Fri, 08 Sep 2006
There’s a program on the local community radio station, CFCR, that drives me nuts whenever I accidentally tune it in. I never knew what the show was called, as I’ve never heard more than ten or fifteen minutes at a time, but perusing the CFCR program guide, I suspect it’s RadioActive, which describes itself as
a weekly news program concentrating on events and opinions that are suppressed or under-reported in the mainstream commercial news media … from an anti-racist, anti-authoritarian, anti-corporatist and pro-democracy viewpoint.
The part that drives me nuts is where the host reads “the news” – i.e., the true, unfiltered, progressive news that those fascist bastards at the Globe & Mail don’t want me to hear. These are usually news reports culled from leftist websites. Occasionally the source is a major newspaper, although on these occasions it sometimes seems that the host is interweaving his own politics into otherwise uncontroversial reports. For instance, a recent article credited to the Montreal Gazette, which described the difficulty NATO forces have had in subduing resurgent Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, concluded with a line to the effect that “four years after the invasion, the U.S.-led coalition has been unable to secure its puppet government.” “Puppet government”? Did that come from the Gazette, from some other website that cannibalised the original Gazette article, or the host’s own scribbled emendations? I’m unwilling to cough up the subscriber fee to look up the original story on the Gazette, so I’ll never know for sure.
(I remember coming across this article during the Iraq war, about a battle between U.S. marines and insurgents in which a number of civilian casualties occurred. Credited to Mark Franchetti of the Times of London, the article is pretty evenhanded and restrained in describing the tragedy – too restrained, in the view of the anti-war lefties who reprinted it at counterpunch.org under the peppier headline “Slaughter at the Bridge of Death”.)
Here’s an article from the website Narco News Bulletin that was featured this summer on RadioActive. It’s about July’s Mexican presidential election, in which the rightist candidate Felipe Calderón eked out a narrow victory over the leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador. According to the mainstream North American news media, according to international observers, and according to Mexico’s own election-monitoring agency, IFE, that victory was legitimate. But according to the article’s author, Al Giordano, there is evidence of massive voter fraud in which IFE is complicit.
Once all the outrage and revolutionary rhetoric are stripped away, here is the gist of the opposition’s case. Giordano asserts that, in an official recount of 10,679 of Mexico’s electoral precincts, irregularities (extra ballots stuffed into ballot boxes or legitimate ballots missing) were found in 7,442 precincts. That amounts to over 126,000 fraudulent or missing votes. “If the recount results of these 10,679 precincts (8.2 percent of the nation’s 130,000 polling places) are projected nationwide, it would mean that more than 1.5 million votes were either stolen or stuffed in an election that the first official count claimed was won by Calderón by only 243,000 votes,” Giordano writes.
(I should point out that in extrapolating these results from 10,679 precincts to the rest of the country, Giordano implies that the recounted precincts were a random and representative selection of the whole. But according to this guy, these precincts were identified by the losing side for examination precisely because they presented the strongest case for fraud.)
Notice that Giordano never tells us what percentage of the altered votes were altered in Calderón’s favour, and what percentage in López Obrador’s. That’s because at the time he wrote the article, Giordano didn’t know. I’m not sure if we know even now. Here’s a press release from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a Washington think tank that’s been digging through the Electoral Tribunal’s figures as they are gradually released. According to CEPR, the numbers that the Electoral Tribunal has released so far contradict López Obrador’s claim that there was any systematic cheating; but, they note, it’s suspicious that the full recount tallies haven’t been made public.
Anyway, I’m not going to try to prove that the Mexico election was fair. Frankly I concur with the view that a full ballot-by-ballot recount should have been taken, as it should have been in Florida in 2000 – not because I’m convinced either election was “stolen”, but because it’s better to have absolute transparency in the process. There’s always gonna be some nut cooking up a conspiracy theory, but why make their work easier? And anyway, assuming you’re the legitimate winner, wouldn’t it be better to start your term without half the population suspecting you’re a fraud artist? As Giordano put it in an earlier report from Mexico, “Calderón, if he makes it to inauguration on December 1, will face an impossible task of trying to govern an angry and organized population that does not consider him to have won legitimately.”
To repeat: Though I wouldn’t be surprised if there had been sufficient cheating to cast Calderón’s legitimacy into doubt, I doubt there was any conspiracy by the Electoral Tribunal or the capitalist media bosses to enthrone him. Still, I find it strange that some of the specific allegations in Giordano’s reporting seem to have gone uncontradicted in the mainstream press. Like this one, from the very first article in his “special series” on the election: “[A]n unknown number of ballot boxes have ‘disappeared’ in the past two days. The ballots from three precincts in the city of Nezahuacoyotl [sic] – a López Obrador stronghold – were discovered yesterday in the municipal garbage dump.”
