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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 21-05-2022 06:00

The English (non-indicted) witness

El Testigo Inglés, Luces y sombras del Buenos Aires Herald (1876-2017), by Sebastián Lacunza; Paidós, 2021, 632 pages.

This weekend Sebastián Lacunza, the last editor of the now shuttered Buenos Aires Herald, completes half a century of life (a happy birthday to him, by the way), which seems as good a reason as any to produce today this long overdue review of a book launched last December (whose reading was delayed by work and travel abroad). A secondary reason might be last Wednesday’s census as a recent memory because one easily overlooked virtue of this book is the intelligent use of censuses (or censi for the purists), all of them since 1869 – tapping such key indicators for a newspaper history as literacy, urbanisation and patterns of immigration, the latter crucial for a journal written in another language.

To start at the end for the benefit of those readers who would rather not wade through this entire column to arrive at my general conclusions, the final verdict on this book is broadly thumbs up if not entirely perpendicular. The mere fact of having a chronicle of a dear departed newspaper throughout its 14 decades from start to finish should outweigh all the misgivings, while the effort involved is impressive, indeed awesome – scanning through as many as 50,000 editions of the Herald in the Biblioteca Nacional for quotes and interviewing at least 60 protagonists (including this reviewer), quite apart from historical and other research. A titanic exertion for one person, while finding and guiding the right research assistant would not entail much less work. 

Just as well that this book ended up being so ambitious, because this review would have been anything but positive had Lacunza stuck to his original project of narrating his own stewardship between 2013 and 2017. This would have been akin to writing the history of the Roman Empire without Constantine, never mind the 12 Caesars of Suetonius. The decline and fall of the newspaper is chronicled with accuracy and an inside knowledge almost everybody would lack but there is not too much else to be said in favour of the last 70-odd pages on those closing years.

The first of the six chapters in that fourth and final part is entitled “Memoria personal” but the entire section is written in that solipsistic vein. Fair enough, one might think, since his own experience and perceptions are obviously what he best recalls, yet the essence of a newsroom is teamwork and the efforts of his overworked colleagues swimming against the tide are almost entirely overlooked. The weeks and months of virtual absence due to paternity and penning of another book, Pensar el periodismo, when the newspaper was carried primarily by others, receive no mention. But such criticism can also be exaggerated – at the end of the day he was a captain who went down with his ship.

In this final part the memory also becomes too personal, an opinionated tone jarring with the relatively detached historical narrative of the preceding 500 pages. The bulk of Lacunza’s journalistic career consists of 13 years in Ámbito Financiero and this seems to have instilled in him an obsession with the Clarín Group to rival that of the business newspaper’s founder, the late Julio Ramos (my own perception of Clarín is extreme mediocrity, with the Kirchnerite image of an omnipotent supervillain Héctor Magnetto absurdly overrated, but that could just be my ignorance).

If the Ámbito obsession with the Clarín Group is questionable, Lacunza is on firmer ground in making the Herald’s splendid record of defending human rights during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship the core of his mission but his fundamentalism over vocabulary here betrays the spirit of that heritage. His kneejerk rejection of such terminology as “two demons” and “dirty war” reflect dogma replacing the passion and compassion which were always the essence of the Herald’s defence of human rights. The two demons do not have to be the same size – thus Robert Cox has always maintained (as has this journalist) that state terrorism is infinitely worse in scale and moral responsibility than the guerrilla original without need to deny the latter. Yet no intention of overdoing the criticism here – while intensely admiring the courage and sheer humanity of Cox’s newspaper and always paying more than lip service to it, I have never considered my own work to be any continuation of something which such cold thinkers as Lacunza and myself will perhaps never really appreciate.

More bones to pick here – many readers will find his take on Alberto Nisman’s death, a central event of his time at the Herald, to be both binary and cruel – but it’s time to start giving this book the praise it deserves. Along the lines of Winston Churchill’s famous description of democracy as the worst political system apart from all the others, thus far this book might seem the worst on the Herald – except for the others yet to be written. Any critical voices (and I have heard several) should put that in their pipe and smoke it.

Having just faulted Lacunza for confusing letter with spirit, the space dedicated to human rights is not the least of this book’s merits – over a quarter of the pages on those traumatic 1976-1983 years which are barely five percent of the newspaper’s history, arithmetically speaking. And it is all there – perhaps little which has not already appeared elsewhere (hence no need to repeat it) but also with less bias in the contemporary narrative than in hindsight.

The bulk of the book also gains from a richer cast – starring Cox and the late Andrew Graham-Yooll – than the one-man show of the post-2013 period. Lacunza has his definite preferences among the ex-editors of his acquaintance but is also as alive to their “lights and shadows” as to those of the newspaper as a whole. Graham-Yooll is a clear favourite, commanding the warmest empathy but the author does not omit more negative items (in his eyes at any rate), such as his 1994 memo urging more pro-business priorities or the mass dismissals of 1997 including David Cox. Lacunza is also more sympathetic to Dan Newland than most of the latter’s colleagues. James Neilson (described very aptly as “the most distant and yet the most constant of the ex-editors”) triggers the most hostility on mainly ideological grounds yet Lacunza has the fairness to quote his denunciations of the “barbarity” of the military dictatorship more than once. An up-and-down relationship with Cox is too complex for analysis within this space, yet Lacunza never denies his centrality in the Herald’s fame (he even contemplated Cox’s arrival here in 1959 as the starting-point for the book before deciding on the whole hog).

No praise is too high for the likes of Cox and Graham-Yooll yet the newspaper also needs to be brought down to earth and this Lacunza does with a vengeance, revealing that its long history both begins and ends with a couple of crooks – at one end the Scottish founder William Cathcart (accused of using the newspaper to bend stock exchange movements in favour of his speculation) and Warren Lowe (exposed by this book as really being the Yankee mega-fraudster Ezra Winslow on the run – an impressive piece of historical research) with the Kirchnerite tycoons Cristóbal López and Fabián De Sousa at the other. Lacunza also underlines that the Herald smiled on just about every coup up to and including 1976 although redeeming itself subsequently.

Impossible to make a newspaper the subject without the predicate of the news it covered and this book thus also serves as an invaluable thumbnail history of Argentina as from 1876, even if not free from an often revisionist slant (soft-pedalling anarchist violence, for example). Also impossible to sum up over 600 pages in one but this book contains an incredible wealth of tiny details with something for everybody – for example, satisfying my curiosity 37 years and 9,073 Herald editorials later as to when they were first translated into Spanish (May 21, 1968).

Talking of language, the medium was the message in the case of interpreting Argentina in English – not only an outside perspective but, as Marcelo García sagely observed in his obituary of the newspaper, translation necessitates an understanding of the inner meaning of a text and not just the words. A standpoint denied this book.

In conclusion, if (along the lines of the aforementioned Churchill quote) E.M. Forster wrote a series of essays entitled “Two cheers for democracy,” for this more than complete history which still leaves the newspaper’s essential mystique hovering somewhere, two cheers for Sebastián Lacunza. 

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Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys, who first entered the Buenos Aires Herald in 1983, held various editorial posts at the newspaper from 1990 and was the lead writer of the publication’s editorials from 1987 until 2017.

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