Benjamin T. Smith: Por Qué, Por Qué?

The Mexican Press and Civil Society, 1940–1976: Stories from the Newsroom, Stories from the Street by Benjamin T. SmithToday we welcome a guest post from Benjamin T. Smith, author of The Mexican Press and Civil Society, 1940–1976:  Stories from the Newsroom, Stories from the Street, just published by UNC Press.

Mexico today is one of the most dangerous places in the world to report the news, and Mexicans have taken to the street to defend freedom of expression. As Benjamin T. Smith demonstrates in this history of the press and civil society, the cycle of violent repression and protest over journalism is nothing new. He traces it back to the growth in newspaper production and reading publics between 1940 and 1976, when a national thirst for tabloids, crime sheets, and magazines reached far beyond the middle class.

The Mexican Press and Civil Society, 1940–1976 is available now in both print and ebook editions.

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Por Qué, Por Qué? How one magazine evaded state censorship and published the only coverage of the Tlatelolco Massacre

Mario Menéndez never wanted to put out a radical magazine. He wanted, he told his friends, to make a Mexican version of Paris Match or the New York Times Magazine. Though he had cut his teeth exposing peasant exploitation in the henequen fields of Yucatán and gained international fame following left-wing guerrillas throughout Latin America, by early 1968 he wanted to leave this kind of confrontational journalism behind. Just six months earlier the Mexican government had bailed him out of a Colombian jail where he was accused of providing funds to insurgents. The experience had left him chastened, maybe even frightened. His new publication, Por Qué?, was meant to be a way out, a way to build bridges with the family members, politicians, and journalists that made up world. But, it was not to be. Like so many Mexicans, the student massacre on 2nd October 1968 changed his vision of the country and his role in it.

Por Qué? Mark 1

On 28 February 1968 Por Que? hit the newsstands. It was glossy and expensive. In fact, at 5 pesos it was 2 pesos more than most political magazines. As U.S. consular officials noticed, this was no rabble-rousing flysheet, this was elite fare. The funding came from Mario’s inheritance and a smattering of Yucatán’s businessmen and playboys. The writers were a mixture of family members, old reporter friends, and journalists from the upmarket magazine Gente that he had invited to join the staff after meeting them at a cocktail party.  The contents were a strange mix, which reflected Mario’s devotion to serious investigative journalism and his new aim to appeal to an elite, moneyed audience.

The contents of the first editions of Por Qué? were a strange mix.

The contents of the first editions of Por Qué? were a strange mix.

Cultural pieces comprised around a half of most issues. Film, in particular, played an important role. There were fawning write-ups of international movie stars, like Sean Connery and Anthony Quinn. And every fortnight Elena Garro (using her married name Elena Paz) interviewed a female TV or movie star. These lifestyle pieces focused on the actress’s home (“delightful” or “grand”), her beauty tips (“brilliant” or “fascinating”), or insights into servant etiquette (“Always tip doormen in New York”).

In the first issues of Por Qué? culture and fashion sections dominated.

In the first issues of Por Qué? culture and fashion sections dominated.

But, in the first section of the magazine, there were also some interesting investigations into state corruption. A handful of articles shared the culture section’s obsession with celebrity. In one, they used Liz Taylor and Richard Burton’s purchase of an upscale Puerta Vallarta property to focus on the displacement of peasant property owners that had made such development possible. But, most were serious, well-handled analyses of less glamorous subjects, including the repression of copra farmers in Guerrero, the poor provision of drinking water in Yucatán, and the links between vice and politics in Baja California.

“The apogee of directed disinformation”: The Press and the 1968 Student Movement

In late August 1968, Por Qué?, the elitist, reformist fortnightly came to an end. In its place emerged Por Qué?, the alarmist, anti-systemic tabloid. Events not ideas changed Por Que’s direction. In summer 1968, Mexico City was preparing to hold the Olympics. The government had invested over $150 million dollars building new infrastructure, tidying up inner city barrios, and preparing propaganda for the occasion. For the ruling party, the games were designed to showcase Mexico’s rapid development to the world. But, instead, they highlighted the state’s reliance on repression.

On 22 July, a fight broke out between rival gangs from some of the capital’s high schools. The government immediately responded with violence, sending in the riot police to suppress the scuffle. Over the next two months conflicts escalated until senior officials in the Mexican government decided to put an end to the movement for good. At a student meeting at the Plaza de la Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco on 2 October, they placed sharp shooters on the roofs of the surrounding buildings and encircled the protestors with troops. At a given signal, both groups opened fire. Dozens of students were shot dead and hundreds were bundled into army vehicles and taken to military camps for interrogation and torture. In all, around 300 students were killed.

In response, the mainstream media followed the government line slavishly, arguing that the students were being manipulated by outside forces and that they were the instigators of the violence, firing first on the troops. Making the lies stick took the full force of the government’s spin machine. Authorized press statements and bulletins flooded the newsrooms. Press officers and government ministers leaked forged documents, played on anti-communist sentiment, and called on compliant editors and journalists to support the official line. El Sol published fake photographs of supposed student arms caches. And Mexico’s top earner of government payoffs, Ernesto Julio Teissier claimed that “dangerous communist-Trotskyites” would have stormed the government palace if troops hadn’t intervened. The press’s response to the 2 October massacre was, as Carlos Monsivaís noted, “the apogee of directed disinformation”.

