Local Media Kingmakers

by John Marino

June 6, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. The power of the press has been front-page news across the United States this week, after the Federal Communications Commission announced its decision to gut decades-old provisions against concentration of media ownership.

It was encouraging to see Congress call the unelected FCC commissioners to a hearing next week to explain their decision, just as it was encouraging to see -- finally -- widespread coverage of the FCC move. Critics of the deregulation -- from the far right to the way left -- finally got a good hearing.

But the dismantling of media ownership rules in Puerto Rico passed largely unnoticed, with short mentions of it buried in the business pages of some newspapers or mentioned on the national and international blurbs at the end of television newscasts.

That’s too bad because the press is powerful in Puerto Rico and often steps beyond its bounds of reporting the news to trying to make it. Given that fact, the concentration of media power so many fear across the United States could have as big an impact in the commonwealth.

Everybody knows that certain media outlets take sides on certain issues or back specific political parties or candidates. It’s not unlike the world of big city tabloid journalism stateside

Local politicians know that, but rather than denounce the fact, more often than not try to curry favor with media outlets in an attempt to win positive coverage. The FCC commissioners voted in favor of companies that treated them to a reported $2.8 million in junkets and other benefits. In Puerto Rico, too, there are investments made to try to influence media behavior.

One reason why Gov. Calderón’s announcement that she would retire from politics following her first term in office was so shocking to so many was precisely because she had been acting as if she were seeking reelection.

The Calderón administration had been — and continues to — tout its achievements in full-page, full-color newspaper ads, and slickly produced television and radio spots. The governor took out a 16-page, full-color insert in all island daily newspapers in January summarizing administration achievements, and began a paid weekly radio address where she updates the public on recent administration achievements or its view on current events.

Governors have parroted the justifications for this behavior —a legitimate way to inform the public — at least since the time of New Progressive Party founder Luis A. Ferré. Some of the information is a legitimate expense to inform the public, such as detailing how to apply for the Health Card or listing the new extended operating hours of certain commonwealth agencies that deal directly with the public.

But the slick presentation, which usually is more concerned with painting the administration in a positive light than highlighting such useful information, is hardly necessary

It’s no accident that the advertising campaign kicked off in the third year of Calderón’s term. Governors who want to get reelected spike up advertising in their third year to make the biggest impact on public opinion before election-year rules kick into effect requiring a State Elections Commission board to scan government advertising for political content.

Why Calderón is doing it appears more complex. It could be that her own personal ambition is to be remembered well by her fellow Puerto Ricans, or it could she expects all the good news about what’s she’s done — whether it’s paid for advertising or not — to benefit her hand-picked successor José Alfredo Hernández Mayoral, or it could be a bit of both.

Calderón may be able to claim that she has spent less than her predecessor, Gov. Pedro Rosselló, who perfected the art of trumpeting his achievements in splashy, pricey media announcements and took the practice to new levels, but she can’t deny she is doing the same thing.

It’s clear that the island’s two largest newspapers are in opposing camps, so at least there is something egalitarian behind that. El Nuevo Día looks to be backing the Hernández Mayoral-Calderón camp, while El Vocero is backing the opposing Rosselló camp.

Sure El Día ran a poll showing the governor running behind her two potential NPP opponents — Rosselló and NPP President Carlos Pesquera last month. But in Calderón’s first public appearance following its publication, she was able to wipe out two days of negative El Nuevo Día front pages. In brilliant color, just below the masthead, a confident, smiling Calderón, with her hand up as if rejecting the poll results, appeared beside her quote "I am secure and at ease." The photo showed the governor in a shade of her now standard campaign yellow, with background hints of the bright red of her pro-commonwealth party. It was the same color scheme as the Calderón administration ads. A subhead told readers the governor only trusts the results of her own polls. Given such coverage, the poll might have actually benefited Calderón in the end.

Calderón, who bowed out of the reelection following that media coup, is being pretty fair about spreading government ad spending around to different media. That bolsters further justifications that government media expenditures can be as innocuous as purchasing automobiles or long-distance telephone service.