This is only one of many tunes Giordano has trumpeted in the months since the election, and not a particularly prominent one, as it’s gone untrumpeted since July 8. The trashed ballot boxes represent only a thousand votes or so, not enough to get his man anywhere near the presidency, even allowing for the other “unknown number of ballot boxes” that Giordano vaguely asserts to be stacked up in landfills around the country. But though it’s a little thing, I was curious to know what the deal really was with those ballot boxes. And thereby discovered that “Nezahuacoyotl” was a perfect case study in how a simple melody can be picked up and whistled forever around the hippie internet.
If you Google “Nezahuacoyotl”, spelled as it is in Giordano’s original article, you’ll see that the name crops up again and again in leftist websites that have obviously taken their information, and usually their exact wording, from Narco News. Now try Googling the correct spelling, “Nezahualcóyotl”, throwing in the words “election” or “ballots” or “dump”, to see where else the story shows up. It shows up exactly nowhere. Yes, this may be evidence of the mainstream media’s indifference to a story that could cast doubt on Calderón’s victory. (I suspect that the media would have been more attentive if it were the fiery populist who’d won by a minuscule margin, and the pro-American candidate who alleged trickery.) But it’s also evidence of a shameful disinterest in fact-checking on the part of the left-wing websites in question. You’d think just one of these sites, inflamed with righteous anti-authoritarian, anti-corporatist fury, would have been inspired to do a bit of investigation on their own – to look up Giordano’s source, for instance, which was apparently the Mexican newspaper El Universal – and catch the typo, rather than propagate it by copy-and-pasting the original text.
I can sympathise with the hippie media. They’re only being as lazy and cheap as I am. I’ve been trying for the last forty-five minutes to dig up some mention of the Nezahualcóyotl story from an English-language media source. (I don’t read Spanish, so I can’t look it up in El Universal.) I can’t find any reference in the archives of the New York Times, CBC, The Economist, or even the Guardian (where you’d think the story would have gotten a sympathetic airing). The Globe and Mail turns up a hit, but it’s subscription-only, so I can’t read it. If I were getting paid for this, I might be prepared to dig around a little more. But I’m not, so I’m giving up. And that’s exactly why we need the corporate media – cos they can afford to pay people to perform the drudge work of checking sources and looking up the spelling of obscure Aztec place names.
I’m troubled by the irregularities in the Mexican election, and will continue to be troubled until someone smarter than me takes the trouble to comprehensively examine the complaints of Giordano and his credulous fellow-travellers. I wish I were smart and diligent enough to do the job myself, but as a monolingual English Canadian who’s never travelled further south than Las Vegas, I’m underqualified; and anyway I already feel like I’m pushing the limits of how much time I want to spend thinking about Latin American politics. But the whole thing makes me wonder how the true-believers out there manage to keep on believing – those who copy-and-paste inflammatory news stories without making the slightest effort to investigate them, as well as those who accede to the omissions of the mainstream media in order to avoid having their preconceptions undermined.
Maybe if one spoke multiple languages, and had endless free time to compare news stories from multiple sources, one could hope to get a complete picture of the world. Or maybe not even then. The news doesn’t get simpler when you investigate deeper, it gets more complicated. Historians still, based on the alignment of arrowheads and pottery sherds, debate events of 3000 years ago. I couldn’t tell you what I did on this day last year. I’m glad someone is willing to put in the effort to sort out what happened in a large North American country only a couple months back. But just like you, just like me, the earnest chaps poring over precinct vote totals from Guanajuato are susceptible to an easy narrative that sustains their beliefs, and are resistant to a complicated narrative that proves nothing. We all love a good yarn.
I’m not especially interested in Mexican elections. But I am interested in the way that hippies and the rest of us live in two entirely different and mutually contradictory media universes. And how there’s another media universe populated entirely by right-wing crazies. And in between there are multiple mini-universes where the Zionists, the anti-Zionists, the anti-abortionists, the anti-anti-abortionists, the Scientologists, and the paranormal psychologists gather to consume their news. Inconveniently, none of these universes has a monopoly on the truth. Bits of the truth seem to pop up everywhere. And outright lies appear even in the mainstream media. The mainstream media does a better job of correcting its lies – eventually – because the mainstream media at least claims to abide by certain professional standards, whereas the hippie media abides only by a blazing Bush-hatred that makes them assume every contradiction was planted by Karl Rove to trip them up, like the dinosaur bones planted by Satan to deceive believers.
The exciting thing about the Mexico recount was that it appeared for a few seconds, when I stumbled across the hippie news reports, that here was an issue where truth or untruth could be neatly found out, and my world made a little less complicated. In between the usual folderol about the downtrodden masses and Subcomandante Marcos, the hippies had made some specific allegations involving numbers and facts that could, I thought, be checked against other, more dependable news sources. But I was wrong. It turned out that the segregated nature of the media multiverse, and the weakness of the internet as a fact-checking tool, and my own lack of Spanish, made the story uncontradictable, at least until the Mexican electoral tribunal releases more hard numbers. (Even then, of course, the hippies will just say that the tribunal was in on the fix – and how can that be disproved?)