Monday, March 9, 2015

Today's Mexico City Headlines: How much would you pay for a chair that a senator used to sit in? A) More than for a stainless steel bucket. B) Less than for a stainless steel bucket. C) Exactly the same as for a stainless steel bucket. D) I'll pass on both.

Let no one envy the reporter’s lot in the Mexican capital.
    Absent violence or unrest, the definition of news is what comes out of a meeting or press conference. So the unhappy wretch traipses from one to another, his diet heavy on refined flour and sugar, his attention span challenged and his craft reduced to sifting through the verbiage for the occasional meaningful utterance. Particle physicists at the Large Hadron Collider have an easier time of it spotting boson episodes.
    No wonder the poor print hacks end up resorting to context-twisting and exaggeration. It’s a matter of existential survival.
    There’s usually not much in the way of conferences or government sessions on Sundays. And as it happened, no so-called teachers abducted any innocents in the name of human rights yesterday, no narco was surprised in the wee hours and the relevant tectonic plates kept still. That left the dailies in Monday morning mode — that is, cooking up lead stories by refrying existing info, combing the archives or finding somebody to interview.
    Excelsior takes first prize for off-the-wall creativity, coming up with this top headline: “A seat and a bucket are worth the same.” A word cluster like that sends the translator into deepest Google terrain, assuming that head can’t possibly mean what it says. There’s got to be some kind of dicho or dicharacho at work here, a Mexican idiom that even the most assimilated foreigner isn’t privy to.
    But no, it’s literal. The top headline in the nation’s oldest newspaper informs readers that in the official valuation of items left behind at the old Senate site in the heart of the Historic Center, a cleaning bucket carries the same price as each of the “historic” chairs where members of the upper house made themselves comfortable for so many decades.
    Now, one can argue that a serviceable, industrial-quality stainless steel bucket is at least as practicable as a worn and torn old theater-chair, historic or not. But Excelsior’s point seems to be not so much that  $3,820.25 pesos ($260 dollars) might perhaps be a tad steep for a pail, if not for a chair, but that the equivalence in price betrays a less than meticulous evaluation process. This suspicion is vindicated by Excelsior’s claim that 11,360 other items out of a total of 82,500 were priced at exactly the same amount — $260 dollars.
    What we’re really supposed to be upset about, though, is the coffee. According to Excelsior, if you add up the value of all the coffee-making machines, the total surpasses $1.2 million pesos, more than $80,000 dollars. Whether that includes the machines at the gleaming new Senate tower on Insurgentes and Reforma is unclear from the story. But Excelsior had previously run a story estimating that the Senate’s coffee costs in 2014 came to $87 pesos — six bucks — per cup.
MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE WORLD'S MOST FAMOUS DYSFUNCTIONAL METRO LINE        El Universal has a bigger fish to refry for its Monday morning manufactured headline — the Mexico City Metro Line 12 disgrace. Its lead head — “A year and $41 billion pesos later, only half  of L12 operating” — says nothing new and neither does the story. The excuse for the recap is the upcoming (March 12) anniversary of the shutdown of half the line owing to design flaws, a polite way of saying that the wheels are incompatible with the tracks. Oops.
    The stakes are huge. The original amount budgeted for the project was $35 billion pesos, most of that coming from the federal government. The usual cost overruns took it up to around $40 billion. That figure continued to rise, with the city itself paying last year for a diagnostic study of the problem, and for free busing of passengers along the route of the shuttered stretch. Now come the repairs themselves.
    It’s a law of the universe that people care about the transportation woes of other people more or less as much as they care about the vacations of other people. But the fallout from this major blunder goes beyond the parochial.
    Besides the damage to the public treasury, it put the political career of former Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, once a credible presidential hopeful, on life support; he barely managed to snag a congressional candidacy with a minor party that few voters can name.
    For the party that dumped him, the DF-controlling PRD, the Line 12 mess is one more reason for left-leaning voters to abandon it in favor of the upstart Morena party of Andrés Manuel López Obrador. That may be especially true for the hundreds of thousands of south city residents left for a year so far without their promised Metro service.
    And then there’s the damage to Mexico City itself — image and reality. From its inception in the late 1960s, the Metro system was a source of pride. It was clean, modern, efficient and inexpensive. It began declining around the turn of the century, even as the rest of the city was noticeably improving. Now it’s marked by overcrowded cars and platforms, high-decibel vendors selling pirated goods, and deteriorating stations surrounded by unsanitary pits of petty crime.
    Line 12 could have started a turnaround. Instead it's rekindled cynicism. It can be fixed, but they better hurry up. As El Universal points out, a year has come and gone and the repairs have yet to start.

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