News coverage of the election of Senator Cristina Fernández de Kirchner as president of Argentina on October 28, 2007 was as lop-sided as the election itself.

January 10, 2008

News coverage of the election of Senator Cristina Fernández de Kirchner as president of Argentina on October 28, 2007, was as lop-sided as the election itself. Fernández de Kirchner, popularly known as Cristina, won about 45% of the popular vote, with the second place candidate, Elisa Carrio, receiving only 22%, with other candidates receiving fewer votes. This is a winning margin according to Argentine law and does not require a runoff between the top two candidates.

The single most important fact of these results is that Cristina overwhelmingly won in all the poorer districts and provinces of the country-indeed, as the Argentine press reported, one of every four votes she received came from the poor districts of metropolitan Buenos Aires. The flip side of that result is that she did much less well in middle- and upper-class districts, losing the largely middle-class downtown Buenos Aires. This is noteworthy because it is precisely the middle and upper classes that have benefited so much from the reactivation of the economy initiated under the administration of Cristina's husband, Néstor.

Despite the rhetoric and critical media coverage of Cristina's campaign, it is evident that the poor clearly voted for the candidate whom they viewed as representing their interests. This should be no surprise because Argentina had enjoyed 57 consecutive months of economic growth-reaching an annualized rate of 9.2% in September 2007-with government management of the economy helping to cut unemployment from close to 30% in early 2002 to 7.8% by September 2007, and the share of the population below the poverty line from almost 50% to under 15%. Increased export earnings have been taxed to finance needed social expenditures.

This picture contrasts sharply with the coverage of elections by The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time Magazine, CNN, and less widely read sources in the U.S. media. In the runup to the election, articles focused on three dimensions of Cristina's candidacy. The first is the fact that she is the wife of a president who had decided not to run and that her candidacy was portrayed as part of an alleged plan for the couple to alternate presidential power for the next several presidential terms. The New York Times, for example, wrote on September 25, 2007, that "rather than risk lame-duck status during his second term, analysts say, the couple decided they could essentially tag-team the presidency for at least 12 more years." This last phrase is even placed in a larger font in the article, which is snidely titled "In Argentina, the Campaign of 'Queen Cristina' Focuses on Global Relations." There is no basis in confirmed fact for this assertion of a tag-team presidency. Indeed, Néstor Kirchner left office with a more than 60% approval rating, considerably higher than any other Argentine president in modern times, so he is hardly a "lame duck." Moreover, even if the Times had access to their private conversations, such a prospect of a lengthy domination of the presidency of Argentina is not different than the possibility that, following the possible election of Hillary Clinton to the White House, that the "democratic" United States would have been governed by two families for a quarter of a century, as Cristina herself has pointed out.

The second feature of coverage has been comparisons between Cristina and Evita Perón, who died almost 50 years ago. The Times of London referred to her as "the New Evita" on October 29, while The New York Times mentions this as well, noting that they had been born in the same city, La Plata, but this has nothing to do with parallel political identities or trajectories. Cristina's well-articulated belief in the importance of addressing poverty and inequality in Argentina does not lead to other obvious comparisons.

The third focus of North American press coverage of Cristina's electoral victory has been comparing Cristina and Hillary Clinton. The New York Times reported in the September 25, 2007, article that "Mrs. Kirchner seems less interested in emulating Eva Peron . . . than she is her idol, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Both are lawyers with husbands who hailed from political backwaters and became president." This claim that Hillary is Cristina's "idol" is also somewhat exaggerated. As many articles have noted, they have met twice, but the assertion that because Cristina discussed public health in her campaign showed that she was imitating Hillary is absurd. also titled an article "The Latin Hillary Clinton" (September 27, 2007).

These comparisons of Cristina with Evita and Hillary are not appropriate. As noted earlier, Cristina has been an elected national political figure since 1995. While she observes that she is a senator and wife of a president, unlike Hillary she was elected senator before her husband was elected president. She remarked during the campaign that she would rather be compared only to herself.

If the news coverage failed to capture the real meaning of the election-both its affirmation of the policies of President Néstor Kirchner in pulling Argentina out of its economic crisis and the overwhelmingly support of the poor for this government-it also went out of its way to portray the president-elect in a cynical and disrespectful manner, first with articles referring to her as "Queen Cristina" and focusing on questions of style, including makeup and her clothes, rather than reporting the content of her messages to the electorate about the need for concertación, or a coalition among all political groups; the need to create a "social pact"; and a new model of "inclusion and accumulation."

The articles, for example, in The New York Times of September 25 and October 29 are not significantly different in their analysis of the situation. This is reinforced in subsequent articles where the Times reporter quotes a few figures such as Graciela Romer, an Argentine political pollster, and Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, who are well-known to each other but hardly representative of the people who voted for Cristina. The Times goes further by quoting claims of election fraud the day after the election, putting this claim in the first column of the article, and only acknowledging, in the last line of the two column article that such claims were termed "exaggerated" by unnamed political analysts. These claims had been immediately dismissed even by the conservative Argentine columnist, Joaquin Morales Sola, of La Nación, who was strongly against the Kirchner government and Cristina's candidacy. Morales Sola noted on October 30 that claims of fraud have no validity when one candidate has won such a convincing and overwhelming victory.

The only exception to this negative reporting has been the Los Angeles Times, which ran an article by Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Policy Analysis in Washington, who commented on the economic policy challenges to be faced by the incoming president.

The biases in this coverage by the U.S. mainstream media reflect the sources, stereotypes, loaded language, and the lack of balance in the articles. If George Will describes the results of the 2008 U.S. presidential elections as an "overwhelming" and "convincing" victory of one of the candidates, Americans will be astonished if they find a skeptical and even cynical tone in an article on the U.S. elections by a foreign reporter. They will wonder if the foreign press is serious, or indeed even interested, in what actually happened.

Argentines, who have given their president-elect the largest margin received by a presidential candidate in several generations, have the right to wonder the same thing.

Michael Cohen is Professor of International Affairs at the New School, New York City.


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