But there is also the matter of a government backed bond issue for El Dia’s parent company One of Calderón’s first acts in office was to sign off on a government-backed Afica bond issue that allowed El Nuevo Día's parent company to refinance millions in debt at dramatically lower interest rates. There's more than advertising between the two.

Don't expect Rosselló to tout El Nuevo Día, despite the fact its poll showed him as the big winner, trouncing Pesquera in a primary and then going on to beat Calderón.

There is still bad blood between Rosselló and El Nuevo Día since it filed suit against Rosselló as governor, charging that a massive government ad cancellation was taken to punish the daily for negative press coverage. Rosselló administration officials retorted that they were simply shopping around for better deals. The wounds caused by the rift still appear fresh. Since leaving office, Rosselló has attacked the daily as being in league with Calderón and federal prosecutors in a conspiracy to destroy the island statehood movement.

In turn, El Dia has ignored Rosselló’s two returns to the island since announcing his candidacy, an intentional slight, no doubt. The Sunday following Hernández Mayoral’s launching of his gubernatorial candidacy the newspaper dedicated its front page to the candidate, and its key news hole to an intimate interview and positive family photographs of him. But while it ran news stories regarding Rosselló’s return, they were downplayed, and did not get front-page treatment.

Things were not always that way. At one time, in the run up to Rosselló’s 1996 reelection run, in which he pulled down an historic 1 million votes, El Día was the favored advertising vehicle for the Rosselllo administration, and he was their favorite political figure.

Today, the former governor can expect great coverage from El Vocero, if a few recent editions are any guide. The first interview granted by Rosselló following Calderón’s political retirement was given royal treatment -- prime front page and upfront real estate in the Spanish daily. The interview was interesting, but it was hardly a bannerable development that Rosselló was confident of beating any candidate the Popular Democratic Party could field. Nonetheless, that’s what its blood red front page headline trumpeted.

Many radio stations, too, are generally seen as being supporters of one political party or another. Indeed, it’s no accident that Rosselló picked WAPA radio to announce his return to local politics — given the favorable coverage he could expect.

It’s the great diversity of Puerto Rican media, particularly its news gathering media, however, that cancels out the distortions that such close relations at the top could produce. If the new FCC regulations impinge on that diversity in any way, the costs could be great here.

Picking up on the New York Times’ stringer problem

It’s good to see other media outlets, particularly the online magazines Salon and Slate, have picked up on the New York Times’ foolish policy in not giving published credit for the stringers contributing to national news stories first exposed here.

The issue, which spun out of the Jayson Blair controversy, picked up steam following the suspension of reporter Rick Bragg, who editors deemed to have relied on an unpaid stringer a bit too much for one dispatch. He later resigned.

In truth, as a former Times stringer, I can say editors did not expect reporters to rely on stringers to the extent Bragg did. They used me to do research, undertake interviews and write sidebars and keep abreast of certain stories they were interested in.

You could also have a shot to write your own articles, but if they were news, they’d appear under the Special to the New York Times byline. Only in business, travel, sports or features, would they actually name you.

And as a reporter, I can say that I could not have honestly have written what Bragg did under my byline given the reliance on an unnamed collaborator’s work.

Bragg largely ignored Puerto Rico during his stint as Miami Bureau chief, despite the fact that the Puerto Rico was part of his beat and the Vieques protests exploded on his watch. The one dispatch I can remember him doing was on Puerto Rico’s attempt to win the presidential vote, and many of the voices were from well-tread Old San Juan, leaving the feeling of a reporting rush job.

The Times’ problem goes way beyond Bragg and Blair to its stringer policy. Stringers should all be given credit. It’s not only fair and honest, but such a policy would improve accountability in the relationship between stringers, reporters and editors.

Stringers are often responsible for the very shape of news stories. They are relied on to do everything from provide important background, undertake interviews and research and write up substantial portions of articles.

They deserve to be given credit for such efforts. Most editors would have a much better idea about how much they are relied upon if they were credited.

John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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