Author Archives: Paul Van Slambrouck

Media ‘war’ in Buenos Aires

The media specialist at the United States Embassy in Buenos Aires was engaged in a typical diplomatic exercise: Placing an opinion article from the newly arrived U.S. ambassador in the local media as a way to greet and thank the host country.

The messages are usually the same. They go something like: “I am enthusiastic about this assignment, love the country and am impressed by its people.” In Argentina, though, nothing is typical. Amid what everyone calls a “guerra,” or war, between media and the current administration of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the location of such a benign article is fraught with danger.

Give it to the outright opposition media – in this case the giant media conglomerate Clarín – and the government would likely read it as a political affront. Hand it to the pro-government end of the media spectrum and the U.S. might look like a lapdog.

In this case, the Embassy chose La Nación, a large newspaper that is critical of the current government, but strives to be an independent voice that openly looks to respected U.S. newspapers as a model.

There was another layer to the decision. The U.S. and Argentina are in their own extended period of diplomatic dysfunctionality. While not outright confrontation, such as between the U.S. and Venezuela, the relationship still is far from warm. For instance, newly appointed U.S. Ambassador Noah B. Mamet was not given a presidential reception. The newly arrived ambassador from China was. Point taken.

U.S. Embassy political staff openly call the relationship “difficult” and refer to President Kirchner’s style as one of “confrontation.” The Argentine government has made the gringos to the north a regular scapegoat for myriad problems. The president went so far at to suggest last October that if someone were to do her harm, Argentines should look to the north – meaning Washington – for the likely culprit.

One local newspaper called it an “unprecedented escalation of tensions” between the two countries since 2003 when the Kirchners rose to power (Cristina’s husband Nestor was elected in 2003). The comment revealed not only what critics call the self-obsessed nature of the Argentine president, but also a warped perspective of the importance of this country, which seems a long way from any of America’s strategic needs or interests.

One might reasonably ask: Does the relationship matter? There was a time when the issues that concern the U.S. and those that concern Argentina were so far apart that a healthy relationship seemed not only a distant prospect, but almost irrelevant.

When the Argentine economy collapsed in debt it could not pay in 2001, the U.S. and the rest of the world folded their arms and watched the train wreck. When the U.S. suffered its own economic meltdown in 2008, Argentina – unlike Europe – scarcely noticed, buoyed by strong commodity prices for its key exports. Both periods seemed reflective of what historians here see as a long history of the two countries always seeming to be a bit out of sync with each other, rarely arriving at moments of mutual interest.

However, a dramatic, made-for-Hollywood political scandal has changed the nature of the relationship. The death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman earlier this year, days after he leveled explosive charges against the president and others, has not only put the country in conspiracy hyper-drive, which takes some doing in a culture that has made an art form of that, but brought the country into a nexus of issues that preoccupy Washington, namely, the Middle East and terrorism.

Those hot button issues came together in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, which killed 85. Nisman claimed Kirchner was involved in a devil’s bargain to shield Iranian officials charged with the bombing from prosecution in exchange for oil. A scriptwriter could not have penned the next scene any better or more tragically. In the days before he was to appear before Congress to explain his allegations, Nisman told Clarín: “I might get out of this dead.”

The day before his appearance before Congress, Nisman’s body was found with a gunshot to the head in his Buenos Aires apartment. Was it suicide, induced suicide or murder? Nisman’s ex-wife, a judge, concluded after her own private investigation of his death that it was not suicide. Nisman’s original case against the President seems to have run its course in the Argentina justice system, with the highest criminal court refusing to hear it.

The Casa Rosada has denied the Nisman allegations and following Nisman’s death has spun suspicions about his personal life and motivations, rather than bringing any clarity to the cause of his death. The media continue to press the case, with rarely a day going by when the Nisman story does not populate the front pages and broadcast media.

But as often as not, the case seems just the latest ground on which the media and the Kirchner administration chew up each other.

The sour relationship between media and the administration is centered in the open warfare between Clarín and the Kirchners. The relationship ruptured in 2008 when Clarín sided with the farmers in their opposition to the administration’s tax plans. In 2009 the government introduced a media law that took aim at Clarín and its dominance in a range of media platforms and markets.

“It was probably the right thing to increase competition and provide space for smaller players,” said a veteran foreign correspondent who has worked here for more than a decade. “But as usual in Argentina, the context of it happening in a war with Clarín made it suspect. Right things done in the wrong context can undermine the purpose and the acceptance of a good law.” In other words, the law looked like an act of revenge.

The Argentines will elect a new president in October and U.S. officials are optimistic.  “There will be a sea change in politics that the U.S. will welcome,” said an Embassy official.

However, it remains to be seen if the media “war” will undergo its own sea change, away from perennial conflict and toward a relationship with government that will better serve the public rather than confuse and deepen its hardened sense of cynicism.

Alton Telegraph newsroom evokes fond memories

Slambrouck - Alton Daily Telegraph copyEditor’s note: This is a story that appears in the winter 2014 print edition of Gateway Journalism Review.

I fell in love with the Alton Telegraph newsroom. Who wouldn’t, with its dangling cables, stacks of yellowing newsprint, reference books – that’s right, BOOKS – on cabinets with wheels and reporters’ desks adorned with the bric-a-brac from years of school-board meetings, election nights and city council debates?

Founded in 1836, the Telegraph would watch journalistic history come to this Mississippi River town. Abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy moved his newspaper from St. Louis to Alton, where he expected less opposition to his views. Instead, he and his Alton Observer became targets and he was slain by a mob of anti-abolitionists.

