Quantcast

The Future Is Not What It Used to Be: On 'El País' | The Nation

  •  

The Future Is Not What It Used to Be: On 'El País'

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

On May 15, 2011, a day since known as 15-M, tens of thousands of young Spaniards swarmed into the streets. Unemployment had reached 21 percent nationwide—43 percent among 16- to 24-year-olds—and the government of Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero was preparing further spending cuts with barely a glance in the direction of the country’s 5 million jobless. A week before regional elections, and then for close to a month afterward, Madrid’s Puerta del Sol became the hub of nationwide demonstrations. Scores of signs were strung up along a languishing construction site on the east lip of the plaza, where a landmark billboard featuring the cheerily behatted mascot for the renowned Spanish sherry Tío Pepe had recently been removed to make way for an Apple store.

Media

  • Jonathan Blitzer

About the Author

Jonathan Blitzer
Jonathan Blitzer is on the editorial staff of The New Yorker.

Also by the Author

To what extent does Franco’s rule still dictate contemporary Spanish culture?

Philip Glass’s new opera, The Perfect American, is a mix of bluster and inspiration.

Demonstrators made their way up the sloping glass outcropping of the metro station to lead chants decrying political corruption and ineptitude. “They don’t represent us” was one refrain, and the words reverberated with an almost festive trill. Several protesters wearing tuxedos and top hats in mock imitation of fat-cat bankers tossed Monopoly money into the crowds and puffed on gnarled, unlit cigars. Whole families arrived, drawn to the spectacle of rollicking civic engagement; parents proudly urged their children to applaud. One demonstrator held a sign that read, Am Fed Up and Would Like to Debate Anything. People peeled away from the crowd and gamely approached him, emboldened by his invitation to spar.

The protests of 15-M, reprised in June and October to more dramatic effect, hardly diminished the zeal for austerity among the political class. But the rallies did help clear the air, and inspired protesters in Spain and abroad, including Occupy Wall Street. A mass movement called Democracía Real Ya (Real Democracy Now) had materialized out of the ether, organized on Facebook in the manner of the Arab uprisings. Until then, Spain’s “lost” or “defrauded generation,” as it is known, had existed in the public imagination as a set of unemployment statistics. Now, faces and voices were attaching themselves to the numbers. Most of the self-proclaimed indignados are between 19 and 30, and go by the moniker ni-ni: neither students nor workers. Without union representation and cynical about voting, they live outside the country’s fragile, and contracting, social compact.

They are not supposed to be counted among newspaper readers either. The core protesters are the offspring of the digital age, and have grown up hearing laments about the death of newspapers and a print culture in decline. Yet along with smartphones, crumpled newsprint was a common sight among the crowds surging through the capital. Mostly it was the pages of El País, the country’s leading daily and diario de referencia. The paper has been around as long as Spain’s fledgling democracy. Launched two years before post-Franco Spain even had a constitution, it turned 35 in May. In its early years El País played a role unknown to its international counterparts: it was the fourth estate to a democracy that didn’t yet exist. After Franco’s death in 1975, and with only dim prospects for a stable political union in his wake, the paper exercised the kind of authority that the young political class hadn’t the experience or power to assert for itself. Its inaugural issue featured a front-page editorial calling for the replacement of a ginger interim government with a new one that had “credibility among citizens.” Over time, El País became synonymous with the consolidation of a democracy in transition. In a 1995 poll, 82 percent of Spaniards felt that the press had played the largest role in democratization, more significant than that of any political figure except Adolfo Suárez, the first democratically elected prime minister to succeed the late dictator. It is a mark of the paper’s clout that the “press” in those years could have meant only one thing.

In the heyday of the Transition, Spaniards used to tout their sophistication by signaling their attachment to El País. Novelists and filmmakers from Antonio Muñoz Molina to Fernando Trueba sprinkled references to the paper in their books and films. But this was as much a street phenomenon as an artist’s prerogative. As El País columnist Miguel Ángel Bastenier told me, there was an expression in the early days of Spanish democracy: sobacos ilustrados, “illustrated armpits.” Everyone wanted to tuck a copy of El País under his arm; it punctuated a purposeful gait and affirmed a look toward the future.

