Graciela Mochkofsky is a young Argentine journalist who has worked for two major newspapers in her country, authored several books, and is presently co-founder and co-editor of a digital magazine, el puercoespín. She was also a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 2009.
For much of the past decade, Mochkofsky has been been part of a group of Argentine journalists interested in examining the role of the press in their country. Their concern has been prompted by the transformation of newspaper publishing in Argentina, including the rise of large multimedia groups, technological changes, the role of the press during a brutal military dictatorship (1976-1983) and in the subsequent return to democracy.
Mochkofsky has already made a substantial contribution to the discussion. In 2003, she published an excellent biography of Jacobo Timerman, Timerman. El periodista que quiso ser parte del poder (The journalist who wanted to be part of power). Timerman, the man who created modern journalism in Argentina, also gained international attention because of his abduction, imprisonment and torture by the military government headed by General Rafael Videla in 1977. Mochkofsky’s book is centered on the journalist, revealing his financial dealings and close political connections with the military, how he acquired wealth and influence, and his impact on successive military dictatorships, including his cooperation in the demise of an elected democratic government.
Pecado original is another attempt by Mochkofsky to contextualize the debate about the role of the press in a democracy. Since much of the present discussion has been prompted by the confrontation between the Grupo Clarín and Presidents Néstor (2007-2011) and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2011-), this book is largely a detailed history of how the owner of the tabloid Clarín, became the head of the Grupo Clarín, Argentina’s major multimedia group, and one of the largest in the Spanish-speaking world. It also follows its dealings with successive governments and offers a rich account of its confrontations with President Carlos Saúl Menem (1989-1995 and 1995-1999) and the Kirchner presidencies.
This complex story begins in 1957 when Ernestina Herrera, a beautiful 25-year-old woman of lower middle-class background, became the mistress of Roberto Noble, the lawyer and politician who had founded Clarín in 1945. In 1958, he fathered a daughter by another woman. The child, known as Lupita, was registered as Guadalupe Noble and became his heir. However, in July 1967, when he was 63, he finally married Ernestina, who was 42. He died two years later. Lupita was to inherit Clarín but until she reached legal age, Ernestina would direct the paper with the help and advice of a man Noble trusted and admired, Rogelio Frigerio, an economist, politician and businessman. Ten years later, she had severed her ties with Frigerio, became the owner of Clarín after a bitter legal fight with Lupita and created a sucession of her own. At the suggestion of Frigerio, she had adopted a boy and a girl, Felipe and Marcela, in 1976. She managed to give them the last name of her dead husband and have the final adoption papers in an extraordinarily rapid process.
Throughout the years of military rule, Clarín continued publishing, growing steadily, silent on human rights violations and disappearances, though while Frigerio was on board, it criticized the economic policies of the finance minister J. A. Martínez de Hoz. When the military dictatorship ended, Ernestina’s trusted collaborator Héctor Magnetto tried to influence President Raúl Ricardo Alfonsín (1983-1989) to pass legislation that would permit Clarín to acquire other media, especially television stations—a decision that involved much more than Clarín because it meant setting the media policies for the entire nation. He failed, though he managed to buy his first radio station, Radio Mitre, through a third party. The election of Peronist Carlos Saúl Menem got him what he wanted. Despite confrontations with his govenment, those were the golden years ofClarín. In 1999, it became the Grupo Clarín, presided by Ernestina Herrera de Noble with Magnetto as its CEO, an Argentine owned company until Goldman Sachs joined it bringing in 500 million dollars. Grupo Clarín was composed of several newspapers and radio stations, Fibertel (an internet provider), Cablevision (a television cable provider), several channels in Buenos Aires, TN (a cable news channel), Artear (prodution and broadcast channels) and TC, a television sports channel that included exclusive rights to transmit soccer games, the favorite Argentine sport.
Despite the substantial profits reaped by the Grupo Clarín from the Menem government, relations between the two were far from smooth. They became even more difficult during the devastating political and economic crisis of 2001, when Argentina had 5 presidents in 10 days, and after the 2003 election of Nestor Kirchner.
A largely unknown 43-year-old three-time Peronist former governor of Santa Cruz province, who won with 22% of the vote, Kirchner brought back some measure of economic stability, democratized and diversified the Supreme Court and developed a vigorous human rights policy. In 2003, a law annulled the so-called impunity laws, including the pardon granted by Menem, which prevented the trial of lower rank officers accused of crimes against humanity committed during the military dictatorship.
The President’s press policy was an extension of what he had done in Santa Cruz. “He drew a line between allies and enemies, granted access and exclusives to some, paid back others with an absolute news silence and a public confrontation that identified them as political opponents.” He saw Clarín as an economic group fundamentally interested in accumulating more wealth and more power, not in providing information to the public. La Nación and Clarín took turns at being the enemy until both eventually became “the opposition.” Journalists were compelled to take sides. All those who sided with him practiced what they called periodismo militante, something too often too close to propaganda.
All-out war exploded shortly after his wife, Cristina F. de Kirchner succeeded him. A new Media Law to replace the 1980 decree issued by the military dictatorship was enacted in October, 2009. Among other things, it limited the number of licenses available to a firm and gave a year to those needing to sell their holdings. These two articles attacked specifically the Grupo Clarín and have had a powerful effect on the group. During the congressional debate, information emerged concerning the acquisition during the military dictatorship by Clarin and La Nación of Papel Prensa, a business that gave them the monopoly of newspaper publishing paper in Argentina. The acquired company had previously been owned by David Graiver, a banker whose family members were subsequently imprisoned and tortured and his wife raped in jail. Mochkofsky discusses this issue at length, providing new information and questions the legitimacy of the versions offered by the two newspapers.
An additional issue between the Kirchner governments and the Grupo Clarín concerned the origin of Ernestina Herrera de Noble’s children, adopted during the years of military rule. The question was whether they were among the hundreds of babies born to disappeared young women and given to members of the armed forces. It was a painful, drawn-out confrontation that began in the 1990s. The final decision was that they were not children of abducted mothers.
Pecado original is a fascinating, meticulously researched cautionary tale and it is also an excellent example of investigative journalism, though Argentines will be able to follow more easily than foreigners the layers of its complexity.