Leading newspapers throughout the United States on November 26, 2006, reported:
“Bands of youths rampaged through downtown Oaxaca early Sunday, torching buildings and cars hours after the federal police used tear gas to drive off a violent mob of leftists. . . . masked youths broke off from a march of about 4,000 people earlier Saturday and pushed shopping carts filled with rocks and gasoline bombs through the streets in a running battle against police. . . .
“Court offices in one of Oaxaca’s imposing colonial buildings were gutted by flames, and the gangs burned 20 private vehicles and attacked three hotels. . . .
“‘We are terrified of the APPO people,’ said Josefina Quiros.”
The accounts, sent over the wires by the Associated Press, purportedly describe a confrontation between Mexican federal and state police and participants in a march through the city of Oaxaca by 4,000 to 7,000 supporters of the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO). The reports were fallacious. The only masked participants were those covering their faces against the tear gas that police had blanketed the downtown with before they attacked what had been a peaceful demonstration.
How do I know this? I was there. Like thousands of other Oaxaca residents, I was in the city’s Centro Historico that November day. The AP correspondent obviously was not. Her information came from government sources. Throughout her reports the words “leftists,” “strikers,” “rampage” and “gangs” describe an alleged “running battle” with the police while people “looked on in horror.” Although a small group of Leninists belong to the APPO, the popular assembly is not a political organization. It is a loose grouping of teachers and of women’s and social service groups, many composed of indigenous people. They were demonstrating their desire to participate in the state’s financial and law enforcement decisions.
More to the story
Unfortunately, readers outside of Oaxaca saw only the syndicated accounts. These reports did not mention that Governor Ulisés Ruiz’ state government could not account for the disappearance of billions of pesos that it should have devoted to education and social services. Nor do they point out that police had made more than 400 arbitrary detentions of educators, social activists and indigenous leaders. Besides demanding that Ruiz divulge where the money was spent, the marchers were advocating the release of the political prisoners and the investigation of 23 deaths at the hands of purported government-paid paramilitaries.
The APPO formed after Ruiz’ state police tried and failed to crush a statewide teachers’ strike in May 2006. Anti-Ruiz marches and public demonstrations attracted hundreds of thousands of participants. Members of Oaxaca’s 70,000-strong teachers union and their APPO supporters occupied nearly 50 square blocks in the city’s historic center from June until the end of October, closing administrative offices and forcing Ruiz to govern from his limousine and from helicopter flights around the state.
To prevent armed paramilitaries from roaming the streets at night and to protect their communal radio station, the APPO barricaded streets and highways. Schools throughout Oaxaca closed; hotels, restaurants and other tourist-dependent businesses locked their doors. United States, Canadian and European countries advised their citizens to avoid visiting the area.
On October 27, 2006, armed gunmen, several of whom were identified as non-uniformed municipal police, stormed some of the APPO barricades and shot and killed American videojournalist Bradley Will and four others and wounded 23. To prevent escalation of the conflict, the federal government answered Ruiz’ call for help and sent soldiers and the militarized federal preventive police to drive the teachers and their supporters out of the city center.
Fully armored and in uniform, the federal police set up armed phalanxes to block access to the central district, rifling through briefcases and backpacks, and forcing pedestrians to squeeze between them and the area’s 16th century architecture. Many women refused to go past them because the guards would force them into doorways, paw them and threaten them sexually.
These disruptions virtually annihilated Oaxaca’s tourism industry, prompting business interests to urge Governor Ruiz to resolve the dispute with the teachers’ union and its APPO following. That he chose to do this by force, rather than negotiation, did not make it into the AP wire dispatches.
The AP did send follow-up stories during the week following the initial November 25 news release, but few newspapers carried them. Most of the follow-ups—which corrected statistics concerning fire damage and numbers of arrests and injuries but did not substantially alter the original reports—were relegated to back page news summaries.
Copy editors often cut, alter or edit wire service reports. They can show considerable variance. One website verison of the Oaxaca report I saw even had the protesters firing the tear gas. Not only does misinformation spread, it leaves a lasting impression in readers’ awareness.
Who’s the source?
During a journalism conference some years ago, the managing editor of a leading California daily asked, “Why is it so important that we, as journalists, make sure that everything we write is absolutely accurate?”
“Because the bleeping readers believe everything they see in print!” an attendee scoffed. The comment evoked laughter but also nods of agreement. How often does one hear “I read in the paper that . . .” or “I saw on TV . . .” without a source being mentioned or remembered? What is read often is taken as truth and remembered as truth indefinitely.
The AP and other news services have agreements with their client papers that permit them to dispatch local stories. This makes what Dan Feder in the online Narco News Bulletin called “desk correspondents” of wire service reporters “gleaning stories from the local commercial newspapers and taking phone calls.” These writers often become victims of their sources’ politics and prejudices, and don’t have the time or the contacts to dig beneath the surface. Our 24/7 news flow often means hustling a superficial accounting of events in place of in-depth reportage.
Reporters quickly learn which news sources are most reliable—and which are easiest to contact. Often it is the latter whose information gets into print. Foreign correspondents covering the teachers’ sit-in in Oaxaca that led to the demonstrations and subsequent violent repressions found government sources immediately accessible but not those from the APPO.
Veteran Spanish journalist Jacobo García contrasted the APPO protests, whose conflicts with the government he covered for El Mundo of Barcelona, with those of the Zapatistas in Chiapas. That the Zapatistas had a leader who clearly could state the group’s goals enabled García and other foreign correspondents to provide sympathetic coverage. Thanks to his understanding of the media and how to engage and manipulate it, the man who calls himself Subcomandante Marcos became a charismatic international figure. Not only did he respond to requests for interviews and information, he sought out and courted journalists.
By contrast, the APPO neglected press relations and failed to give candid explanations of its activities to national and international reporters. The APPO’s spokesperson often was 23-year-old Florentino López, who had no previous experience in journalism or press relations and who communicated primarily by cell phone while darting from one house to another to avoid being apprehended by state police.
In The Invention of Power, Mexican journalist and essayist Federico Campbell asserts that propaganda is a government’s most effective ruling tool. Government officials, politicians and information services can manipulate erroneous accounts to create a false reality that once in print becomes virtually impossible to contradict. High-paid flacks in well-financed offices not only stand ready to assist international reporters by arranging interviews and providing documents, they provide a continual flow of “tips” and “inside information.”
Propaganda also is the most effective tool for those opposing the establishment, whether by a labor or cultural organization or revolutionary force, Campbell notes. The APPO failed to do what presidential candidates in both Mexico and the United States have done: capsulize their philosophy in a few brief slogans—for instance, “Give free enterprise a chance”—that wire service readers and TV viewers quickly assimilate.
“The truth is, in any editorial job, you are so tied up with your program and deadline that you simply do not have the time to stand back and look at the coverage as a whole,” notes the online media monitoring agency Media Critiques, quoting the BBC’s Malcolm Balen. How accurate is the instant news being whisked across the world? And how often does anyone ask? Modern technology makes it possible to transmit news “as it is happening” but does not guarantee that the information is accurate or even true.
More than a year after the brutal crushing of the legal popular movement in Oaxaca, I still get notes and calls from relatives, editors and friends in the United States expressing concern for my safety. Little that I say or write seems to deter the impressions they have of roving leftist bands burning vehicles and hurling Molotov cocktails while fearful citizens look on in horror.
Robert Joe Stout, a freelance journalist who lives in Mexico, has been a magazine editor, newspaper reporter, editor, columnist and government property tax accountant. His newest book is Why Immigrants Come to America: Braceros, Indocumentados and the Migra.