A Journalist's Perspective by Jane Bussey



[00:00:00] This whole question of history versus propaganda is a really interesting one especially because [as] journalists we are often told that what we are writing is history in a hurry. And, sometimes you are working so fast, you are running around, you are just grasping to get a story in on time, and you forget completely that you are doing anything about history.

Whenever I read academic articles, when I read books written by scholars, inevitably most of the citations are newspaper reports, they are magazines, and you realize that as a journalist you are not just writing for that day. You are writing for the future. And it is not something that you remember when you are doing it because you think, “My editor is yelling at me. I’ve got to get my story in.” The pressures of the deadline just make news gathering so difficult.

Sometimes you cannot get sources to call you back, or you are on a scene and you see one thing and someone [else] may see another. And this is one of the joys and benefits of being a journalist because we actually go right to the source. You are out on the street; you are out in the countryside; you are actually following what people are doing. You don’t read about it. You don’t hear second hand. You go right to the source, to people who are in the thick of history. They are in the thick of current events at that moment and that is why you are telling the original story sometimes—not always, but sometimes.

There have been moments when I’ve been covering events when I have recognized that I am standing almost as a spectator in front of history. History is just unfolding. When events go so quickly you just stand by and as a spectator hope that you can get a few incidents and put them on paper.

Fiction as Fact

[01:54:00] Now one of the problems in writing about a subject is that sometimes journalists do rely on secondary sources. There is this one incident that I know very, very well—because I covered it—about a drug trafficker in Mexico named Héctor Agüero Palma. His wife ran off with someone and was killed.

Now in some magazine article in Mexico it put in that she was killed by a rival drug trafficker, and the rival cut off her head and sent it to Héctor Palma in a box. Well this is completely untrue. If you check with the police you’ll find that police found her body with her head intact. Nevertheless, because a story I wrote never got on Nexus-Lexus because it was written in a foreign language [Spanish], the only thing you can come across is this Mexican magazine article that says this. So this error of history has now been repeated in the New York Times, Newsweek, a book. And you say, “Well, perhaps it is unimportant.” But this case is used all the time to signify rivalries between drug gangs in Mexico. And that is not necessarily what happened in this case. Actually, police believe that it was a lover who killed her.

So, the truth in this situation is never going to be part of history because it has never been written up in the English language, and a lie has become part of the folklore of Mexico. I think that this is one of the pitfalls of being a journalist. And I guess because I went to the drug trafficking center and studied this case I was able to find out what is the truth. But that makes no difference, because an error is now part of the written record.

Sources of Truth and Fiction

[03:42:00] One of the problems of covering really any country, but particularly Mexico, is the whole idea of who defines what information you get. Mexico has been ruled by one party for seventy years, the PRI, a party which believed that there was no reason to ever share power, and therefore no reason to ever share the truth, or share information, or allow anyone else’s version of history to get into textbooks—to get into the historical record—or to get into journalism. And for a long time, even though everyone knew that the [Mexican] president hand-picked his successor, and then that successor became the candidate and eventually became the president, if you said this in a news report—and most journalists just didn’t—you had to couch it because the government denied it. And in a way, it was not the real version of what happened in Mexico but it was the government’s version of what happened. And that was the historical record for a long time.

In a country as complicated as Mexico, one group of people—granted, with the consent of the population for most of the seventy years of ruling—has defined what the historical record would be. This has changed radically in the past ten years, in part because new voices became very prominent in Mexico. And suddenly, if the government wasn’t available, several opposition parties were available. Plus a whole group of social commentators, starting in the mid-1980s, became part of the historical landscape of Mexico. This has changed how journalists cover Mexico. It means that their coverage is less propaganda and much more historical record. There is a lot to go back and look at in Mexico. The Mexicans themselves are reexamining all these events. And I think that a lot of journalism and books are going to have to reexamine part of this period because new voices have changed what gets written.


[05:50:00] It is a major responsibility when you realize how much people rely on your daily reporting that can sometimes just be “I can’t get enough information, but I just have to write the story because they are waiting for it, and the story has got to go in the paper.” There is no point in waiting or my story’s got to go on the air. I mean that that is the pressure daily news gathering. And um I’m not sure, I don’t think that I necessarily thought about this too much until years after I started reporting and that’s when I said “oh my gosh, if I make a mistake this goes into the record, and it may be there forever.” No one may ever correct this mistake.” And, that’s a, that is a responsibility. But, um, one of the ways As a journalist you always have your prejudices and you you never can be sure, are you seeing a full picture. You are talking to someone. You believe them, but is this really true? And, and this is, the greatest challenge is trying to make sure that your own feelings do not become involved in trying to define what happened. I have to make sure that I am seeing something clearly without being partial about it. You obviously feel things, but you have to always be running through your mind: Now, am I allowing someone that I like to influence what I am thinking? Am I allowing flattery? Am I allowing any kind of outside noise interference to keep me from saying, “This is what really happened and it is my responsibility to report this because I am not going to report propaganda.” I can assure you, most journalists, we never think about this on a day-to-day basis. It’s only every once and a while you stop and you look back and you say, “Oh dear, did I do history or was I caught up in propaganda?”

Example: 1988
The ruling party, the PRI, managed to control not only what was written in Mexico, but what was disseminated throughout the world. All news stories had this certain tone to them, and up until 1988, lots of books written about Mexico said, “This is a very idiosyncratic system. This is a very strange and different system. Maybe it has all its errors and it’s corrupt, but people basically like it.”

And then, lo and behold, in 1988 there were elections and Carlos Salinas, a very strange pick as a presidential candidate, a man who was able to weave his way to the top through the back rooms and closed-door deals of Mexican politics, became the candidate. He was not a popular candidate. He was very, very unsuccessful, and he either lost the elections or nearly lost the elections. The government was never able to prove that he won the election because the ballots were never open to the public. Only about half of the ballots were ever displayed to the public. The other voting is a mystery. It remains a mystery and the ballots were burned in about 1994.

Now, in the past the PRI had always been able to come through with a clean victory just because the opposition was so weak. And in 1988, despite their attempts to control the press, to control what the world wrote, this elite group of people, who thought they had it all worked out, were not able to control it. And instead no one believed that the computer had had a breakdown. No one believed there were problems in counting the vote. No. People wrote that obviously this breakaway candidate named Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas had won. If they didn’t write he won, because no one knew he won, they said basically, “No one knows who won.”

There was no longer any sense that the PRI had a monopoly on power, on public support, on control, and it was just amazing. The stories that started coming out of Mexico changed completely. And from that moment on, Mexico, the Mexican government, the Mexican ruling elite, has not been able to completely define the agenda. This was a turning point in who controls Mexico’s history and there was just a moment when you knew that Mexico had changed forever. Suddenly you no longer could be browbeaten if you wrote something that the government didn’t like because the government no longer had a monopoly.