Tuesday, March 17, 2009

How a headline ricochets around the Web

OK, this is an ego trip but it´s also about how information gets spread around these days on the web. In other words, you can run but you can´t hide. (Photo from El País)

At a digital journalism conference in Huesca, Spain, I made one comment that a journalist for El País, Spain´s top daily, thought was notable and which got put into a headline: “We journalists have been arrogant (and haven´t listened to citizen journalists and readers)“.

Links to Facebook, Twitter, blogs
Journalists in Spain and Mexico linked it to their blogs and Facebook accounts and sent out Twitters with links to it. It ricocheted all over the place in cyberspace. In context, the quote is probably not as provocative, but in a headline it really grabs attention. Thank goodness it wasn´t something worse...

Here´s the link, with a photo

Heraldo de Aragón published an interview with me

Another article by a digital journalism site in Spain

An audio recording of my comments was published by someone here.

A newspaper in Chiapas, Mexico, reproduced the interview with Heraldo.

A mention in a blog

This is a decent summary of other presenters

Me on YouTube at the huesca conference; funny, I minute of question and 5 seconds of my response. My reaction is to the comment by the moderator that he was going to ask me a “provocative” question.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Tenochtitlán and Xochimilco: Mexico City before the Conquest

When the Spanish conquistadors got their first look at the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán in 1519, they compared its magnificence to Venice and Istanbul.

They were awestruck at the grand causeways that linked the city in the lake with the mainland. They marveled at the busy traffic of boats on the canals and the skyline traced by grand temples and palaces. Historians estimate that 200,000 to 400,000 people lived there, making it one of the largest cities on earth at that time.

Muralist Diego Rivera´s painting (above) in the National Palace captures what the city must have looked like. Here is a quote from one of Cortez´s party:

When we saw so many cities and villages built in the water and other great towns on dry land we were amazed and said that it was like the enchantments (...) on account of the great towers and cues and buildings rising from the water, and all built of masonry. And some of our soldiers even asked whether the things that we saw were not a dream? (...) I do not know how to describe it, seeing things as we did that had never been heard of or seen before, not even dreamed about.
— Bernal Díaz del Castillo

This was the city of Aztec emperor Moctezuma that Cortez wanted to hand over as a prize to his king, Emperor Charles V (above, a 1930 artistic impression). But in the terrible siege of 1521, Cortez and his army, supported by thousands of the Aztecs´ enemies, ended up destroying most of it.

The Spaniards built their cathedral on the ruins of the Great Temple in the heart of today´s Mexico City. The photo above shows part of the ruins, which were uncovered in the 1970s.

British historian Hugh Thomas has written one of the best histories of this monumental clash of civilizations, Conquest: Cortes, Montezuma and the Fall of Old Mexico.

Xochimilco, more than 100 miles of canals

Just south of Mexico City lies Xochimilco, where you can see some of the last vestiges of the canals that impressed the Spanish conquistadors.

Hundreds or maybe thousands of tourist boats ply the canals. All are poled manually to prevent erosion of the banks. Each boat has a table and chairs in the center for large parties to eat, drink and relax for a couple of hours.

All manner of sales take place. You have vendors of food, toys, drinks and entertainment. For about $5 a mariachi band on a boat will pull alongside and serenade you.

Along the banks are greenhouses and nurseries that produce vegetables and flowers for the metropolitan area of more than 20 million people.

Why newspaper exposés have little impact in México

Every day I read Mural and Público Milenio, two of the most important newspapers in Guadalajara, and I´m instantly depressed.

The amount of corruption, self-dealing, inefficiency and mismanagement in the public sector chronicled by these two newspapers is staggering. What´s depressing is that despite the publication of this information, almost nothing happens.

One newspaper editor here explained to me that the news media themselves are considered suspect by the public. Readers tend to assume that the owners of the newspaper or media outlet are using an exposé for political reasons, to punish enemies.

At the same time there are no ambitious procecutors or legislators ready to hold the villains accountable. The few citizens groups pressing for change are relatively ineffective.

A system with little accountability
People here don´t view the government and public money as theirs. They view it as the private playground of the politicians. Seventy years of rule by a single powerful party, the PRI, provided a kind of stability and the appearances of democracy but no real citizen involvement and no responsiveness. People don´t complain to their congressman or councilman. They don´t see the elected officials as their representatives. Voters are apathetic.

Long before drug money exacerbated the corruption, the political system was self-contained, self-sustaining. The courts, the public prosecutors, the labor unions, the police, the congress and the executive branch are all part of this system whose purpose is to share power, influence and money among themselves. The head of the teachers union, which gets enormous sums from the government, feels free to buy 59 Hummers for her local organizers, and there is an outcry, a bunch of lame excuses and then...nothing.

Nobody wants to rock the boat because their own private source of money and influence might be tossed overboard.

During the 2003 mid-term elections, after the PAN party had overthrown the PRI monopoly, this quote in the New York Times from a writer and painter, Enrique Canales, seemed emblematic:

''The control of the political bureaucracy, the teachers, the police, the bus drivers, that hasn't changed,'' he said. ''The PAN tries to clean up the system, but 85 percent of the people in it remain PRI-istas. So the changes that the PAN proposes do not show up at the local level. People don't see a difference. People don't see a change. It will take two decades to change things.''

Corruption indexes
Various indexes try to measure the corruption in Mexico -- Transparency International among them. By one estimate, corruption consumes 8-12% of Mexico´s GNP, but that doesn´t really capture the inertia of the system.

Failed state

The Pentagon has referred to Mexico as at risk of becoming a “failed state” because large areas of the country are controlled by druglords who own the politicans, from governors to state legislators to police chiefs and, in some cases, journalists. Mexican President Felipe Calderón strongly denies this characterization.

Update March 24: A leading Mexican journalist writing in the New York Times says talk of Mexico as a failed state is a wild exaggeration not based on the facts.

However the leader of a Mexican citizens group pointed out that organized crime has its own system of charging taxes (protection) in many parts of the country.

The Wall Street Journal had an in-depth piece recently on the growing power of the drug cartels in Mexico.