Today’s Telegraph editor, Dan Brannan, seated at his desk, let me wander for an hour to take these photographs. I couldn’t help but feel the Telegraph’s struggle to survive. Now owned by Civitas, its news staff has dwindled to a handful and its print circulation has declined.

Whatever the future holds, newsrooms like this have an ambience not found in the more sanitized digital-news offices of today. Their struggles to survive make their gun-metal gray furniture and abandoned Styrofoam coffee cups all the more appealing – at least to anyone who once sat at desks like these, wheeled backward on squeaky chairs and fiddled with a tangled phone chord while scribbling notes for the next day’s story.

GJR book review: ‘Cronkite’s War’ — and that’s the way it is

Cronkite’s War, His World War II Letters Home
Author: Walter Cronkite IV & Maurice Isserman
Publisher: National Geographic, 2013
Hardcover: $28, 473 pages

That famed broadcaster Walter Cronkite was regarded as “the most trusted man in America” probably says as much about the America of his time as it does about Cronkite.

Journalists today have fallen far from the grace he enjoyed. According to a recent Gallup poll, journalists rank just below bankers and a couple notches above lawyers in terms of perceived ethical standards. Recent disclosures of government’s ready access to today’s media technology giants will likely further erode the public’s trust of media independence and rectitude.

Yet the more you know about Cronkite – and “Cronkite’s War, His World War II Letters Home” by Walter Cronkite IV and Maurice Isserman adds significantly to that knowledge – the more you are inclined to see him as something special.

Cronkite is etched deep in American public consciousness. He was at the vanguard of television journalists who sat down for dinner each evening with the American family. He wore the face of a nation’s pain as he fiddled with his dark-framed glasses and fought back tears while announcing the death of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. On the flip side, there was common wisdom and reassurance with his nightly signature signoff: “And that’s the way it is.”

“Cronkite’s War” reveals a man of normal intellect, reasonable ambition and genuine goodness behind that highly visible public persona. Perhaps most striking these days is to discover a public persona that was not a façade.

Long before Cronkite commanded the television screen, he was writing newspaper copy and delivering news and sports on the radio. Born in 1916 in St. Joseph, Mo., he delivered newspapers in Houston, and he started (but never completed) college at the University of Texas at Austin. A series of local reporting jobs led him back to Kansas City, where he began courting Betsy Maxwell, also a journalist. Cronkite joined United Press news service, married Betsy and was accredited in New York as a war correspondent. Though not drafted because of his color blindness, Cronkite saw plenty of action following his posting to London, where he covered the Allied air war of 1943-45.

There were early signs of the competitive nature that ultimately would take Cronkite to the pinnacle of American broadcast journalism. Before his transfer to London, he was sent from New York on a ship convoy as part of the U.S. invasion of North Africa. On the return trip, eager to be the first to report on the invasion, Cronkite hopped aboard a floatplane launched from his ship to get stateside ahead of a competitor aboard another returning ship.

Cronkite’s forthright nature is evident in many of his letters home. He frequently complained about assignments, his workload, the living conditions in war-rationed London, and his loneliness – not only for his wife, but his beloved cocker spaniel Judy, too. While ambitious, Cronkite often bargained for more time off rather than higher pay as his success grew. Reflecting the same value system, his letters are full of yearnings for more family time.

Arriving in London in late 1942, Cronkite would begin 2½ years of separation from Betsy, who returned to Kansas City when Cronkite left New York. During that period, Cronkite wrote a steady stream of letters to Betsy, more than 100 of which are archived at the University of Texas at Austin and that form the grist for this book. To read the letters along a continuum is to get a sense of World War II that is less dramatic than a strictly historical account – but, in many ways, more revealing. Movies and books often reduce the war to its climactic turning points, its selective moments of high drama. The war is viewed here through the prism of an individual life, and a life not on the battlefield. It is a grinding affair, touching every aspect of life, something to be endured through perseverance and grit, all the while never knowing the ultimate outcome.

As one might expect, the letters’ recurring theme is the separation of Walter and his wife, only married three years before Cronkite’s move to London. As the months tick by, the separation is aggravated by never knowing when it would end. Cronkite endlessly floats fantasies about Betsy joining him in London, only to acknowledge the obvious reasons why it never fully makes sense.

By the end of 1944, Cronkite is full of self-recrimination, swimming in guilt that he has damaged his relationship with Betsy by writing too infrequently or adopting the wrong tone at times. His letters, in reality, are models of compassion and sensitivity. Nonetheless, the separation and difficulties of daily life, despite his steady career advancement, lead Cronkite to a rather dark assessment of the year past: “I guess it was a pretty successful one for me, but I didn’t have much fun living it.”

That low point aside, Cronkite personified resilience throughout these years. There were job perks, such as having cocktails with a soldier named Clark Gable. By and large, the letters reveal a chipper, upbeat and sociable Cronkite. His work gained growing attention as his bylined articles appeared in newspapers across the country. Edward R. Murrow featured him as a commentator on CBS Radio and offered him a job in Moscow, which Cronkite declined. Cronkite was part of a small group of journalists allowed to join a bombing run over Germany in 1943, a raid in which seven planes were shot down and Cronkite ended up firing a machine gun at enemy fighters.

Fellow war correspondent Andy Rooney once called Cronkite a “tough, competitive scrambler.”

The letters, stitched together with adequate connective tissue and historical context, offer a smooth and personal account that is consistent with Rooney’s assessment. Yet the Cronkite that emerges also is a kind of American “everyman,” his letters laced with corny Midwest humor, modesty and general optimism – the kind of traits that endeared him to a generation of television watchers, who through the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s turned regularly to “CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite” for information they could trust.