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Hyping Iran, Ignoring Mexico

The New York Times and Stolen Elections

by JOHN ROSS

Mexico City.

A stolen election by an entrenched regime? Opposition charges that more votes were cast than ballots distributed to the polling places? That independent electoral observers were barred from witnessing the vote count? Demands for a recount to which election officials respond by offering to recount just 10% of the vote? A regime-controlled media that exalts the incumbent’s victory and demonizes the loser? The use of alternative media by the opposition to get their side of the story out? Massive street protests by millions of peaceful demonstrators waving homemade signs and wearing bracelets displaying the color of their movement? At least 20 protestors gunned down by authorities and paramilitaries? Worldwide moral indignation stirred up by the international media?

Iran 2009? Yes!

Mexico 2006? Yes and no.

All aspects of the above scenario describe the Great Mexican Electoral Flimflam three years ago this July 2nd – save for the conundrum of worldwide moral indignation. Virtually ignored by the international media, the stealing of the Mexican presidential election by the right-wing oligarchy stirred little indignation anywhere outside of Mexico.

A comparison of coverage extended to both instances of electoral fraud by the New York Times, the "paper of record", is instructive.

NYT coverage of the upheaval in Iran has been overwhelming. During the first nine days of the electoral crisis, the Times ran at least one front-page story daily – from Election Day Friday, June 12th through Saturday, June 20th, the Iranian electoral sham occupied the right-hand column (the lead story) in the international edition on eight out of nine days. The Times also ran a second Iran story on the front page in six out of the nine editions reviewed – on four of those days, the stories were accompanied by a four and sometimes five column color photo, mostly of multitudes supporting the challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister who made his mark in history back in the 1980s by receiving a Christian bible and a key-shaped cake from the emissaries of Ronald Reagan in exchange for funding the Nicaraguan Contras.

As the week wore on, many stories focused on street protests and violence inflicted by paramilitaries that reportedly left a score of demonstrators dead. In addition to the front-page stories, jumps ran inside over one or more pages daily, accompanied by additional photos.

The Times sent four by-lined reporters into Teheran for the festivities – Robert Worth, Michael Slackman, Neil MacFarquhar, and the Iranian Nazna Pathi, plus Eric Schmidt reporting from Washington. Bill Keller, the New York Times executive editor, flew to the Iranian capital to pen a daily journal. All of the Times’ reporters in Teheran were housed in five-star hotels in the upscale north of the city where Mousavi has a substantial upper middle class base.

Meanwhile back in New York, the Times editorial board ran a pair of editorials during the first week of the upheaval decrying repression of peaceful protest and the purported vote fraud. At least seven op-ed screeds vilified incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad whose condemnations of Israel the Times assiduously combats, and celebrated the presumed victor Mousavi, albeit with varying degrees of caution.

In the wake of the tainted vote taking, the Times’ conclusion that the election had been stolen was shared by many, including the veteran Middle East hand Robert Fisk, also reporting from Teheran. But writing in the London Independent on July 19th, Fisky began to have doubts. Popular support for Ahmadinejad in provincial cities and amongst the rural poor in the countryside, he speculated, could well have led to a landslide victory for the incumbent – although not perhaps by the 11,000,000 votes by which he claims to have thrashed the challenger.

The Mexican presidential election of July 2nd 2006 was perhaps the most starkly polarized in that neighbor nation’s history pitting left against right, poor against rich, and brown against white-skin privilege, and the campaign was brutal, filled with invective and dirty tricks. The subtext of the election was Mexico’s geopolitical standing – would it continue to be a slavish ally of Washington or join the anti-neo-liberal tsunami that was then sweeping Latin America?

In the run-up to the vote, the New York Times seemed to favor the candidacy of right-winger Felipe Calderon of the incumbent PAN party and turn up its nose at the leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the wildly popular mayor of Mexico City. Much like Iran, Mexico has a long tradition of electoral fraud. Unlike Iran, Mexico has a 1954-mile border with the United States of North America.

Covering the Mexican election for "the paper of record" were Ginger Thompson for whom the story would be her swansong after eight years in country (the Times plucked her from the Baltimore Sun) and rookie James McKinley, who came to Mexico from the NYT’s Albany bureau. Bill Keller did not fly in for the party.

