Saturday, October 10, 2009

Misrepresenting Mexico

Via Richard, I saw this article in Columbia Journalism Review about the distortions from the American media in their coverage of Mexico:
Journalists peddle a sort of drug-war pornography, salaciously and insatiably dwelling on the most lurid aspects of the trade: narcos, gangs, smugglers, pipelines, cells, mass graves, severed heads, torture chambers, dirty cops. Journalists promiscuously quote DEA agents, eagerly accompany undercover cops on ride-alongs, descend daringly into drug-infested neighborhoods, and intrepidly interview members of the drug trade.
One element he touches on is the tendency to over-attribute American drug problems to their foreign suppliers. We've heard a lot in recent months about Mexican gangs taking over American cities, but the evidence that Mexican kingpins are treating Chicago or New York as Sinaloa-North pretty limited. Instead, it seems like the Mexicans are consolidating their distribution networks through pre-existing American gangs, which isn't really so worrying, since American criminal groups have to get their cocaine from some foreign group. A lot of the blame for this and other exaggerations lies with DEA officials acting as propaganda officers. You could argue that reporters shouldn't be quoting the DEA, but it's hard to write a thorough story on drugs that excludes the opinions of the relevant government officials, even if their comments are often silly.

As far as drugs being such a popular topic for American reporters, I don't think this is all the fault of the correspondents; people are simply much more interested in the rise of a terrifying new drug gang than, say, the new role the Supreme Court is playing in Mexican politics, despite the fact that the latter could well be far more significant. Reporters are largely just playing to their audience. I also think it's unfair to blame individual reporters for choosing the Zetas (for example) as the subject of the story, because the fact is that they are newsworthy. The problem emerges when 95 out of 100 stories in 50 difference publications cover the drug trade. It's a reverse version of the tragedy of the commons.

In any event, it's quite a thought-provoking article, at least for those of us who follow Mexico.


jd said...

I think you have it totally correct. The drug war is cinematic and boosts readership/listenership. People who have never cared a whit about my interest in Latin America ask about it all the time, not because of the mere presence of the stories but rather because they actually read them. The Supreme Court or PEMEX or anything else really can't compete - though quirky stories, like Juanito and the Guinness records fad, also got coverage. I also think you're on the money with the US gang connection part being the most ridiculous, but this is nothing new either - I remember, as a teen in the early 90s, reading many articles concluding that America best start reconciling itself to the inevitable national takeover by Jamaican rude boys.

This is not to disagree with Massing; quickly scanning the map, I might agree that Mexico is the most "misreported" (ignoring for the moment all the countries that simply go unreported). The only other thing is that most of the "big" problems - monopolies, agricultural decline, oil problems, weak education, poverty, etc. haven't changed that much in quite a while, while crime brings something shocking almost every week.

pc said...

Yeah I don't disagree with Massing's broader point, I'm just not sure you can blame reporters for hopping on the stories that people want to read (which is a point apart from the lazy reporting like the guy who tried to force a "Nuevo Laredo is scary" square peg into a round hole). Somebody asked in comments if it was really any different for other nations, and as far as other non-developed nations, I really dont know. It seems like I hardly ever read an Africa story that's not about a rigged election or warlordism.

That's also true about the big things in Mexico being static. I guess the last example of something like that would be oil reform. My memory isn't too clear, but I remember most mainstream media outlets did a decent job on it. I guess the problem is more from outlets that don't have a Mexico bureau and might run a Mexico story evey six weeks or so, especially magazines; I think they are usually less likely to balance the crime stories with broader national interest stories.