Building the Fourth Estate

By Lawson, Chappell | Hemisphere, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview
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Building the Fourth Estate

Lawson, Chappell, Hemisphere

In June 1995, President Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico held a press conference in the town of Cuauhtitlan. The president was seeking to reassure his fellow citizens that their country, then in the midst of deep economic crisis and political turmoil, was back on the right track. In the course of his remarks, Zedillo made reference to a group of "bad guys" (malosos) within the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). These naughty officials, Zedillo implied, were responsible for many of Mexico's recent troubles, including the 1994 assassinations of the PRI's leader, Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu, and the party's presidential candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio.

Mexican journalists responded vigorously to Zedillo's comments. Did he mean that ruling party officials were responsible for Colosio's murder? Who, exactly, were the officials in question? Could the country's problems really be blamed on a small group of individuals, however nefarious? And was "bad guys" really an appropriate term to describe such people, given that their extracurricular activities apparently included drug trafficking and political assassination?

The vehemence of the journalists' reaction surprised many observers. Traditionally, interactions between the president and the press in Mexico were carefully scripted affairs. Questions were often planted by government officials; independent newspapers were underrepresented, if at all; and the entire performance was carefully edited before being rebroadcast by the country's reliably pro-government media conglomerate, Televisa. Aggressive or hostile inquiries were simply not part of the regularly scheduled programming.

Reporters' reactions to the malosos incident exemplified the changes that have occurred in Mexico's media. Over the past two decades, independent publications have emerged and flourished, supplanting their more staid and traditional counterparts. Feisty talk-radio shows have come to dominate the airwaves in Mexico's largest cities. Even broadcast television, long viewed as a sort of private Ministry of Information, has begun to devote more coverage to opposition and civic groups. These changes have brought increased media attention to civil society and its viewpoints, more even-handed coverage of electoral campaigns, more incisive criticism of the political system, and--perhaps most dramatically--more aggressive investigation of potential scandals.


What caused the remarkable transformation of Mexico's media? One familiar explanation for the success of Mexico's emerging fourth estate is the general mellowing of the country's political climate over the last decade. In theory, without this political thaw, the government could have squashed any independent publications--as it did when it helped eject an independent-minded team of editors from Excelsior newspaper in 1976. In this sense, a modicum of political liberalization was probably necessary for Mexico's independent media to survive and establish themselves.

At the same time, it would be inaccurate to portray political reform as the principal driver of media opening. Mexican journalists insist that any autonomous space the media now enjoy is due to changes within civil society and the media themselves, which gradually pried control out of the government's hands. As Jose Gutierrez-Vivo, host of the popular independent radio show "Monitor," put it in 1996, "The media did not get opened from above. We opened it. We broke the limits." Journalists are especially adamant about the limited influence of former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-94), sometimes credited in the United States with encouraging media openness. Salinas initiated a number of modest reforms in press-government relations and ended the practice of paying bribes (known as embutes or chayotes) to journalists at the presidential palace itself. In general, however, his administration was never sympathetic to Mexico's independent press, and it became increasingly abusive toward the end of his term.

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