The late V.S. Naipaul, whose 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded for his “incorruptible scrutiny of repressed histories” was particularly pitiless in his scrutiny of Argentina. He called it “a half-made country,” an undeveloped country pretending to be a cultured, civilised society. Hardly anything was what it presumed to be. He said that he thought that inverted commas should be put around many words that are aspects of Argentine life:
“Buenos Aires, from the nature of its creation, has never required excellence: that has always been one of its attractions. Within the imported metropolis there is the structure of a developed society. But men can often appear to be mimicking their functions. So many words have acquired lesser meanings in Argentina: general, artist, journalist, historian, professor, university, director, executive, industrialist, aristocrat, library, museum, zoo: so many words seem to need inverted commas. To write realistically about this society has peculiar difficulties; to render it accurately in fiction might be impossible.”
That paragraph is from his essay entitled: “Argentina: The Brothels Behind the Graveyard,” published in the September 19, 1974 issue of the New York Review of Books. (An earlier essay on Argentina was published in the Buenos Aires Herald, a particularly daring or foolhardy thing to do when the guerrilla groups, who were called ‘terrorists” in those day, were killing people for far less than printing Naipaul’s scathing, sacrilegious dismemberment of the myths of Peronism.)
I am not happy to be writing about Naipaul again, so soon after his death (August 11, 2018), but he hit the nail so accurately on its head when he wrote of the need to put inverted commas around – among others – particularly the word “journalist.” He was so right about so much that he scrutinised when he was in Argentina, but he was also so wrong about so much.
There is an irony in this. Naipaul was in his role as a “journalist” when he was in Argentina in the mid-1970s and the word needs those inverted commas in his case, too. After noting the difficulty of writing realistically about Argentine society, he launches into a ludicrous denunciation of machismo and local sexual mores that says more about his own hang-ups than those of the people he is scrutinising. The point is that the “journalist” Naipaul got it wrong, purposely. There were no “brothels” behind the Recoleta Cemetery. Naipaul was referring to the thenabundant hotels that rented rooms by the hour. He chose the word “brothel” for effect. And he had the nerve to try and justify his purposeful misuse of language when I questioned him about the inaccuracy of his observation.
It is still worth reading Naipaul’s extensive writing on Argentina (readily available in the NYRB website), while bearing in mind that he is a writer not a reporter, but simply for the wonder of his words. He also has some enlightening “aperçus” about Argentina, despite his insulting remarks about the Argentine psyche and sneering references to the substantial national culture.
But back to the significance and importance, in those days (and sometimes, today), of recognising that “journalists” are often not journalists at all.
That was totally true in the Argentina in 1959, the year of my arrival. The popular dictatorship of Juan Domingo Perón had all-but destroyed true journalism. Most notably, the confiscation of La Prensa, which was truly great by international standards, marked an end of an era in journalism.
My introduction to the inverted nature of Argentina journalism came when I attended my first press conference. Nobody took notes. Five years after Perón had left Argentina on a Paraguayan gunboat, journalists were still so accustomed to reporting only the official news at press conferences that reporters waited for the “gazetilla” – the official handout – to be passed round when it was over.
Standards and principles had been lost or forgotten. I remember sitting with a group of prominent old-time “journalists” known as “sacred monsters” because they were feared as well as revered. They boasted about inventing stories. At that time, journalists expected and received bribes. Sometimes cash was handed out in envelopes. At the government level, the rewards could be an appointment to a pretend job at a state-run company. Journalists enjoyed reduced rates on state airlines and railways. Government advertising was granted to newspapers in return for favourable coverage. Import licences were issued for printing machinery and newsprint, if the particular media outlet in question toed the line.
There was an even worse side to “journalism.” Editors conspired with the military to stage coups. The overthrow of Arturo Ilia in 1966 was the tragic outcome of a shameful media campaign to defame and discredit a man of great virtue. In hindsight it is obvious what should have been obvious then: the country was beginning to recover from years of dictatorship. One prominent editor I knew took his shame to the grave.
Of course, the greatest badge of shame that Argentine journalism must never try to shrug off is the shocking failure to report the disappearances during the 1977-1983 military dictatorship. I am still hoping to see La Nación form an investigative team to look into the newspaper’s active support of the “Proceso.” It would be the honourable thing to do.
Looking back over my almost 60 years of involvement in Argentine journalism, I cannot help but be optimistic about the future. With the return of democracy under Raúl Alfonsín, journalists began to stand up for themselves and for the people, which is what they are supposed to do. I will not name names for fear of failing to recognise everyone who, in so many different ways, kept freedom alive during both the Menem and Kirchner years when the opposition press was under attack.
The principle reason that justified Naipaul’s description of Argentina as a “half-made” country was that true journalism was lacking. Today journalism, and the Judiciary, have an opportunity, one denied in the past, to work in unison develop a half-made country into a democracy.
I am proud to be part of that endeavour through the renaissance of the Buenos Aires Herald via the birth of the Buenos Aires Times.
One year old today. Hip Hip Hooray