At recent rallies and street-bound assemblies, the armpits have illustrated something else. No one would have expected to find indignados reading any of the country’s myriad conservative papers, although these have always outnumbered the periodical offerings on the left. Until recently, no one would have expected to see indignados reading anything other than El País, which had been Spain’s only “center-left” alternative in one of the most arid newspaper climates in Europe. (Fewer than a million papers are sold each day by Spain’s three highest-circulating dailies—this in a country of more than 40 million people.) But there, in the jammed plazas of Madrid, another paper jutted out from tired arms—and this was news. The new publication, which hit newsstands in September 2007 and has of late found its stride (if not its surefootedness), is a daily named Público. Like the indignados, it is a creature born of turmoil: a global economic recession, a crisis in journalism and an economic collapse in Spain that has revealed deep fissures on the left. Already down almost 70 million euros in a project vastly over budget, Público finds itself in a fragile but compelling position. The economic crisis has shrunk an already shriveled market for newspapers, but it has quickened among readers on the left the hunger for a fresh editorial outlook.

No one is claiming that Público is El País’s match, least of all its own editors. When I met its director, Jesús Maraña, at the paper’s offices in Madrid, he told me straight away that Público is a much needed complement to El País. “When you look at the newsstands, you see ABC, El Mundo, La Gaceta, La Razón“—all right-leaning papers, albeit at varying tilts—“but, until us, there was nothing to the left of El País.” Other editors sounded a similar note. “Many of us have grown up with El País,” said managing editor Manuel Rico, “and we have nothing against it as an institution.” Público strives to refine a sensibility on the left rather than dynamite past loyalties. But the equanimity of its editors flows from a deeper conviction, that 
El País has come to symbolize a staid intellectual and journalistic establishment.

Nowadays, there is a budding perception—El País editors generally disagree—that Spain’s paper of record has become “too predictable.” Few writers who weren’t employed by another paper felt comfortable being quoted to this effect, evidently for fear of running afoul of a powerful media operation in El País and its parent company, PRISA, a conglomerate that also owns a slew of radio stations, television channels, publishing houses and other newspapers. But the concern is more pervasive now than before, which may be inevitable after the paper’s three decades of ascendance. The sentiment ranges from middle-of-the-road El País readers, most of whom have remained uneasily faithful to the daily for want of anywhere else to go, to left-leaning malcontents. The latter, who have begun to look to Público, say 
El País’s editorial page and broader mission are buckling under the weight of past pieties both political and cultural.

Before Público hit the newsstands, Mediapro, the company that finances it, saw potential market share in Spain, where newspaper sales rose between 1996 and 2005. (Founded in 1994, Mediapro has an array of holdings in television and film; it has produced three recent Woody Allen movies.) Newspaper “readership is expanding…to the left of 
El País,” said Taxto Benet, one of the three backers of Mediapro, in 2009. Benet went on to say that “those who don’t feel represented” by existing papers “are mostly young people and women.” To these groups Público editor Pere Rusiñol, who used to work for El País, adds older readers as well: namely, a generation of progressives weaned on the pathbreaking, reformist days of El País during the Transition. The entrenchment of the Socialists in the 1980s and early ’90s, and the reserved posture of El País amid revelations of Socialist scandal, have alienated these readers. In the early 1990s some of them migrated to El Mundo, a motley project founded by muckraking journalist and showman Pedro J. Ramírez. Its blistering investigations into Socialist corruption and the government’s covert crackdown on the Basque terrorist group ETA were the first of their kind in Spain, and its pages became a flashpoint for disgruntled readers from the left and right. Público has tried to bring some of these readers into a more reliably leftist fold.

* * *

Público is a newspaper with a magazine’s editorial freedoms, in a culture where political magazines are scarce. Many of the respected magazines of old—dissident products of the late Franco years and early Transition—faded away with the rise of a free press and, to an extent, the consolidation of El País. Whereas El País has a style guide and an ombudsman, with its articles written in the stentorian mode of an international paper of repute, Público allows itself the flexibility to make article-length arguments that range from the perils of neoliberal doctrine to hostility toward leftist movements in Latin America. Público’s style is more spare than El País’s: sentences are more linear, diction can swerve into the conversational and paragraphs may end with a flash of truculence.

