The Buenos Aires Herald was a bubble of freedom and journalistic dignity that was difficult to burst and will be even more difficult to recreate. Unanimously praised for the sublime job done by Robert Cox and his team during the country’s darkest hour, one could almost say that making it to the newsstands every day for almost 141 years was an act of heroism on its own.
The Herald’s story, which ended in late July, epitomises some of the conditions needed for freedom in modern journalism. Rule number one: your voice needs an audience (if the audience is influential, much better). In the case of the Herald, that was the English-speakers in a country where Anglo circles have traditionally had political and economic clout. Until 2007, the Herald was owned by people linked to the English-speaking world (expanded upon further below). Rule number two: make your voice matter. The Cox and Co. example is the greatest possible. But even in times when heroism was less needed, the Herald’s voice mattered for a simple reason: it kept honest by walking the thin line between the insider and the outsider in Argentina’s corridors of power.
When you write in a different language, you are isolated – by default – in at least two ways. On one hand, you need to translate words and expressions, jargon and idioms, which means you need to understand things better than a simple observer. Against an old saying, the translator is not a traitor here but an interpreter and explainer of reality. The Herald translated Argentina all those years, not just for the people outside but also for many inside the country. Sometime ago the paper’s marketing department had the good idea of finding out who the Herald’s readers were, and came to the (perhaps surprising?) conclusion that 70 percent were Argentines, who were obviously fluent in English or learning the language.
The uniqueness of the language comes in handy when you try to be loyal to the main value of journalism: objectivity. There is no such thing as verbatim when you report the news in a foreign language, and it is therefore more difficult to insert political propaganda (propagandists by definition lack the ability to translate and interpret). For two years in the early 2000s, I was in charge of producing, conducting, transcribing, editing and publishing the Herald’s Sunday current affairs interview.
Interviewees, granted, tend to dislike the way print reporters edit their words to adapt the oral to the written form (only exceptionally does an interviewer have enough space to replicate the conversation word-for-word, as Jorge Fontevecchia does in the Sunday editions of Perfil). But knowing in advance their words would be translated, the interviewees felt free to speak their minds more openly.
There was sometimes a tacit understanding between sources and reporters that the Herald lived in some sort of a limbo not many people had access to, and from where the country’s reality could be dissected in a way that was not possible in Spanish-language papers. The small but influential readership, the language barrier, the centennial reputation, gave the paper a scent of exclusivity. But the bubble would burst every once in a while.
During the 20 years that I was, on and off, part of the paper (from cub reporter to deputy editor of local news to media columnist) only once did I feel the heat of something resembling external pressure. As I started writing a media column called Politics and the Press in the mid-2000s (well before the Kirchner administration got obsessed with its “media war”) somebody from Grupo Clarín called the paper’s CEO at the time to find out who was writing about media issues and why.
The true intention of the call is something I never knew, but some middle managers in the Herald’s newsroom and the commercial office got panicky about the prospects of angering the media behemoth, which then happened, and now happens to have control over the newsprint manufactured in this country.
But the vast majority of the times the Herald was a pleasant island of freedom, only subject to the angle each of its editors would give the paper in heir time. During those two last decades, that included the likes of Julia Cass, Andrew Graham-Yooll, Michael Soltys, Peter Johnson, Martín Gambarotta, Carolina Barros and most recently, Sebastián Lacunza. It was also a school of journalism for entire generations. Young people who took their first steps at the do-it-all journalistic experience of the Herald – where you had to be reporter, copy editor, translator, headline writer all at once – went on to pursue prolific careers in some of the world’s leading newsrooms.
But the saga also included three rapid changes of ownership in the last decade, which proved fatal for the paper. From the Charleston’s Evening Post Publishing Company to Sergio Szpolski’s Grupo 23 first, then to AmFin SA, the publisher of Ámbito Financiero, and ultimately to Cristóbal López’s Grupo Indalo. These three final owners, associated through business and politics with the former administration of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, had no journalistic or business vision for the Herald, other than including it in a portfolio of publications susceptible to receiving state advertising funds.
That was the down side. The good news was that they also had next to no interest or capacity to interfere in newsroom affairs. I checked that first-hand last October when, as the newspaper’s media columnist, I had to write on the sad news that the daily was turning into a weekly and firing two-thirds of the newsroom in the process. When I contacted the Grupo Indalo bureaucrat in charge of running the paper, he gave me the predictable answer that he would get back to me. And of course, he never did. But the thing I also realised is that he did not know who I was – ergo he had never read the paper he was meant to be running.
If you are holding a copy of the Buenos Aires Times or reading it online, and got to the very end of this 1,000-word-plus column, it is because you believe this new venture can become the “tribute” to the Herald its tagline says it is. Let us hope you are right: the public is in desperate need of honest translators of reality.