The Times ran a front-page curtain raiser on election eve but not in the right-hand column. A second front-pager July 3rd just above the fold reported that Calderon had a narrow lead and a July 5th dispatch also on the front page confirmed the right-winger’s victory – although Mexican electoral authorities had not yet declared so. Little mention was made of Lopez Obrador’s claim of fraud until a huge July 8th rally that packed a half million supporters into the great Mexico City Zocalo plaza. Unlike the New York Times coverage from Teheran, news of the enormous gathering ran inside – as would all subsequent Mexican election news even when Lopez Obrador’s mobilizations were expanding exponentially to 2,000,000 participants (police reports) by July 30th, the largest outpourings of political protest in Mexican history. Thompson consistently cut the numbers in half.

Several months of parallel protests by teachers and indigenous militants in the state of Oaxaca during which 26 were killed by police and paramilitaries were not even reported by the Times. By August, as the disputed election went into the courts, coverage was reduced to international briefs – by then Thompson had left the country.

To its credit, the NYT editorial board in New York wrote one editorial obliquely questioning Calderon’s minuscule .057% lead over the leftist, and ran two op-ed pieces that exposed the fraud in no uncertain terms. In this respect, Times coverage of the 2006 Mexican electoral fraud was considerably more balanced than back in 1988 when the then-long ruling PRI party stole the presidency from left-winger Cuauhtemoc Cardenas in a naked display of electoral thievery. Even emeritus correspondent Alan Riding’s eyewitness accounts of vote-stealing could not convince the Times editorial board of PRI chicanery. The winner, the now-reviled Carlos Salinas, was labeled "a champion of the free market" and the election was characterized as "the cleanest in Mexican history."

For both this writer who covered the 1988 and 2006 electoral debacles in Mexico, and Dr. Alfredo Jalife, a National Autonomous University professor and geopolitical columnist for the left daily La Jornada who lived through them, the determining factor in the Times’ highly-charged coverage of Iran 2009 and its ho-hum reportage on Mexico 2006 was easily discernable. "Mexico doesn’t threaten Israel," Jalife observed in a recent phone interview.

The unabashed and uncritical defense of Israel is the underlying reason d’etre of the Sulzberger clan, publishers of the New York Times.

The Times’ moral authority for determining the level of the egregiousness of electoral fraud in Iran and Mexico must certainly be questioned in light of the stealing of Florida 2000 by the Bushites and the scant attention the "paper of record" paid to voting machine tampering in Ohio in 2004. "What gives the gringos the right to pass judgment on other peoples’ elections?" asks Berta Robledo, a pro-Lopez Obrador activist, over café con leche in downtown Mexico City.

The comparison of coverage of electoral fraud in Iran and Mexico comes at a curious juncture for the New York Ayatollahs now that the Times Corporation’s biggest creditor and quite possibly its top shareholder outside of the royal Sulzberger-Ochs dynasty is a Mexican – the tycoon Carlos Slim, once the richest billionaire on the Forbes list but now relegated to third place behind Bill Gates and possibly Warren Buffet after suffering debilitating stock losses in the current suicide market.

These are dicey times at the Times: the paper is over a billion bucks in debt, first quarter losses in 2009 were a record $74.5 million, and the stock price is now worth less than the price of the paper’s Sunday edition – stockholders’ dividends have been suspended indefinitely. Meanwhile, major labor trouble is brewing as the NYT seeks to close down the Boston Globe for which it once paid more than $1,000,000,000 USD – the defiance of Guild members up in Beantown threatens to spread into the New York newsroom.

With the roof caving in on Wall Street and the newspaper industry gasping its last – advertising and readership have suffered the most precipitous drops since the Great Depression – the Times management sought out Slim in late 2008 to save the paper from itself. The Mexican’s $250,000,000 loan gave the NYT a little breathing space but was achieved at an astounding 14% yearly interest rate which, if not paid off in six years, will entitle the Mexico City-based billionaire to between 16 and 18% of the Sulzbergers’ precious preferred stock.