This style is as much a survival strategy as a journalistic aesthetic. Spanish blogger Ignacio Escolar, Público’s founding editor, thinks of the paper as a journalistic enterprise for an era in which newspapers are approached as “a supplemental reading.” By the time Público’s readers pick up the issue or go to its website, he told me, they have already glimpsed the day’s news, either in El País or on blogs. The approach during Escolar’s tenure, which ended in 2009, was not to bother competing with news outlets in terms of “providing all the news of the day.” Rather, it was a kind of “Asian cuisine” in lieu of “Western style cooking.” No need to serve the reader massive plates of news, only an array of appetizer-sized, freshly prepared dishes: between one and three lead themes for each day’s paper.

Early on, Público editors drew ideas for theme-based coverage from the daily cover articles run by French and British counterparts at Libération and the Independent. These models were well suited to the inchoate needs of Público’s insurgent campaign as it set out to tackle topics that El País had cast aside. Bracing lead pieces with an emphasis on national news helped mark out the paper’s editorial terrain.

With a prominent paper still dominating a turbulent market, Público may be able to thrive only as a niche publication. Yet for all the market’s perils, Público initially seemed to be reaping the benefits of a leaner frame. According to the Oficina de Justificación de la Difusión, a government agency that monitors the media climate, the paper’s circulation had grown to nearly 95,000 daily readers this past summer. (Figures published in October showed that growth has since abated.) Even Público columnist Ernesto Ekaizer, a healthy skeptic in austere times, marveled that a readership of this size existed. He expected a readership of around 100,000, large enough to keep the paper relevant and afloat if it could establish a distinct identity. He sometimes worried that it couldn’t.

There is surely much for the paper to hone. Its engorged lifestyle section, originally aimed at snaring young female readers, has since been slimmed down. Its international coverage can feel irrelevant given the offerings available elsewhere, at El País and the Catalonian daily La Vanguardia. In the paper’s early years, though to a lesser extent now, the op-eds were sophomoric screeds. The danger, particularly for an operation billing itself as leftist, is that it may appear inconsequential. The striking full-color covers—an award-winning riff on the gratuitos distributed around the metro—exasperate some readers, who find them tacky and dismiss the paper as a “political pamphlet.” To Spaniards who are not devoted readers of Público, the young daily still has some maturing to do.

The question is whether the operation can survive long enough to do it. The first thing El País editors say about Público is that it won’t last. Other journalists, including those from more conservative periodicals, acknowledge the significance of Público as an unprecedented alternative to the left of 
El País. Few, however, think Público can fight past another year. In September it had to lay off one-fifth of its 200-person staff, and in January Mediapro announced that the newspaper was, in effect, bankrupt. In an open letter to Público readers published on January 3, Jesús Maraña wrote that “the search for loans and financing in the past months…has been fruitless” because of the “economic crisis and its consequences in the media sector.” The newspaper will continue to operate as it struggles to find investors, thanks in part to a law temporarily suspending payment of outstanding debts.

Unlike Público, El País has been uncommonly lucrative since its inception. According to figures provided by the paper, it has turned a profit every year since 1979. (The same cannot be said of the gargantuan but cash-strapped PRISA, which of late has needed to seek capital infusions from the American holding company Liberty Acquisition.) It owes its financial success in part to the prominence of its name. In the early days of the Transition, the journalistic and democratic experiments were one and the same. The success of the Transition cemented the prestige of the paper just as the paper’s quality attested to a smooth progression toward democratic stability.

Early on, El País editors could rely on a stable of highly regarded intellectuals from the right and the left eager to rise from the wreckage of Francoism; the paper became the first clearinghouse of ideas in Spain to attract public figures from across the political spectrum. An uneasy left and right, cleaved in two by a polarizing dictatorship, rehearsed a halting dialogue. Set into conversation by El País, they slowly nurtured a model of pluralism for political and cultural reconciliation. As Enrique González Duro points out in a recent book on PRISA’s late CEO, Jesus Polanco, El País became “required reading for pretty much the entire establishment.” The paper’s utility to a newly energized political, cultural and intellectual class made it instantly relevant and readily profitable.

