School University in New York who has studied the Mexican press. That state of affairs undercuts journalistic professionalism and feeds the convenios' vicious cycle.

For example, Xalapa, population 400,000, has no fewer than 18 newspapers, whereas only one or two would exist if they were forced to depend on advertising revenue to survive, locals say.

The arrangements also impede Mexico's march toward First World status, said William Orme, a U.N. Development Program official and a former reporter for The Times who wrote a book about Mexico's press.

"One of the big obstacles to economic growth is corruption, and to the extent that the local and national press in Mexico aids and abets corruption, it is a real drag on development," Orme said.

The practice of paying off the press has its roots in a century-long tradition of government control of the media, which was lifted only in the early 1990s, when then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari permitted the foundation of a second national television network, TV Azteca, to compete with long-established and influential Televisa.

Salinas also privatized state-owned newsprint plants and lifted restrictions on imported newsprint. Previously, the government used its monopoly of newsprint supply to threaten adversarial newspapers with extinction. As the nation's biggest advertiser through most of the last century, it exerted life-or-death power over newspapers merely by parceling out ads to newspapers it favored.

"Salinas realized he needed an independent press to know what was going on," Orme said. "It's a big, complex country, and he saw the danger of the government believing its own lies that the opposition was just a tiny slice of people with no programs or credible personalities."

President Fox and the PAN have said publicly that neither he nor his party condone subornation of the press. He is credited with pushing for a 2002 transparency law that gave the press more access to public information, part of a general move to increase government openness. But critics say Fox has not done enough to cut the tens of millions of dollars spent on newspaper and television advertising by state-owned monopolies such as Petroleos Mexicanos, the Federal Electric Commission and the Social Security administration. The main purpose of the ads, the critics say, is to buy favorable press coverage.

"The press' relation with the government has moved from one of subordination to collusion," said Jose Carreno, a former spokesman for Salinas and head of Iberoamericana University's Communication, Law and Democracy Program.

Although he sees "growing margins of liberty" for the press under Fox, Carreno says the press is still hampered by the shroud of secrecy surrounding government operations and the way the media do business.

"We still don't know what newspapers' true circulation figures are, what their sources of revenue might be, or when they print news that is really disguised publicity," Carreno said.

Samuel Garcia, former business editor of El Universal and Reforma newspapers of Mexico City, who is about to launch a weekly business magazine in the capital, said the evolution of a truly free Mexican press would take many more years.

"We have not had a civic culture. Democracy is still a new thing in Mexico. Mexicans see the press as a defender of the economic and political elites, not as an institution that seeks the truth," Garcia said.

"For most media in Mexico, a journalistic code of ethics is merely a decorative object."

The roots of the press complicity also lie in the miserable salaries paid to most Mexican journalists, as little as $200 to $400 a month in Veracruz state. It is understood that reporters can accept chayotes as a means of supplementing their meager incomes, said Joaquin Garces, president of the reporters association of Xalapa. He said half the reporters in Xalapa take chayotes.

"The government does not repress the media here. It doesn't have to," said Garces, who is against chayotes and refuses to take them. "The press is afraid that if they are critical, the government will take away the convenios and the chayotes."