Thursday, December 4, 2014

When Mexican journalism changed forever

Vicente Leñero’s death at 81 on Wednesday will put most people in mind of his stage plays and fiction, as well as his movie work, such as the screenplay for the 2002 international hit “El crimen del Padre Amaro.” But for those of us on the more ink-smeared side of life, it’s Leñero the journalist we’ll remember.
    Especially “Los periodistas,” his novelistic but factual first-hand account of a seminal event in Mexican journalism — the great Excelsior Putsch of 1976.
    Excelsior, you have to understand, was far and away the biggest and most influential newspaper in Mexico for most of the 20th century, a huge daily mass of newsprint with an outsized effect on the nation’s political awareness, cultural taste and, no doubt, deforestation.
    But it didn’t always behave as a paper was expected to behave during the PRI dynasty, and in July of 1976, editor Julio Scherer was pushed out, almost physically. Iconic photos circulate of Scherer and his team walking near Bucareli and Reforma minutes after the event. (The one seen here is from the cover of a 1994 edition of “Los periodistas.”  Scherer, then 50, is third from the right.)
    Few doubted, least of all Scherer, that President Luis Echeverría was behind the coup. One who did was the Mexican ambassador to France at the time; Carlos Fuentes deplored the coup, but couldn’t accept that his boss, the president, would pull off such a reputation-damaging stunt just months before the end of his term.
    Hundreds of Excelsior staffers followed their editor out the door in solidarity. Some of their names read like a who’s who of Mexican letters over the next several decades. Here’s a tiny sample:
    Manuel Becerra Acosta, who had been the No. 2 editor at Excelsior, started his own newspaper, called Uno Más Uno. In a daring move that turned out to be historic, Becerra hired Carlos Payán, who had zero journalism experience. Payán learned quickly and later (1984) founded La Jornada, the relentlessly critical daily that still thrives today.
    Joining the exodus was the editor of Plural, the weekly cultural supplement. Octavio Paz wasted no time in founding Vuelta, a literary magazine that he ruled with an iron hand until his death in 1998. Vuelta then became Letras Libres, edited today by the historian and academic journalist Enrique Krauze.
    A thirty-something social critic and cultural journalist named Carlos Monsiváis was among those who walked. By the time of his death in 2010 — well before it, in fact — Monsiváis was the reigning opinion leader in Mexico.
    José Emilio Pacheco was also in his thirties at the time. His poetry and novels have long overshadowed his cultural criticism,  but he wrote commentary regularly for pre-coup Excelsior, and kept at it in other publications until his death early this year.
    Miguel Ángel Granados Chapa, a 35-year-old associate editor at the time, went on to become the nation’s premier political columnist, finishing his career with Reforma. He died in 2011.
    Scherer himself started the newsweekly Proceso within a few months of his ouster. He stayed at the helm there for more than 20 years and still serves as chairman of the board, and occasional contributor.
    Most major Mexican newspapers and news magazines today won’t hesitate to criticize the executive branch, though none quite as aggressively and consistently (some would say excessively) as Proceso and La Jornada. It took decades for the change to set in, and it would be oversimplifying things to attribute it directly to the 1976 unpleasantness at Excelsior that Leñero described in detail. But the coup certainly unleashed a chain of events that led us to where we are today.
    Echeverría’s successors must wish he had left well enough alone.