* * *

Unlike the op-ed pages of the New York Times or Washington Post, where politicians often go to make their programs sound palatable, the opinion pages of the young El País were more akin to an evolving think tank whose participants were in large part the decision-makers. Of the paper’s formative years, the German Hispanophile journalist Walter Haubrich remarked that “the governing parties had taken most of their political programs from the opinion pages of El País.” It rapidly became, as editor Luis Prados described it, “the moral conscience of the country.” An El País editorial—such as one on the country’s entry into NATO—carried almost unfathomable weight; a spread in its celebrated culture section could launch an artist’s career. There was a time, said journalism professor Pedro Sorela, a former columnist for the culture section, when international figures visiting Spain would want to talk only to El País. Sorela recalled an hours-long conversation he had with Susan Sontag, who blew off scheduled interviews with other papers to maximize her time with him.

The paper’s first editor in chief, the then 32-year-old journalist Juan Luis Cebrián, saw to it that the paper’s stature grew alongside the nation’s democratic experiment. It helped that the young editor’s nondescript but regularly invoked “progressivism” coincided with the outlook of a rising Socialist named Felipe González. Both spoke of getting past “all the built up ideology” of Francoism, as González put it in 1978. This postideological refrain was shaped by a political and cultural climate characterized by two sometimes conflicting impulses: a feint toward reconciliation and discretion, on the one hand, and a rousing promise of change and renewal on the other. González and Cebrián tactfully played these two positions off each other, and their personal and professional stock soared. When they invoked the catchphrase of progressivism, both were, in effect, trumpeting their anti-Francoist credentials and casting their lot with democracy. The promise may have been open-ended, but the symbolism was unmistakable. It was rhetoric for a time when, to borrow a phrase from Louis Brandeis, change was “the only abiding thing.” In November 1977 Cebrián maintained that “our newspaper has a progressive temper.”

Less evident at the paper was the temper of the fourth estate: a skeptical, or even confrontational regard for state power. One reason for its caution is that El País derived its prestige from shoring up, rather than investigating, the democratic state. Consider the paper’s coverage of a bewildering attempted coup in 1981, which remains its defining moment. When armed civil guardsmen stormed Congress on the evening of February 23 in a coordinated effort to wrest control of the government, El País printed and distributed a late edition that same night. Its front page proclaimed, “Golpe de Estado, El País, con la Constitución” (“Coup, El País Stands With the Constitution”). A blow-up of the page hangs in the lobby of El País’s offices on Miguel Yuste Street in downtown Madrid. Copies had been sent to King Juan Carlos hours before he denounced the coup on national television. Famously, another copy reached the Cortes, where the rogue civil guardsmen were holding parliamentarians hostage. As the British newspaperman Harold Evans later wrote in admiration, the golpistas were reading their own political obituaries. It was a journalistic achievement as significant as breaking the Watergate story or publishing the Pentagon Papers, Evans added, although it was importantly different. The newspaper’s intervention was meant to save, rather than unmask, state power. And it would prove emblematic. El País stood for “the country” before the country could stand for itself.

* * *

 Unsurprisingly, Cebrián cultivated in his essays and early writings a certain hostility toward investigative journalism. In El tamaño del elefante (1993) he associates investigative work with the frivolous and often trivial crusades of mediocre journalists with delusions of Woodward and Bernstein-esque grandeur. To this day, Spain does not have a government transparency law that would protect the ability of journalists to demand information from the state; it is one of only four countries in Europe without such a law. Emilio Arrojo, of the Spanish news agency EFE, told me that this lack of transparency may be a remnant of the Transition years, when journalistic excellence came to be defined in the broader terms of “journalism of interpretation.” What mattered more than original reporting were authoritative pronouncements about the direction of politics or the arts.

During this period, the most illustrative bylines in El País tended to be those of intellectuals rather than journalists. More remarkable may be the privileges this afforded the paper’s contributors, many of whom were acutely aware of the social sensibility they were fostering through El País. Philosophers Julián Marías and José Luis Aranguren narrated this reality in their columns in the late 1970s. As critic Luis Negró Acedo points out in El diario El País y la cultura de las elites durante la Transición (2006), these columnists wrote openly about their role as public intellectuals so that a nascent class of readers could trust anew in its country’s intelligentsia. The intellectual, according to Aranguren, “was relatively inside the system, with one foot in and the other out, from the bottom up.” This was the posture of the 
El País intellectual: a somewhat dignified and, to an extent, implicated skeptic.

