Benjamin T. Smith: Fake News, Chinese Boxes, and the Mexican Art of Manipulating the Press

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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Fake News, Chinese Boxes, and the Mexican Art of Manipulating the Press

Over the past few years, United States citizens have become increasingly aware of how governments, organizations and corporations deliberately use disinformation and lies to disguise the truth and bend the public will. Such practices have undermined trust in the mainstream media. For many, they are the most overt threat to the future of democracy. Fake news, in short, has become big news.

A similar crisis of confidence has been also been happening south of the border. Over the past decade, Mexicans have become more and more conscious of the ways in which shadowy forces, including but not limited to the state, manipulate the mass media. The 2012 Televisa scandal, the firing of Carmen Aristegui and the frequent homicides of regional journalists have all pointed to diversity of strategies employed to limit the public sphere. Neoliberal democracy promised a more open and more responsible press, but in its place seems to have created a media industry even more dependent on the alliances linking political parties, commercial interests, and organized crime.

In 2014, the director, Luis Estrada, mocked this collision of modern publicists, traditional PRI corruption, and drug traffickers in his satire, La Dictadura Perfecta. In the film, the TV executives met with PRI functionaries to suppress footage of a governor receiving several suitcases full of cash from the known drug trafficker. To do so, they employed a “Chinese box”. The phrase is a literary device used to denote a story within a story. But here, it was used to describe a fabricated news story – fake news in contemporary parlance – which could be repeatedly expanded to fill the news cycle and obscure negative press. In the film, Estrada had his executives stage a simulated kidnapping to avert public attention from government corruption.

The film was designed to emphasize the cynicism of Mexico new generation of media suits. And in the last few years, the phrase has entered common parlance. Authorities are repeatedly accused of using “Chinese boxes” to hide embarrassing tales. But the “Chinese box” is nothing news In fact, making up fake stories to bury bad ones is a PRI tradition, which goes back to the 1950s and was used by the first state publicists to put the brake on criticism.

During the 1940s, official censorship of the Mexican press was chaotic, improvised and involved a mix of individual payments, sporadic violence, and the personal intervention of politicians. President Ávila Camacho (1940-1946) invited journalists to Los Pinos to scold them over critical pieces. His brother, Maximino, chose a more direct approach and arrived at their offices, pistol in hand and threatening the journalists with death.

But in the following decade, official control of the media increased notably. Under President Ruiz Cortines (1952-1958), each ministry established its own press department, formalized fortnightly payoffs to journalists (the infamous iguala), and coordinated the coverage of controversial issues. Under the president’s press secretary – the legendary PRI fixer, Humberto Romero Pérez – functionaries developed impressive media plans.

As far as I know, only one of these plans remains. It is buried in the presidential archives of the General Archive of the Nation or AGN in Mexico City. It refers to what appears to be a relatively unimportant event – the raising in the gasoline price in September 1954. But it reveals a new sophistication in official public relations and is surprisingly redolent of the present day. Most of the document concentrates on the strategies designed to generate positive coverage of the policy. It suggests that official publicists should employ state radio stations, amenable editors, and bribable journalists to publicize the rational reasons for the rise; it advises the methods that these different media should present the information. Words should be placed in the mouths of fictitious civil society members, who supported the move. Nationalism should undergird the plan. “We should use the campaign to strengthen the civic spirit of the Mexican people”.

But, it is the plan’s appendix, titled “Indirect Means”, that is more revealing. Here, the president’s press secretary suggested that the government make up other major stories in order to deflect attention away from the rise. “Every event has a media cycle, and in the metropolis stories normally only last two weeks. However, we can shorten the story’s cycle by creating indirect themes”. Among the “indirect themes” he proposed were the “capture of a millionaire criminal” (this would “reveal the corruption in the cinema industry, a theme which fascinates the public”), “the sending to Toluca [i.e. extrajudicial murder of] the authors of some assault”, “the cleansing of the political make-up of some state” and “the holding of a Ratón Macias boxing match”. Were these “indirect means” the first Chinese box? Was this why Romero achieved legendary status within the PRI. It appears that it was.

Government publicists knew that the boxer, Tepito boy-done-good Raul Macias Guevara aka El Ratón Macias, would attract column inches and avert eyes from the price rise.

