Recent news of the arrest of Mexico’s former defense minister makes a new book about Mexican politics and journalism by Vanessa Freije, though a work of history, seem all too timely.
“Citizens of Scandal: Journalism, Secrecy, and the Politics of Reckoning in Mexico” was published in October by Duke University Press.
Freije is an assistant professor in the UW Jackson School of International Studies. She studies and teaches about the history of Mexico and intra-American relations, the politics of knowledge production and the role of journalists in a country’s development. Her book “Citizens of Scandal: Journalism, Secrecy, and the Politics of Reckoning in Mexico” was published in October by Duke University Press. One reviewer praised the book’s “delicate attention to forward movement and sinister recoil.”
UW Notebook caught up with Freije by email with a few questions about the book.
What is the book about, and what period of time does it cover?
Vanessa Freije: “Citizens of Scandal” is about the causes and consequences of political scandals in Mexico. It focuses on the 1960s through the 1980s – this was a period in which the one-party, Institutional Revolutionary Party, state was undergoing significant changes and feeling pressure (both domestically and internationally) to become more democratic. As print media increasingly covered scandalous state wrongdoing – from public embezzlement to illegal torture and electoral fraud – scandals offered both evidence of and a source for political opening.
In the book, I am interested in understanding the consequences of putting such accusations in print, or of making them public. This may seem obvious – but it’s worth underscoring that Mexican readers were not surprised that political leaders were engaged in these activities – but scandals were nonetheless transformative because they made the open secret of state wrongdoing a central topic of debate.
How does current Mexican journalism compare with the era you write about? What about American journalism of 2020?
V.F.: That’s a difficult question to answer succinctly. But within Mexico, I see three key differences. First, and most importantly, journalism is now far deadlier under electoral democracy than it was under one-party rule. Mexico is now one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist, as drug trafficking organizations and their government collaborators attack or murder reporters who threaten their interests. Second, the press is now more reliant on private advertising than it was in the 1960s through the 1980s, making journalists more willing to report on government wrongdoing but also more wary of business interests. And third, the media is more professionalized.
The rise of social media has profoundly shaped journalism in both the United States and Mexico. The ability to capture and disseminate information with one’s phone has decentralized and democratized information-gathering, allowing ordinary people – if their video manages to garner wide attention – to challenge official narratives, or to present social protest that mainstream media are less inclined to cover.
At the same time, the availability of so much information has had unexpected consequences. Media consumption in both countries is very siloed, as the news we encounter is profoundly shaped by our networks on social media. Perhaps the biggest difference between the period I study and today is the relationship that media consumers (in both the U.S. and Mexico) have with political scandal. In 1970s and 1980s Mexico, it was a thrill to see public officials humiliated or challenged in print. Scandals brought new publics together, meaning that people who typically would not be reading or discussing the same news item suddenly were drawn into a common sphere of criticism.
By the late 1990s, the steady drum beat of scandals in Mexico had produced a shared fatigue, and I think we are witnessing a similar phenomenon in the U.S. Scandalous news seemingly fades from public discussion as quickly as it appears. A recent example that comes to mind is the report that the Trump administration cannot locate the parents of 545 children separated from their families at the border. Another case is of detained migrant women who were forcibly sterilized by a Georgia doctor. What is the effect of these scandals when they fail to garner broad outrage?
You write: “While critical reporters denounced corruption, they also withheld many secrets from public discussion, sometimes out of concern for their safety.” What was the effect of this?
V.F.: The effect of withholding information was of course that the public only saw the scandals that public officials had signed off on – meaning the ones that particular governing officials were willing to expose. Now, even in those cases, scandals could take on dimensions that the officials who leaked information could not have anticipated. But they nonetheless were able to shape the story.
It’s also important to underscore that all journalism that uses government sources involves this dynamic of withholding particular information, often to maintain positive relationships with official sources. Though of course in the case of Mexico, the consequences of revealing unwanted information were potentially much higher.