What the intellectual was to the system, El País was to González’s Socialist government during its fourteen years in power, from 1982 to 1996: outwardly critical but inwardly convinced that there was no other “reasonable alternative.” This was apparent when in October 1987 the newspapers Diario 16 and later El Mundo—not El País—broke the story of the government’s bloody campaign against the Basque terrorist group ETA. Beginning in 1983 the González government had sanctioned a “dirty war” in which police death squadrons kidnapped, tortured and killed suspected Basque terrorists in northern Spain and southern France; it was odd—and suggestive—that the country’s paper of record hadn’t taken more of a lead in reporting a scandal of such proportions. As for corruption within the González administration (which galvanized a conservative media onslaught and ultimately led to the Socialists’ defeat at the polls in 1996), El País again seemed to drag its feet. It eventually found fault with certain members of the government but was reserved in expressing disapproval of González.

Since then, two criticisms have dogged El País: that it is pro-Socialist, and that PRISA’s business interests affect the newspaper’s coverage of politics and culture. The criticisms stem from the González government’s having granted media contracts to PRISA during its expansion into radio and television in the 1980s. Critics allege that as a result the paper’s editorial treatment of the Socialists grew tame, even conditionally supportive. A more persistent problem was the apparent convergence of business and journalistic interests. There have been conspicuous moments when the paper has appeared to use its journalistic platform to settle entrepreneurial scores, as when, in January 1985, it ran an editorial documenting the dire economic straits of rival papers. At the time, PRISA had provoked the ire of these papers after it further cemented its hegemony with the acquisition of a major radio station; the editorial in El País looked like a vengeful swipe at PRISA’s critics, who were crying foul over government favoritism.

Criticisms from conservative rivals that 
El País is a “Socialist paper” are, in effect, less an ideological dig than an allegation of systematic influence-peddling from the Socialist years of the Transition to the present day. While the media landscape was taking shape, and political power was discreetly changing hands, new business opportunities sprang up in the media sector; young entrepreneurs scrambled to snap them up, eager to cash in on the old state monopolies in television and radio being privatized through market liberalization. Inevitably, this created winners and losers, as well as longstanding resentments and presumptions. According to Alfonso Armada, editor of the online magazine Frontera D, “The trajectories of El País and the Socialists rose, and fell, along parallel tracks.” It may be true, as El País writer Juan Cruz told me, that rivals have “consistently attacked El País based on nothing more than lies and innuendo.” But El País continues to cling to a sense of entitlement born of the González years.

The paper’s notoriously tumultuous relationship with the recently ousted Zapatero is a case in point. The Socialist prime minister was seen, from the start, as an affront to the “Felipismo” of old. When, in 2000, he assumed control of the Socialist Party (which he would lead to victory in the general elections in 2004 and 2008), a clandestine meeting between Zapatero and executives from PRISA and El País went sour when he suggested that their aging grip on the center-left establishment was slackening. Those sympathetic to PRISA, meanwhile, maintain that Zapatero balked when it became clear that he would not have the conglomerate’s unconditional support. Whatever took place at the 2000 meeting, and accounts vary, the tension since has been undeniable. (Given Zapatero’s beleaguered relationship with PRISA, some of his advisers began encouraging him, after he became prime minister, to consider the benefits of having a media outlet of his own outside the PRISA orbit. Zapatero and his supporters had high expectations for Mediapro, but by the start of his second term as prime minister Público, too, figured among his critics.)

The expansion of PRISA’s holdings over the years has brought other complications, as one El País writer told me, asking to remain anonymous. El País has needed to tread more lightly, for instance, in its coverage of Latin America, where PRISA has lucrative contracts selling medical equipment and textbooks to various governments. These criticisms are mostly old news in Spain, yet owing to its prestige El País continues to enjoy privileged status within the marketplace. October figures put its circulation at over 350,000, an advantage of more than 100,000 print copies over its chief competitor, El Mundo.

* * *

For all the changes in Spain since Franco’s death—the creation of an electoral code, burgeoning regional autonomy, a new Constitution, an independent judiciary—contemporary Spanish life is still shaped by the discretion and incrementalist outlook of the political class that created democratic institutions during the Transition. A prime example is deference to the monarchy, observed by such diverse figures as communist Santiago Carrillo and former Francoist Manuel Fraga. Both men played key roles during the Transition, and both credit King Juan Carlos with being, as Carrillo put it, “the person who opened the door to change from within” to answer the reformist rapping from without.