Government publicists knew that the boxer, Tepito boy-done-good Raul Macias Guevara aka El Ratón Macias, would attract column inches and avert eyes from the price rise.

On Saturday 25 September 1954, a series of small bulletins appeared hidden away in middle pages of all the major Mexico City papers. The head of the state gasoline company announced that “after a careful study” the company had decided to raise prices. Two days later the prices went up and a week later bus prices also rose. There were, it seems, major protests. But, the nationals ignored them.

Two events kept the marches off the front page. They were exactly those suggested by Romero in his media plan – a Ratón Macias boxing match and the arrest of cinema impresario called Gabriel Alarcón. The boxing match took place on Sunday 26th September at the Mexico City bullring. It was a huge event; over 60,000 Mexicans attended. El Ratón (real name Raul Macias Guevara) was a local hero, a poor Tepito boy who had won ten straight bouts to become Mexico’s most famous boxer. “The crowd went wild for Macias”. When he beat US challenger, Nate Brooks and dedicated his victory to the Virgin of Guadalupe, “it caused a national commotion”. The tabloids like devoted ample space to the boxer. On Monday 27th September, the day Mexican woke up to the increased petrol prices, the front-page announced “El Ratón Champion of America. The multitudes go mad for his victory over Nate Brooks” and “Ratón’s boxing match will be on television and radio”. Four pages of in-depth coverage followed. Over the next two weeks, the newspaper maintained a steady stream of stories about his chances of a world title fight, his charity work and his heroic welcome at the national university. La Prensa even organized a celebrity-packed public celebration of the fighter at the site of his victory.

The Alarcón scandal was more complicated. On  August 10 1954 former Union of Film Industry Workers head, Alfonso Mascarua, was stabbed, shot, and killed outside his house in Mexico City. At first, the papers had cast suspicion on a rival union leader. But, a week before the petrol price rise, the focus of the inquiry suddenly changed. The police arrested three associates of Alarcón. All three pointed the finger at the millionaire cinema owner. As Romero anticipated, the accusations precipitated a media circus. Journalists filled the pages with stories about the murky worlds of plutocrats and hit men, dredged up stories of previous murders, and followed the police’s frustrated attempts to arrest Alarcón.

The case became a veritable soap opera. It dragged on for twenty days overlapping almost exactly with the price rise story. First, the police acquired an arrest warrant, then Alarcón applied for an amparo, then had the amparo overturned, escaped capture by fleeing in the truck of a friend’s car, and finally claimed a grave heart condition that precluded his arrest. Meanwhile in the jail, the three hitmen changed their stories, got sick, and fought with one another. Editorials railed against the “arrogant empire of impunity” previously enjoyed by the playboy businessman and reassured Mexicans that under Ruiz Cortines the law would make “no distinction between rich and poor”. And cartoonists entertained readers with witty cartoons about the case. In one two women discussed their love lives. “I want to find myself a millionaire” “Don’t worry, just go and get a bus ticket to jail”.

Did government goons kill the union leader, René Mascarúa, and then set up cinema impresario, Gabriel Alarcón?

Did government goons kill the union leader, René Mascarúa, and then set up cinema impresario, Gabriel Alarcón?

So were the two stories just remarkably fortuitous events, which the government cleverly exploited to dump bad news? Or was the undated press plan written after Mascarúa’s murder, which Romero saw as an opportunity to pin on an unpopular cinema impresario? Or, most shockingly of all, did government forces deliberately murder Mascarúa to divert public attention away from the price increase? Was the Mascarúa killing a Chinese box?

There is certainly evidence that the government was involved in the murder. In Alarcón’s 1955 defense, his lawyers argued that a rival union leader working in league with a DFS operative called Cruz Carreño, had employed a hitman and fixer, nicknamed “El Jarocho” to frame Alarcón. He probably did the hit and he certainly fingered Alarcón as the “intellectual author”.  We shall probably never know the exact truth. Fortuitous, opportunist, or supremely Machiavellian, Romero’s plan demonstrated that presidential spin machine was capable of impressive manipulation.

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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.  You can read his earlier UNC Press blog post here.