I returned from the United States (U.S.) with a concern: that country’s television coverage of Mexico. During my trip, I watched several reports on television networks and news channels. In all of them, I observed coverage that is alarmist, strident, unbalanced and lacking in subtlety.
Clearly, all the stories I watched are true. The growth of organized crime in Mexico. The 6,000 executions last year. The increase in kidnappings and extortion. The control that criminals have in certain regions. The danger of violence passing to the other side of the Rio Grande. It would be foolish to contradict this reality. But what one doesn’t see is the other side of the picture. The high demand for drugs that exists in the U.S. and feeds the narcotrafficking business. The exportation of the best U.S. military weapons to Mexican criminals. The honest police and soldiers who have died in this war. It is also foolish to deny this reality.
Joseph Stalin said, “The death of a million Soviet soldiers is a statistic; the death of a Soviet soldier is a tragedy”. U.S. newscasters follow that principle. They know the public has no interest in statistics; tragedies attract audiences. In that vein, I watched several stories that were really hair-raising. One of a kidnapped, U.S. family in Tijuana who endured fateful hours, believing they would be killed. One of a shooting in broad daylight on a street in Ciudad Juárez. What I didn’t see were the other stories. The one of the Texas junkie who comes to inject himself in Nuevo Laredo. Or the soldier from Oaxaca, who died, riddled with bullets in Reynosa, in the line of duty.
Without a doubt, Mexico has become news in the U.S. On one hand, the war against terrorism no longer attracts the same media attention in the U.S., in that there have been no attacks on the country since September 11, 2001. And the war in Iraq no longer is given the same coverage, because the violence in that country has diminished. For that matter, the U.S. will soon abandon [the Iraqis]. What gets attention today, for obvious reasons, is the economic crisis. But not all the news can be dedicated to the plight of the economy. So, it becomes necessary to find new topics. And, as it would happen, in the very near neighbor to the south, there is a violent war with newsworthy stories: decapitations, disappearances, corrupt police, exasperated citizens, and multimillionaire criminals.
Nobody doubts the journalistic value of this reality. What is missing is balance. Subtlety is lacking. To see this coverage, one would think that all of Mexico is the same. That Queretero is Juárez. Or that any U.S. citizen could be kidnapped in Vallarta as easily as they could be in Tijuana. No one mentions, you can be sure, that the most violent cities in Mexico are on the U.S. border. And why would that be?
On the border, the best coverage I have seen was that by Anthony Bourdain. He is a New York chef who travels the world over, looking for unique, culinary experiences. Recently, he traveled to the border between Mexico and the U.S. He described the Mexican side as “little towns constructed to satisfy legitimate appetites and Anglo appetites of a different sort. They are more for us. An anonymous place, where we can satisfy our darkest and most savage desires. It is more a reflection of the U.S. side, than of true Mexico.” It seemed to me to be a very thoughtful definition. Better than that of any journalist. Unfortunately, the program in which Bourdain appeared was the Travel Channel, rather than one of the major U.S. channels.
The truth is, I am not surprised by the strident, alarmist U.S. coverage of Mexico. That is the nature of television is in that country. In the magnificent book, The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things, sociologist Barry Glassner confirms that U.S. television frightens its audiences: “The news programs survive, thanks to fear. In local programs, where producers live by the dictum, “If it bleeds, it sells”, stories about drugs, crime, and disasters constitute the greater portion of the news. After supper, there are news shows, apparently with the guiding principle that “there is no small danger that can’t be magnified into a national nightmare.” Because of this, for example, people in the U.S. believe that crime in growing in their communities when, statistically, it is shrinking. A scandalous story, strident and alarming, changes the perception of what actually occurs.
I have friends and family members who live in the U.S. I am struck by the fear in which they live. They are on the alert for rare diseases. They read warnings about toys to see what dangers they might hold. They believe that violence will arrive in their neighborhood at any time. All because they have seen some alarming information on the news. No surprise, then, that they now refuse to travel to Mexico. And, if they come for family reasons, they go home quickly. They think those of us who live in Mexico are crazy. They ask if we aren’t afraid of being kidnapped or assassinated. We seem strange to them for living in this country of barbarians, as we are portrayed in their television. What few know is that there are places in the U.S. just as dangerous as Ciudad Juárez. They should take a walk around Anacostia to see how they live in that neighborhood of the U.S. capital. That is, if the police will allow them to enter.