El País rarely reports critically on the monarchy, which unquestionably reflects longstanding loyalties to the king. There remain pressing questions, though, about the institution. In May indignados clamored for greater transparency of the monarchy’s finances; they argued that opacity about a budget funded by public money, especially in a time of crisis, hardly befits a healthy democracy. (In December, to minimize the fallout from a corruption scandal involving his son-in-law, the king disclosed his annual budget.) The only paper willing to scrutinize the monarchy over the past several years has been Público. On November 26, 2008, it ran a short article citing unnamed sources close to the Zapatero government on the sale of 30 percent of the Spanish oil company Repsol to Russian-owned Lukoil. According to the report, which carried a Madrid-Moscow dateline, King Juan Carlos had taken phone calls from Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin about the sale, and had gone on to phone Zapatero “six times” to advocate on Lukoil’s behalf. This sort of reportage was unprecedented: it revealed how the king has continued to exert his influence in daily affairs.

Another, more elusive legacy of the Transition is a collective investment in leaving past grudges behind, and a well-worn sense of civility about honoring the allegiances that ushered in democracy. In September, Parliament passed a constitutional amendment with a deficit-reduction clause to calm market fears. The vote was taken in a late-summer sprint, and passed by a majority of Socialists and conservatives, though the numbers were wanting. When seen through the prism of the euro crisis, the amendment appeared strictly pro forma. Germany had passed a similar measure a few years earlier, and France was poised to do the same. But the Spanish case was unique. The Constitution had not been touched since it was written in 1978, enduring proof of the sanctity of pacts forged during the Transition. Efforts have been afoot for years to reform some of the Constitution’s manifest infelicities, but they invariably foundered. The consensus was always too fragile.

El País writers have routinely taken on the subject of constitutional reform; it remains one of the leading issues of the day. The paper’s main editorial criticism of the debt-reduction amendment was that there hadn’t been sufficient consensus to legitimize so important a reform. Beyond that, however, it seemed grudgingly resigned to the amendment’s necessity. Público, by contrast, is a more militant advocate of constitutional reform. It criticized the deficit-reduction amendment, demanding a popular referendum while loudly bemoaning that politicians had stealthily passed a measure in the final days of summer. On December 6, 2008, the thirtieth anniversary of the ratification of the Constitution, it published on its front page a photograph of the hallowed document, and next to it the words: “It isn’t the Bible!” If El País stands for democratic solidity, Público tries to draw into the open the unresolved democratic conflicts of the Transition.

Even greater differences emerge between the papers in the hazier realm of cultural memory. On July 18, on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War, both papers published commemorative supplements. On the cover of El País’s was a photo of two nonagenarians walking arm in arm, each carrying a cane in hand. The title read, “75 Years Have Passed: Three quarters of a century after the July 18 uprising, witnesses to the day tell us how it was. Two soldiers from opposing sides meet and embrace.” Público’s cover struck a different tone: it featured an image of Francoist troops overtaking Republican soldiers in the battle of Somosierra. Republican corpses were strewn throughout the foreground, and at the center of the photo were two soldiers with their arms raised in surrender while a band of Franco’s troops advance on them with rifles. The accompanying text reads, “A Planned Extermination.”

These images of the Civil War have more to do with the Transition than with the toppling of the Second Republic. El País angles for reconciliation with a dignified image of the eternal embrace; Público, the irreverent upstart, readily polemicizes. In this regard, the rhetoric of civility forged during the Transition is not much different from the fixation on “bipartisanship” in the American context: it is a thorn in the side of the left, which correctly sees such talk as code for capitulation to a society’s inevitably conservative tendencies.

In the years before its birth, El País was said to be able to flourish because “it was free of the original sin of Francoism.” Público, for its part, may be free of the original sin of the Transition, which is significant at a time when the Transition’s legacy presses upon the present as never before. In May, June and October indignados were shouting in the streets that government, and the fragile consensus upholding it, has broken down beyond repair. Their complaints are the rumblings of what may well be a Second Spanish Transition. The first created democratic institutions and a stable civil society, while the second airs doubts about their legitimacy. The conflict of one transition giving way to another marks the sloping ground on which the two newspapers, limping through troubled economic times, are doing battle over narratives of past and present.

