Zeltsman on Gillingham and Lettieri and Smith, 'Journalism, Satire, and Censorship in Mexico'

Paul Gillingham, Michael Lettieri, Benjamin T. Smith, eds.
Corinna Zeltsman

Paul Gillingham, Michael Lettieri, Benjamin T. Smith, eds. Journalism, Satire, and Censorship in Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2018. 416 pp. $39.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8263-6007-6.

Reviewed by Corinna Zeltsman (Georgia Southern University) Published on H-LatAm (April, 2019) Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53582

Alarming levels of violence against Mexican journalists in recent years have drawn international media coverage and earned Mexico the ranking of 147 (out of 179) on Reports Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index. Formal statistics remain imprecise and incidents are underreported, but advocacy groups have highlighted the extreme risks that journalists, especially those working in regions outside of the national capital, face as they work in contexts permeated by criminal and state violence, corruption, and near-total impunity. Mexico’s ongoing crisis has renewed scholarly interest in the history of journalism during the twentieth century, when the press expanded and consolidated its presence. The edited volume Journalism, Satire, and Censorship in Mexico adds to a growing literature that examines the press in relation to the political history and culture of the postrevolutionary period.

The volume focuses on Mexico’s press history since 1929, the year of the founding of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which went on to consolidate and institutionalize Mexico’s 1910 revolution into a one-party state that endured for seventy years. Its editors, historians Paul Gillingham, Michael Lettieri, and Benjamin T. Smith, establish the volume’s goal as moving beyond impressionistic narratives about the relationship between Mexico’s press and the postrevolutionary state. On the one hand, they reject the received wisdom that the press was a toothless and complicit lackey of the PRI, cowed by repression and co-optation. Neither do they ascribe to democratization theories that trace Mexico’s twentieth-century press history as a gradual march toward freedom via increased market competition, culminating in the ouster of the PRI in the 2000 elections. Rather, they urge for a more nuanced revision that aligns press history with current historiographical debates on the nature of PRI rule. In keeping with the editors’ characterization of the PRI as a dictablanda,a state that combined authoritarian and democratic elements and that exerted tenuous control over markedly autonomous local societies,” readers expect to find that censorship in Mexico was inconsistent, that space could be opened to critique state power, and that satire could be a handy tool for prying open its uneven jaws (p. 2). Yet if the black legend of an all-controlling PRI no longer rings true, the editors agree that the unprecedented violence targeting Mexican journalists since the end of one-party rule renews urgent questions about how censorship shaped the press in the twentieth century.

The fourteen chapters that follow present varied and engaging analyses that move beyond “standard plots” and stock figures in order to understand Mexico’s twentieth-century press on its own terms, eschewing familiar character tropes like the journalist-as-hack-for-hire or heroic freedom crusader (p. 25). Organized chronologically, the contributions stretch roughly from the final years of the nineteenth century, when Mexico’s political scene was dominated by modernizing dictator Porfirio Díaz, through PRI consolidation and unraveling and up to the present, when an expanded range of dangerous actors vies to police the public sphere.

In an opening overview of Mexico’s longer press history, Pablo Piccato offers methodological reflections for future scholarship. Journalism’s trajectory cannot be fully comprehended, he argues, through a state-centric approach. Piccato suggests that historians must attend to the interplay between politics and business and consider broader economic and cultural factors (including gender and honor) in order to explain transformations in Mexican journalism. By the twentieth century, journalistic “success was a balancing act that required fine political instincts, strong social networks, and reliable market savvy” (p. 55).

The volume’s contributors, paying attention to the interplay between political and economic factors, draw a collective portrait of the strategies and tactics used by journalists and officials as they navigated the boundaries of printed speech. The precarious financial circumstances of many newspapers in spite of midcentury literacy gains meant that the state served as a frequent patron of the press and could withdraw its support when threatened. Overt and covert pressures could be applied on editorial boards through outright censorship, encouraging printers’ strikes, gathering up newspaper editions from the streets, smashing presses, and, less commonly, using physical violence. These practices show continuities with censorship tactics of the nineteenth century, though the repertoire arguably shifted as print production expanded and industrialized. As Ana María Serna shows, the courts represented another important arena where press freedom was negotiated during and immediately after the Mexican Revolution. Her focus on legal processes, which shows how journalists contested state efforts to wield criminal law against them and their printing presses, raises questions about what happened after the establishment of a revolutionary constitution in 1917. The volume’s contributors suggest that the arena of dispute shifted out of the courts and into the streets and newsrooms where journalists and their collaborators internalized or debated the limits of tolerated public debate as the revolution institutionalized.

Many of the volume’s chapters form a focused conversation about state censorship, revealing an uneven patchwork of control and tolerance under the PRI. Regional case studies ensure that this story is not relegated to the national capital, a salutary move given that print production decentralized across the twentieth century from its traditional bastion in Mexico City. Andrew Paxman’s fine-grained analysis of the press in the city of Puebla traces a gradual process of editorial co-optation, as the independent La Opinión fell under the sway of governor Maximino Ávila Camacho in the late 1930s. By taking a wide census of the regional press as it boomed at midcentury, in contrast, Gillingham argues that political coverage in the states was broadly critical of the PRI in spite of government subsidies and repression. The relative autonomy enjoyed by the regional press contrasted with the greater scrutiny faced by newspapers in Mexico City, where national officials clustered and the stakes of critique were symbolically higher for their proximity to power. As Smith shows, events like the government shuttering of the satirical magazine Presente after the economic crisis of 1948 “provided a new manual for journalists’ behavior” by revealing outer limits of tolerated speech (p. 128). Yet within a decade, Renata Keller demonstrates, the magazine Política began publishing scathing denunciations of government corruption that went untouched by the Díaz Ordáz administration and became an important source of inspiration for organizers on the left. Roderic Ai Camp shows, furthermore, how the satirical cartoons of Abel Quezada presented almost continuous criticism of both the state and social complicity.