Por Qué? Mark 2

Except, that is, in the offices of Por Qué? In contrast to the mainstream media, Por Qué? adopted a strongly pro-student line. Mario claimed that journalistic ethics, rather than political sympathy, motived the change. In July, he started to investigate the death of a student at the hands of the city’s riot police. As government forces denied the death, the story piqued his interest and he probed further, uncovering evidence of state repression and the media cover-up. At first, he tried to disguise the magazine’s change of tack. On 15 August, he published a special version of Por Qué?, which supported certain dissident government ministers who had floated the idea of starting a reformist political party. The timing and contents of the piece were controversial. And Mario knew it. He disguised the magazine with a false front cover for a gentleman’s fashion magazine called Cuartel de Caballeros. Newsvendors could sell the issue, without attracting the attention of the police or the secret service.  This was journalism as espionage.

But, later that month, he overhauled the magazine completely. On 28th August, the magazine published an editorial, “Donde estan los muertos?” [“Where are the dead?”], which focused on police repression. Two weeks later, Mario put out an extra on the student uprising. The price halved to 2.50 pesos; the quality of paper decreased; the private adverts disappeared; and the format shrank to the size of crime magazines like Alarma. The tone also changed completely; the culture section and the glossy photographs disappeared; and the Gente journalists resigned. Instead, Mario now wrote much of the copy, together with the legendary Baja California muck-raker, Carlos Ortega. He hired a group of student activists to contribute articles and he paid photographers like Lenín Salgado and the Mayo brothers to provide photographs.

Between August and December 1968, coverage of the student movement dominated the magazine. In most issues, stories on the protests accounted for over half the copy. Highlighting state violence was key. To do this, the magazine adopted the form of the crime news. Political coverage and the nota roja aligned. Traditional political journalism and wordy editorials were reduced. Instead, painstaking narratives, which recounted the chronology of police beatings or military violence formed the bulk of the coverage. Detailed reports listed dates, times, weapons, injuries, the titles of commanding officers, and the names of the dead. In the second extraordinary issue, published after the October 2 massacre, offered a chronicle of the Tlatelolco killings. In contrast to low-ball official figures, the report estimated that soldiers had murdered at least 100 protestors in the square. Such an approach cut through government obfuscation and mass media hand wringing. As Mario wrote, this was the time for recounting “deeds” not “words”.

The second extra published after the October 2 massacre

The second extra published after the October 2 massacre

Dozens of photographs accompanied these stories. They comprised the pictures the big nationals were unwilling to publish. “It was to Por Qué?’s offices in Colonia Roma that frustrated photographers repaired, knowing there was no chance of getting their horrific pictures into their own newspapers.” They were shocking, bloody and completely unfiltered. On the front of the first extraordinary issue a soldier prepared to smash the butt of his gun into the face of a surrendered student; on the front of the second, there was the image of a dead boy; and on the inside cover, there were the mutilated bodies of three students. Blood covered the floor. Inside, there was a shot of the blood-splattered shoes of women and children – the victims of the massacre. The stylistic shift was a conscious decision. In Mario’s introduction to the first extra, he claimed that he did so, not for “commercial ends” but to “give national public opinion the truth”.

It was to Por Qué?’s offices in Colonia Roma that frustrated photographers repaired, knowing there was no chance of getting their horrific pictures into their own newspapers.

It was to Por Qué?’s offices in Colonia Roma that frustrated photographers repaired, knowing there was no chance of getting their horrific pictures into their own newspapers.

Por Qué?’s change of direction generated a strong state response. Multiple agencies struck at each stage of the production process, in what seemed to be a coordinated campaign. The state paper company refused to sell the magazine newsprint; secret agents bullied firms to cease printing the publication; masked gunmen stole thousands of copies; and state hacks flooded the capital with flysheets, which accused Mario of an array of crimes. There is some evidence that state agents also tried to assassinate the journalist. Mario certainly believed an attack was possible. He told a UK journalist, a public bus had tried to run him over in late September. He managed to escape by leaping over a car bonnet. But, another pedestrian was struck and killed. From then on, he always kept a pistol in the drawer of his desk. This was not just for show. As Mario explained to the U.S. magazine Ramparts, he and his staff often had to “set up camp” around the printing press “armed to the teeth with .38s and carbines” and try to print off half a million copies before the authorities sent in their goons.

Por Qué?’s change of direction generated a strong state response.

Por Qué?’s change of direction generated a strong state response.

Whatever the risks, the new approach boosted sales dramatically. The authorities estimated that the average issue of Por Qué? sold around 200,000 copies. Other claims were even higher. U.S. journalists stated that the extras sold between 380,000 and 500,000 each. Unsurprisingly, the publication was particularly popular among the capital’s students. The U.S. authorities, wrote that the “journal has gained considerable stature among students because of its undiluted support for their cause.” They bought copies; they shared copies; and they handed them out at meetings.  They even they pulled the publication apart, and stuck the individual pages to walls to form newspaper murals. If you wanted to know the truth about what went on in October 1968, you read Por Qué?

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Benjamin T. Smith is reader of history at the University of Warwick and the author of The Roots of Conservatism in Mexico and Pistoleros and Popular Movements.  Follow him on Twitter, or visit his website.