* * *

On June 5 Público published an article called “21 ideas inspired on May 15.” It was the first serious consideration of the demands made by Democracía Real Ya, analyzing the feasibility of protesters’ ideas as policy reforms. The movement hadn’t formulated its grievances in quite so pointed a way, although a list of demands had been posted on its website. One idea discussed by Público was for a transparency law to “force government bodies to disclose all the information they have” at citizens’ requests. Others were calls to reform a battery of problems: an obsolete electoral code; party tickets rife with corrupt candidates; opaque disclosure protocol for party spending; a shoddy system for intraparty primaries; and the inaccessibility of the yearly budget allocated to the monarchy. The piece instantly generated buzz in leftist circles.

El País had been covering the protests as news stories, and was struggling to find a journalistic angle on the catch-all, free-form dynamic of Democracía Real Ya. “Our treatment of the movement,” Pablo Guimón, Madrid bureau chief of El País, told me, “was without question a serious treatment of their cause.” The day before municipal elections, on the so-called jornada de reflexión, during which campaigning ceases, El País published a cover story with the title “La republica de Sol reflexiona.” Accompanying the text was a poignant photo of indignados with tape over their mouths, an ironic show of respect for a law forbidding political organizing the day before an election. The five lead columns dedicated to the movement in that day’s issue were, Guimón told me, unprecedented at the paper, which was clearly not soft-pedaling the phenomenon. But at the same time, it was difficult for El País to continue devoting front-page coverage to the movement. Público, Guimón reminded me, doesn’t have a Madrid section, whereas El País does. As the initial rallies gave way to more localized organizing, stories about the movement migrated there. A lead story in the Madrid section is often longer than a leading national story, but it is buried several pages inside the paper, where the section starts.

When I asked Guimón about the proposals of the protest movement, his answer was revealing. He thinks that on a tactical level, Democracía Real Ya made a mistake once it started making concrete demands and holding assemblies to try to formalize them. “The protests were, and are, legitimate and necessary as expressions of indignation,” he said. But once protesters start talking about the need to publish the salaries of politicians, he explained, they show that they’re not that well informed (these salaries are already available to the public).

Still, it was clear after the publication of “21 Ideas” that El País was scrambling to make up ground lost to Público. In mid-June, El País launched “The Debates of 15-M,” a series of more than a dozen explanatory articles about the implications of protesters’ demands. The series was a longer, arguably more polished approach to Democracía Real Ya than Público’s June article. What the El País series gained in depth and breadth, though, could not compensate for its lack of immediacy. An unsigned piece on June 28, for example, looked at international experiments in direct democracy, offering Switzerland and California as case studies in the unwieldiness of popular referendums. A brief introduction gently remonstrated that the “direct democracy envisioned by the indignados is not a panacea.” A month after protests began, however, it seemed at once both too literal and abstract an interpretation of indignados’ demands. Protesters’ calls for direct democracy may have sounded quixotic, but they came from understandable concerns about democratic legitimacy. The challenge for protesters was to take stock of the complete panorama of political corruption and unresponsiveness, from the municipal level to the EU, and yet articulate a pointed and actionable national critique. The drama of this went largely unacknowledged by El País. After a few pieces into the series, the paper seemed to have lost interest in the protesters’ claims.

Nevertheless, the series was vintage 
El País, resolutely supplying international context to a thorny local phenomenon. Bringing Spain into the world, by bringing the world to Spanish readers, is an old mantra at the paper. There was that familiar air of authority, too: the originality of the series was perhaps less important than the fact that El País was spilling ink on the indignados’ demands. Perhaps most emblematic, though, was the obvious editorial relish in converting a street phenomenon into “debates” in which El País could play the moderator.

As for Público’s treatment of the movement, Guimón was not alone in calling it “opportunistic.” It most certainly was, and unapologetically so. For better or worse, Público willingly plays the role of activist, just as El País plays the role of conscience and scold. In the swirling disaffection of the protest movement, Público editors saw a ratification of their core mission. This meant seeing 15-M as an invitation to align an amorphous dissident movement with the paper’s broader vision. This past summer, Vicenç Navarro regularly took to Público’s op-ed pages to identify the “political causes of the crisis.” The most prominent ones, he maintained, were the deleterious effects of the Franco dictatorship on political life writ large as well as “the costs of a flawed [democratic] transition.” On July 28 he wrote, “There is a connection between being afraid to correct the historical record and not having corrected the enormous social deficit in Spain.”

