Accuracy in Media

Alejandro Junco de la Vega leads one of the most powerful newspaper conglomerates in Mexico today. His Grupo Reforma publishes dailies in Guadalajara (Mural), Monterrey (Norte), and Mexico City (Reforma). Reforma is the number one paper in Mexico City and is now considered to be compulsory reading by the city’s business and government elites. This business success has been hard-won, though, and began in 1973 when Mr. Junco took over the family newspaper in Monterrey, El Norte, and sought to change the face of Mexican journalism.

Mr. Junco was born in 1948 in Monterrey, Mexico, and received his Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Texas at Austin. In 1973, he became publisher of El Norte, and hired one of his former UT journalism professors, Mary Gardner, to train his reporters in journalistic techniques and ethics. El Norte journalists were thereafter forbidden from accepting bribes from government officials, which was a standard “journalistic” practice at that time.

As William A. Orne notes in a recent analysis, there was a complex and sick relationship between “the ostensibly independent news media in Mexico and the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party-a relationship enforced by subsidies, bribery, fear of violence, and mutual political convenience.” To reinforce his journalists’ training, Mr. Junco also paid them enough that they did not need to depend financially upon government or business corruption. As the UT College of Communication proudly recounts, El Norte grew from 17 reporters to more than 400, and the quality of journalism of those new reporters was not only to transform a #2 local newspaper into a #1 national chain of newspapers but subsequently to play a pivotal role in bringing democracy to a nation.

Since Mr. Junco took over as publisher in 1973, he and his reporters have repeatedly been the subject of overt censorship, physical threats, and criminal defamation charges by high-level government officials. The harassment began in 1974, when El Norte openly condemned the expropriation of land in Sonora state decreed by the federal government. In hopes of shutting down the newspaper and silencing the criticism, Mexican President Luis Echeverr??a ordered the suspension of the sale of newsprint to the newspaper, which was controlled by the state-run PIPSA.

Incidents of violent threats against Junco’s and his journalists have occurred on numerous occasions since then. Juncos’ most recent encounter with official persecution followed an April 12, 2002 cover story in Reforma, in which Carolina Pavon reported on official allegations that almost 10 percent of the 2000 budget of Mexico City mayor, Rosario Robles Berlanga, had gone missing. The allegations were originally made in a report from the Comptroller General’s Office of Mexico City, which found that nearly six billion Mexican pesos (US$650 million) were unaccounted for in last year’s budget. Robles quickly filed criminal defamation charges against both Pavon and Junco, the president and publisher of the paper. And although the charges against both Juncos and Pavon were dismissed, this case illustrates the routine threats that Mexican journalists must still navigate among.

Diego Cevallos of the Inter Press Service reports that, “So far this year alone, four Mexican journalists have been murdered?Deither stabbed, shot or tortured to death?Dwhile a great many more have been threatened and intimidated.” Much of the recent violence against journalists is related to drug-trafficking investigations, many of which implicate prominent political figures.

Freedom House’s 2004 Freedom of the Press Report is fairly optimistic, though, and states that, “President Fox’s decision to place crimes against journalists under federal jurisdiction has somewhat alleviated the culture of impunity that surrounded these crimes. Increased competition and professionalization of the media have weakened the influence of government advertising , but concerns about such loss of revenue can still cause self-censorship??The media generally operate in an open and transparent manner, and bribery of journalists continues to decline.” 

Mr. Junco has successfully advanced the freedom of expression in Mexico, and has bravely endured the physical, legal, and financial risks that have accompanied this pioneering pursuit. His work is unfinished, but his nerve is inspiring and instructive for journalists in the United States.

Due to this demonstrated personal and professional courage, Mr. Junco’s recent expression of concern for the state of American journalism ought to be taken seriously.  At recent event hosted by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington, DC, Mr. Juncos cited several recent high-profile journalism scandals, including the Jayson Blair disgrace at the New York Times. He deliberated aloud whether such instances were proof of institutional rot throughout the profession in the U.S., or merely isolated cases of fraudulence. The American press, backed up by one of the most independent judiciary systems in the world, has long been considered the standard against which other nations judge the freedom of their own media. Could such blatant and high-level examples of disdain for truth in journalism signal a trend, or is Junco’s anxiety just alarmist blather?

Journalists, whether in Mexico or the U.S., rarely enter the profession for the glamour or quick financial reward of it. Fame and a comfortable retirement are certainly obtainable, but they generally lie behind significant obstacles, including long hours, relatively low wages, and, sometimes, expensive graduate-level training. And in places like Mexico, prospects for success are even more obscure. Rather, young people are more often drawn to something else in the profession-a fondness for hunting down a story, a desire to spell out the complicated machinations of government, or to influence national outlook through editorial and opinion pieces.

Beneath these important journalistic tasks, though, a fundamental thread ties all elements of the profession. Journalism provides and entrusts its practitioners with the opportunity to report accurately and objectively on the event and issues that affect the people-it facilitates democracy. When tempted to distraction by quick notoriety, wealth, or other ambitions-as some prominent journalists evidently are-they would do well to bear in mind the work of Alejandro Junco.

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