Of Oligarchs & Media Owners

by Rick Rockwell

Recently the question came this way about whether it was easy to tell the difference between an oligarch and a crusading media owner.

On its face, that seems like an easy question.  When thinking about oligarchs the image of shady Russian oil tycoons with European villas or huge dachas comes to mind.

The crusading media owner? One image (of course, this is a generational image) is Katherine Graham, who, when she was alive, was smart enough to hire Ben Bradlee to run The Washington Post and to give him and his reporters support even when they took on a president.  And even in hindsight, there was no guarantee they would win.

But this very intelligent questioner pointed out, if the context is Latin America, it isn’t always easy to tell the difference.

Immediately, the thought is of Gustavo Cisneros in Venezuela who runs Venevision, one of Latin America’s most powerful and profitable television networks.  During the past 13 years, during the rule of President Hugo Chavez, Cisneros has played various roles.  He’s been an enemy of the state, vilified by Chavez as one of the leaders of the oligarchy as his network (and others) criticized the government.  And then after an unsuccessful coup against Chavez, Cisneros and Venevision switched course and muted the anti-Chavez rhetoric.  Chavez went on to remake the electronic media landscape in his country, but has left Cisneros alone while pressuring some other TV networks and forcing other critics off the airwaves.  Some might say Cisneros chose profits over politics.

And what if the country is Argentina?

Like other countries in Latin America, one media group dominates the landscape in Argentina. That would be Grupo Clarin.  Grupo Clarin includes a major Argentine television network, the Spanish-language world’s most popular newspaper website, and the most circulated newspaper in Latin America, among other media properties. Goldman Sachs in New York holds a key minority stake in the company.  Hector Magnetto, the long-time CEO of Grupo Clarin has mixed it up with two Argentine presidents: President Nestor Kirchner, when he was alive and now his widow President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.  And if there are parallels to be made to the United States, Grupo Clarin’s largest shareholder Ernestina Herrera de Noble, from afar, looks like the Argentine version of Katherine Graham.  Herrera is the widow of the founder of the newspaper Clarin, Roberto Noble, and the newspaper is the centerpiece of the media group.  In the broad sense, it might be fair to compare Herrera to Graham as women who headed up large media concerns, but the details reveal their differences, as do the details of the disputes between Grupo Clarin and Argentina’s government.

Currently, the Fernandez administration is battling with Grupo Clarin over control of the firm that supplies paper to the country’s news firms, a jointly-held concern that has long included partial government ownership.  The Argentine government has accused Grupo Clarin of using its control of the newsprint company to sell Clarin paper at low rates, but to jack up the prices to smaller concerns to create a competitive advantage.  Grupo Clarin and the government fell out in 2008 over differing economic views of new agricultural taxes, followed by charges and counter-charges of corruption on both sides.  The Fernandez administration’s progressive broadcasting reform of 2009, some critics say, was aimed at blocking Grupo Clarin’s further dominance of the Argentine market.  That law has been held up in Argentina’s courts and it is unclear if recent action by Argentina’s Supreme Court will allow the law to go into effect.  This year, President Fernandez trotted out the history of Grupo Clarin’s friendly relations with Argentina’s military junta when it ruled the country from 1976 until 1983 as yet another element to this war between the media and the government.  The Fernandez administration is the latest in the line of Perronist left-wing governments which opposed military rule.

International media organizations have criticized Argentina’s government for using tax audits, intrusive raids of media organizations and other abusive tactics as a means of bringing a critical media to heel, especially Grupo Clarin.  But renowned Argentine journalists such as Horacio Verbitsky have criticized the corporate media, as exemplified by Grupo Clarin, for using manipulative business practices.  Other media watchdogs have noted that many media groups and media organizations outside Argentina defend Grupo Clarin because they are defending a corporate media culture.

This is not to say that all corporate media owners are greedy oligarchs, but the knee jerk reaction of most journalists is to defend media owners and their rights to publish or broadcast.  Sometimes the finer details reveal that the corporate stewards of that free speech ethos have abused their rights.

(Graphic from radicalgraphics.org, which offers its material for free.)

About rickrockwell2011

Rick Rockwell is the Director of the School of Communication’s International Media program at American University. Rockwell is an award-winning journalist and author. His book, Media Power in Central America, won an award from the American Library Association. Please see the additional links for a full profile.
This entry was posted in Argentina, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, Ernestina Herrera de Noble, Free Speech, Grupo Clarin, Gustavo Cisneros, Hugo Chavez, Latin America, Media, Media Owners, Venevision, Venezuela and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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