Divining the logics of unsystematic and often-opaque acts of state censorship is challenging in the absence of accessible archival material. Several contributors work with security police records (Smith, Keller) and mysterious government reports (Jacinto Rodríguez Munguía) to understand state perspectives. Yet some of the most fruitful exploration of censorial logics emerge in analyses that reveal how stories moved across space and media forms in spite of government crackdowns. Describing the opening of the press in the 1970s, Vanessa Freije shows how acts of overt censorship at the regional level could be publicized in Mexico City newspapers to amplify political awareness, while international news coverage was repurposed in Mexico City to say what could not be said in the capital. When a media blackout followed the Echeverría administration’s intervention in Excelsior, journalists photocopied critical coverage from the New York Times to pass from hand to hand, an action that shows how new reproduction technologies publicized and undermined acts of censorship. Javier Garza Ramos offers another example by pointing out how critical newspapers located in northern Mexico could exploit their proximity to the US in order to circumvent the national government’s withholding of newsprint, which was controlled through the state paper monopoly PIPSA. Factors like these helped regional papers cover local electoral success of the conservative opposition National Action Party (PAN) in the 1980s and change the horizons of possibility in spite of PRI censorship. Like Garza Ramos, Rafael Barajas also argues, however, that Mexico’s political democratization coincided with the rise of corporate media models (especially in television) that constricted the terms of debate in new ways.

Several contributions stand out for their broader consideration of the links between media and political culture. Smith and Freije use state and personal archives to explore how journalists drew inspiration from street talk and how readers assigned meaning to journalists’ activities. Lettieri’s chapter offers a compelling read of the ostensibly dull trade magazines of Mexico City’s midcentury bus industry, which served as channels through which PRI officials and constituents negotiated the terms of their corporatist pact. One magazine issue, for instance, voiced complaints when requirements to facilitate the acarreo, the infamous practice of busing voters to the polls, cut too far into bus operators’ profits. Yet it simultaneously worked to consolidate the PRI’s mandate with features like a photo retrospective of acarreos from years past, making corporatism “legible” and meaningful by giving it a family photo album to forge affective attachments (p. 144).

The volume’s thought-provoking final contributions explore the challenges faced by contemporary journalists in a period marked by the rise of digital media. One-party rule is over, and the press, especially outside the capital, faces unprecedented levels of violence from both state officials and narco-traffickers. Paul K. Eiss offers a close reading of the discursive positionings that swirl around the popular Blog del Narco, exploring how this site of “digitally enabled citizen journalism” became a frontline in debates over a public sphere that he characterizes less for its Habermasian unity than for its “fractal recursivity.” In a world where everyone is both media producer and media critic, Eiss shows how claims about who counts as “the public” chase each other across the digital page in a discursive blame game that seems to mirror broader attempts to evade responsibility for Mexico’s crisis of violence (p. 348). In a rich and wide-ranging essay, Everard Meade posits a possible way out of the fractal field described by Eiss. Analyzing a range of texts about borderlands violence, Meade argues that confronting the everyday experiences of violence yields greater insight than any schema or metanarrative about the press could ever provide. Deep contextualization, or a “thicker description of the experience,” can show how violence and perceptions of violence become embedded in the fabric of life (p. 324). Yet transformation also requires a social reckoning, in which elite critics recognize “the desire by ordinary people to speak and to be heard, or at least to see people who speak like them and voice their concerns” in the conversation—to become subjects of representation in the public sphere. How else to explain the enduring allure of the nota roja (crime pages) and narco-traffickers who “trample hierarchical social codes like blades of grass under their ostrich-skin boots” (p. 320)?

There are some drawbacks to the editors’ framing of the history of Mexico’s press against the political trajectory of the PRI. The concept of dictablanda is helpful for capturing the unevenness of one-party rule, but it also allows for the co-presence of sometimes competing interpretations of the twentieth-century press that undercut the editors’ attempts to jettison master narratives. The salutary inclusion of essays by practicing journalists (Judith Matloff provides a haunting foreword) and the cartoonist El Fisgón enriches the collection but also shows a tension between the perspectives offered by practitioners and historians, who seem to move in different political and conceptual spaces. A deeper grappling with this multiplicity of perspectives, perhaps in a conclusion, which is lacking, would have made the collection stronger.

Satire, too, receives less attention than the volume’s title suggests, especially in regard to its role as not just political but also social commentary. The volume’s cover image, along the same lines, raises questions about the class and racial politics of journalism and literacy that point toward future directions in the study of Mexico’s twentieth-century press. Though the editors point to rising literacy rates at midcentury, the volume’s contributors do not explore the implications of this trend, beyond the possibility that it made the press more relevant in Mexican life. The iconic 1949 photograph by Nacho López of a campesino reading a crumpled fragment of newspaper, instead, highlights literacy as central to the twentieth-century drama of social transformation. Indeed, the posed image (the shot involved four takes) seems to herald an emergent national subject, one produced by both photographer and the photographed in a collaborative endeavor.[1] Journalism, Satire, and Censorship in Mexico provides a nuanced portrait of the uneven and contingent political and economic processes that shaped the press under the PRI’s dictablanda. Future research might deepen our understanding of how the unnamed campesino reader participated in this story.


[1]. John Mraz, Nacho López, Mexican Photographer (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 85-88.

Citation: Corinna Zeltsman. Review of Gillingham, Paul; Lettieri, Michael; Smith, Benjamin T., eds., Journalism, Satire, and Censorship in Mexico. H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. April, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53582

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