Benjamin T. Smith. The Mexican Press and Civil Society, 1940-1976: Stories from the Newsroom, Stories from the Street. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018. 382 pp. $37.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-3808-9.
Reviewed by Keegan Boyar (University of Chicago)
Published on H-LatAm (April, 2019)
Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)
Historians of twentieth-century Mexico have long held to a standard portrayal of the Mexican press. Between strict censorship of political criticism, low literacy rates, public disinterest in the media in favor of other venues of political expression, and the popularity of the infamously lurid and sensationalist crime reporting of the nota roja, a functioning public sphere simply did not exist. This sorry situation, conventional narratives conclude, only began to change with the 1968 student movement, when a new generation of courageous journalists began to challenge the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), at long last bringing critical voices into the press and opening space for debate. However, more recent scholarship, such as Pablo Piccato’s reinterpretation of the nota roja in A History of Infamy (2017) and the essays in the collected volume Journalism, Satire, and Censorship in Mexico (2018), has challenged these assumptions, pushing scholars to take a more nuanced look at the Mexican press and its relations with the state and society.
Benjamin T. Smith’s The Mexican Press and Civil Society, 1940-1976: Stories from the Newsroom, Stories from the Street, is an informative and well-written contribution to this emerging literature. Drawing on a range of sources, including newspaper archives and intelligence files, Smith delves into the growth of the press industry, the mechanics and limitations of press control, and the broader connections between the press, the state, and civil society. He makes several compelling arguments. First, Smith argues that newspapers were far more popular than often supposed. Second, he historicizes censorship, convincingly arguing that state control over the press strengthened over time but was nowhere near as solid as has been assumed. Finally, he goes beyond the narrow confines of Mexico City, which has dominated analyses of the press. While the capital’s press was relatively subdued, only occasionally hosting critical voices, regional papers often did serve as forums for the discussion and critique of local politics, constituting limited but functional public spheres.
Several factors shaped the growth of newspaper readership in Mexico. Urbanization, improvements in infrastructure, and rising literacy rates through public education greatly expanded press markets. Meanwhile, the foundation of a state paper monopoly in the 1930s kept newsprint cheap, and the growth of the advertising industry and changes in printing press technology kept operating costs down and prices low. However, Smith points out, readership did not expand evenly. Mexico City’s major national newspapers only grew slowly, in part a product of their intentionally limited appeal to upper- and upper-middle-class readers. In contrast, the nota roja attracted a mass audience in the capital, while regional papers grew dramatically.
Smith contrasts the Mexico City press with the regional press, detailing the regionalized development of press control as well as emblematic case studies. In Mexico City, directly coercive censorship through legal means was rare. Instead, control of the press hinged on several factors. Most owners, editors, and journalists held conservative nationalist political views similar to the official PRI ideology of the era, while gendered cultural norms around what constituted good journalism considered much direct criticism to be irresponsible gossip unfit for print. Those who disagreed were kept in line with threats of dismissal and violence. Smith also traces the emergence of the state’s publicity arm. From early dispersed and underfunded efforts, departmental press bureaus developed into a centralized and well-coordinated publicity arm by the 1960s, which sought to shape public opinion by regularly putting out news bulletins, monitoring the press, and occasionally using popular news items to distract from unpopular policies. Finally, the state held economic leverage over the press (especially through the paper monopoly) and journalists (through regular bribes and gifts of land and houses). Surveying the range of possibilities for controlling the press, one internal memo even proposed to subconsciously create “invisible tyranny” (p. 65). As Smith correctly points out, though, this overstates the impact of state press control efforts. Internal and external censorship placed certain topics off-limits, such as direct criticism of the president, and indeed, by the 1960s, the Mexico City press was far more regulated than in the past. Nonetheless, Mexican censorship paled in comparison to that of other authoritarian regimes.
In two illustrative case studies, Smith highlights the limits and possibilities of censorship in the capital, as well as the role of the press in popular protest. In 1948, the devaluation of the peso provoked cross-class recriminations of Miguel Alemán’s government in satirical journals and popular theater alike, generating broad public dissent. In turn, authorities used financial pressure, violence, and a national press-supported campaign against “gossip” to silence critical journalism. The result was the decline of critical media in Mexico City. Smith argues that the capital did not witness sustained political criticism in the press until the rise of the New Left in the 1960s, when the Cold War generated new sources of funding (notably the Cuban government) but also provoked harsher repression. Ultimately, the connections between the press and civil society that formed in 1948 and 1968 were exceptions to the rule, at least in Mexico City.
The regional press, Smith convincingly demonstrates, was an entirely different beast. While the techniques used in Mexico City were still common, they were far less effective. Journalists and press owners held a wider variety of political views, while state power was more diffuse and regularly fractured in factional competition. Local news dominated the regional press, fostering close connections with readers. The willingness of higher officials to remove state and municipal authorities who generated negative press gave teeth to local journalism, but also encouraged local politicians to seek to control the press by any means available. The result was that violence against journalists was far more common outside of Mexico City. Smith examines some two hundred complaints of attacks on the press, showing that they were most prevalent during contested municipal and state elections and national-level openings to the press. Murder was relatively rare, as it risked generating outrage that could topple a governor or mayor. But authorities regularly used imprisonment, assault, and attacks on printing presses to try to control journalism. In short, the regional press offered far more possibilities for critical reporting, but also tended toward harsher means of censorship.