Carlos Slim, the son of a Lebanese immigrant who married into the Gemayel Maronite Christian clan (now aligned with Hezbollah, an Iranian Shiite proxy, back in the old country), has a Midas-like knack for picking up failing businesses for a song and parleying them into new fortunes. Slim’s companies now comprise 40% of those trading on the Mexican stock market.

Both Slim and the Times management loudly proclaim that the Mexican magnate will have no editorial clout and indeed the only measurable change at least here in Mexico since its richest citizen made his move on the NYT is that the newsstand price of the international edition has shot up to $4 (53 pesos a day), twice the two bucks Americano the Times is charging in El Norte where the paper has decreed three price hikes in the past 18 months (from $1 to $1.25 to $1.50 and now $2.)

The story gets curiouser and curiouser. A February 9th in-house overview that appeared on the front page of the business section anticipated a rosy future for the ex-Old Gray Lady of 43rd Street (The Sulzbergers recently sold its new and costly all-glass Eighth Avenue high rise and now rents back office space on the premises.) In fact, the story suggested, the Times really didn’t need Slim’s bail-out but took it anyway because money is going to cost a lot more for the next few years. Scuttlebutt afoot in the newsroom reveals an alternative rationale: by pursuing the Slim loan, the Sulzbergers sought to dampen the aspirations of ex-movie and music mogul David Geffen to take over the paper and turn it into an NGO!

Such rumors often bloom in the hothouse ambience that stumbling giants exude. Slim’s motives for snatching up a paper on the brink of bankruptcy similarly baffles industry insiders and in the spring of 2009 the New Yorker Magazine sent Lawrence Wright to Mexico to poke around inside Slim’s skull – with uncertain results.

The Sphinx-like tycoon was not very communicative on long drives with the reporter through Mexico City (Slim drives himself but is closely followed by an SUV packed with armed-to-the-teeth bodyguards.) The richest man at least in Latin America told Wright that he really likes the New York Times. He first began reading it when he came to New York in his early 20s and, although he doesn’t browse it every day – his Sanborn’s department store and restaurant chain does not carry the NYT and Slim claims not to know how to use a computer to read the Times On-line – he admires the paper’s reporting. Carlos Slim is a baseball nut, he confessed to Wright, and like the Times, a die-hard Yankee fan. He particularly enjoys studying the agate type: batting averages, earned runs, RBIs, home runs etc. Carlos Slim likes numbers.

The multi-billionaire also likes brands. Wright tells a story about how Slim went shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue and wound up buying 17% of the company, attracted mostly by Saks’ choice Manhattan real estate. Similarly, Slim now holds 17% of Sears. He thinks the New York Times is a good brand.

Carlos Slim is also enamored of monopolies. Telmex, the Mexican phone company that Salinas gifted him with in 1990, has a virtual monopoly on Mexican telephone and Internet traffic and his American Movil is the most powerful cell phone carrier in Latin America with more than 200,000,000 subscribers and 70% of the market, another virtual monopoly.

Reading between the lines of Wright’s interview, it seems crystal-clear that Slim – and the Sulzbergers – are banking on the decimation of the newspaper industry to turn the Times around. When and if the current tailspin bottoms out, the field will be winnowed down to a precious few survivors and the New York Times is going to be the tallest tree left standing. Slim and his new partners calculate that their market share will constitute a virtual monopoly. The resuscitation of a stronger-than-ever New York Times will of course greatly buoy Slim’s prospects for recapturing the Numero Uno spot on the World’s Richest Billionaire list. As Slim told the New Yorker, he likes numbers.

But what’s good for Carlos Slim and the New York Times is not good for newspapering and even less so for those who seek to get to the bottom of such flimflam as electoral fraud in Iran and Mexico – those indeed who want real news and not the world-view of the Sulzbergers and their cronies which pretty much boils down to the defense of Israel at any cost. The brand of corporate journalism that the New York Times practices distorts such stories as Iranian resistance to electoral fraud and leaves Mexico 2006 in which millions took to the streets to defy the fraudulent election of a U.S. proxy, in the dust of history.

JOHN ROSS continues to do battle with the medical industry on the homefront. Ross’s "El Monstruo – True Tales of Dread & Redemption In Mexico City" will be published by Nation Books in late 2009.  If you have further information, write johnross@igc.org or visit www.johnross-rebeljournalist.com