* * *

No one better embodies the delicate position of El País today than Juan Luis Cebrián. In 1976 he was the paper’s first editor; now he is its 67-year-old president, and he has always possessed a keen sense of an ending. When El País first hit newsstands, he was there to usher in a new era of democratic transition—mostly by insisting, with a certitude novel for the times—that an older era of Francoism had passed. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Cebrián gave a speech titled “Europe, the End of a Century.” Using words reminiscent of his progressive, post-partisan stance from the mid-1970s, he spoke of “being on the verge of the progressive disappearance of ideologies and structures of political power…governing the world…since the dawn of the century.”

A man of transitions, his résumé burnished by El País’s success, Cebrián has learned to market his own brand of eschatology. Announcing the end of an era naturally entails forecasts for the future. It is a winning formula for opinion journalism: create a demand for divinations, and the goods can arrive later. True to form, Cebrián has stayed clear of constricting pronouncements. What he says instead are things like: “the future of the world, once more, will be worked out in the future of Europe.” This was the kernel of his speech about the fall of the wall; the specifics never came, and never had to. His are the prognostications of a winking Janus.

Cebrián refined the rhetoric some ten years later, in a book-length conversation with Felipe González, The Future Is Not What It Used to Be. The book was a celebration of the past, of the success of the Transition, couched in terms of the future. The new century may hold more uncertainty than before, but Spain is staring out at it from the higher ground of democracy.

One of the lesser discussed benefits of the Transition enjoyed by Spanish pundits and intellectuals has been a certain release from localism; they are free to opine on the world. And one world trend of obvious urgency to the newspaperman is life in the digital age. In a bizarre way, much as this conversation concerns the death, or austere rebirth, of newspapers, it also raises El País’s stock. It affords new opportunities to express concern. For the past ten years, Cebrián has been exercised over how the “eruption of digital society will completely change classical perspectives of politics, economics, and social relations.” His recently translated book The Piano Player in the Brothel: The Future of Journalism, a compilation and expansion of previously published writings in Spanish, rephrases the question. The Transition, Europe on the brink, the changing media landscape: at every turn, a threshold.

The unceasing allusions to impending change are part rhetorical touchstone, part habit of mind. But inherent to both is a journalistic bind. A newspaper that so badly sought to install itself in the public psyche as the country’s intellectual center and conscience also made its success too transparent, and talked about it too assuredly. One editor I spoke with casually mentioned that El País had already accomplished its objectives, in a way. It helped steer Spain toward democracy, brought the country into the international fold and restored prestige obliterated by Franco. The comment was telling.

El País reports on itself with greater frequency than any other international paper of repute. Its history helps to explain this impulse, because in the paper’s early years aggrandizement was the only route to basic institutional legitimacy. For a long time there was nothing like the Pulitzer in Spain to award journalistic excellence. So in 1984 El País created the Ortega y Gasset Awards to honor journalists across the Spanish-speaking world. The glamour of the award has overshadowed the awkward paternalism of the prize committee’s regard for Latin American journalists, as well as the fact that El País routinely wins awards of its own creation. El País’s identification with Spanish democracy has made these sorts of gambits less jarring. Yet a paper that makes itself news also seems to be one with a complex. Real prestige need not be so plainly self-referential. “The country” is not what it used to be; it was only a matter of time before the future ceased to be proverbial.

In June four El País editors wrote the introductory columns to the paper’s commemorative thirty-fifth-anniversary supplement. Previous celebrations of the paper were always celebrations of democracy, but this time, with a democracy wracked by crisis, it appeared that a celebration of El País alone would have to do. Most of the editors narrated the crisis at the same time as they celebrated the importance of El País.

With the story so framed, the editors couldn’t offer anything more than the old platitudes. In a piece called “The Great Square,” former editor in chief Jesús Ceberio compared the newspaper to Puerta del Sol, the square where indignados were congregating in central Madrid; its mission was “to facilitate multidirectional debate.” For his part, Cebrián reiterated the paper’s founding vision (“an open dialogue,” “a society that was more modern, more cosmopolitan, freer and more just”). Spaniards had heard nearly this exact script in May at the Ortega y Gasset Awards—where El País awarded itself half the prizes—because that, too, served as a celebration of the newspaper’s thirty-five years. Those who hadn’t attended the formal gala could read a recap in the next day’s paper.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.