Again, Smith turns to several illustrative case studies. In Oaxaca, the small-scale newspaper El Chapulín was at the forefront of a functional public sphere during the 1940s and 1950s. Operating in the context of the PRI’s regional weakness, the paper used satire, letters from readers, and extensive positive coverage of local civil society organizations to gain a popular readership and unite diverse social movements. El Chapulín was crucial in protests that forced officials to respond to popular demands, until the PRI’s increasing strength in Oaxaca enabled it to ignore critical journalism. Similarly, the journalist Judith Reyes—one of the few female journalists to write on politics in the era and later famous as a nueva canción singer—used the highly critical paper Acción in Chihuahua to forge alliances between diverse popular movements. The paper’s free distribution and colloquial style gave it popularity in the countryside and facilitated mass cross-class movements that united student protesters, landless peasants, and urban civil society groups in 1963-64, until the movement fractured under the pressure of repression and increasing political radicalism.
In perhaps the most interesting case study, Smith delves into the history of the regional press magnate José García Valseca, the inspiration for Carlos Fuentes’s La muerte de Artemio Cruz (1962). García Valseca leveraged political connections and business acumen to build a chain of dozens of regional newspapers, before falling from power in what seems to have been an attempt by the Echeverría regime to strengthen its control over the press. While his papers maintained a pro-government line in national news, they alternated between unquestioning state support and bursts of critical coverage in their local news. This was widely held to be part of what came to be known as “gangster journalism”—the practice of threatening local authorities with negative press in order to extort subsidies. Here, Smith delves into the conceptual questions opened up by the practice. Given that extortion campaigns were not noticeably more inaccurate than most critical journalism, what difference did it make to readers, and what were its implications on the functioning of the public sphere? While Smith cannot provide definitive answers—given source limitations, it is doubtful that any historian could—his work sheds light on the challenges of analyzing corruption.
The Mexican Press and Civil Society is undoubtedly an important work for historians of twentieth-century Mexico and a major first step toward a broad framing of the Mexican public sphere. Written with admirable clarity, it opens the gates for further consideration of regions and topics not discussed here. By examining regional papers, Smith goes a long way toward decentering the state and the capital press. The case studies present a wealth of empirical detail, and the book adds to the emerging historiography on Mexico under the PRI, joining with scholars who have argued for a relatively weak and fractious central state and highlighting the profound limits of the state’s power. Relatedly, the work makes an important step in demonstrating how corruption was not necessarily an impediment to the public sphere, but rather could drive public debate.
Yet this brings up a potential issue of the work. Certain key terms—notably “corruption,” “crony capitalism,” and in one section, “the deep state”—come preloaded with normative meanings. As is all too often the case in histories of twentieth-century Mexico, these terms are not very clearly conceptualized; one wishes that they could be analyzed as deeply as Smith examines “gangster journalism.” In some cases (especially with “crony capitalism” and “the deep state”) it is perhaps worth asking if the uncritical use of these terms hinders rather than helps analysis, as such language may override the nuances of the practices under discussion. However, Smith’s detailed empirical work is nonetheless a step forward in understanding the legal and informal mechanics of the PRI’s power and implicitly pushes scholars to better consider how these issues can be conceptualized.
The Mexican Press and Civil Society also opens the door to several questions that it does not answer, although it would perhaps be unfair to expect it to answer them all. Inevitably, not all of Mexico’s regions are covered in detail. The Monterrey press, for example, is only discussed briefly in reference to García Valseca, leaving one wishing for a more in-depth analysis of relations between Monterrey politics, business interests, and journalism. Somewhat oddly, the nota roja itself is not analyzed in depth, although Smith does discuss the spread of its techniques through the regional press. Finally, while the work certainly highlights internal frictions within the state beyond Mexico City, in the capital it perhaps goes too far in presenting a relatively unified state. One wonders if the picture would change if local politics within Mexico City were also discussed, although of course it is difficult to disentangle the local and the national in the federalized capital. Overall, The Mexican Press and Civil Society takes an important step in understanding the Mexican press, the PRI state, and political movements, but more work is needed.
Despite these concerns, Smith has nonetheless produced a thoroughly detailed and eminently readable analysis. The book ends on a sobering note: despite the frequency of attacks on journalists detailed in the preceding pages, Mexico in the mid-twentieth century was nonetheless a safer time and place to be a journalist than in the present. The work of understanding and historicizing state violence in Mexico remains crucial today, and The Mexican Press and Civil Society is a vital work for scholars seeking to understand this topic.
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Keegan Boyar. Review of Smith, Benjamin T., The Mexican Press and Civil Society, 1940-1976: Stories from the Newsroom, Stories from the Street.
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