Metro Morning and Mexican Drug Lords: Talking about violence in Mexico

The complainant, Andres Hannah-Suarez, objected to a characterization of Mexico as a “culture of violence.” He thought Metro Morning host Matt Galloway should have challenged his guest’s generalization about Mexican society. His caution about over-generalization and stereotyping is valid, but in context, the interview did not violate CBC policy.

COMPLAINT

You were concerned about an interview Metro Morning host Matt Galloway conducted with Luis Najera, a Mexican journalist who covered the drug cartels and came to Canada as a refugee as a result. Najera was interviewed in the wake of the jailbreak of Joaquin Guzman (El Chapo), the head of a large Mexican drug cartel. You said that while Mr. Najera is entitled to explain his thesis that violence permeates Mexican culture, you objected to the program host accepting it at face value:

Whether or not I disagree with that particular argument is irrelevant, and I respect Mr. Najera’s right to argue the point in any venue. But what I do object to is the manner in which CBC’s Metro Morning introduced the piece and the way in which the interview was conducted.

My complaint is that in introducing the piece, Mr. Galloway cited the proposition that violence pervades all aspects of Mexican culture as if it were an uncontested fact. The interview was similarly conducted with such an assumption at its core, not once questioning the author as to the controversial nature of such an assertion.

You said that you sent a tweet to the program questioning the interview and you thought the response compounded the problem:

To add insult to injury, when I pointed out the racism of such a statement to Metro Morning staff on Twitter, and when I questioned whether they would make such broad over-generalizations about any other countries, the reply I received was, to paraphrase: this journalist researched his book for years, and knows what he is talking about. In that response, Metro Morning staff in essence doubled-down on their bald assertion that violence pervades all aspects of Mexican culture.

For the record, I am including the screen grab of the Tweets you sent me:

Description: C:UsersmarshallDownloadsScreenshot of CBC Reply Tweet.jpg

You were not satisfied with the explanation given to you by CBC management. You wondered why Mr. Najera was the person chosen for an interview in the light of the prison escape, especially since it occurred without any violence. You commented that Guzman could have employed “a small army” to effect his escape, but instead did it through a tunnel. You pointed out the other factors that have created the current level of violence in Mexico, and suggested they would be a more appropriate way to shed light on the situation:

I could see the CBC recruiting a guest to perhaps comment on the socioeconomic realities that make it difficult to contain government corruption in Mexico, all the more-so when the prisoner is a billionaire, or even to comment on past examples of prisons being incompetently managed in Mexico. Given this particular context I found tangential and gratuitous to have sought out Mr. Najera’s specific type of commentary. That points to my continued complaint that the CBC seems to have an agenda to report on Mexico in a particularly biased way.

You reject the notion that CBC is presenting the facts, when it was just one person’s views. You found the interview and the Twitter response you received very unsatisfying:

What Metro Morning cannot do is forward that frankly offensive conclusion as an unquestioned fact during the introduction, during the substance of the unquestioning interview, and in the Twitter reply, and then try to rely on the defence that they were merely trying to provide Canadians with the facts to allow them to reach their own conclusions. Had that truly been the case, Mr. Galloway would have asked probing questions. Clearly, Mr. Galloway agrees with Mr. Najera’s conclusions and was thus presenting them as fact.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer for CBC Radio in Toronto, Joan Melanson, responded to your concerns. She explained the reason for conducting the interview was to provide some background for what had happened:

It was a major embarrassment for the Mexican government that raised a raft questions not only about how such an elaborate escape had been accomplished, but the power of the drug lords and their influence on society. CBC news broadcasts had followed the hourly developments in the story over the previous couple of days, but Metro Morning wanted to provide more context to help listeners better understand the significance of the notorious El Chapo’s escape, and what it could mean to the level of drug related violence in Mexico.

To do that, the program looked to veteran journalist Luis Najera, who had risked his life covering Mexico’s drug wars and particularly the Sinaloa Cartel, said to be the country’s most powerful, and Joaquin Guzman, the man at its head.

She noted that the introduction was a short synopsis of the jail break and that the reference to the sentence “his focus is on understanding the violence that pervades not just Mexico’s drug world, but every aspect of Mexican culture” was meant to be attributed to Mr. Najera, and was not necessarily one endorsed by Mr. Galloway. She said that after receiving your email, they agree it should have been more explicitly attributed to the author.

She did not agree the interview was inappropriate. She said that most of it was focused on Guzman’s background and drew on Mr. Najera’s experience covering him and his drug cartel. She said his reference to a broader cultural context was very brief:

He very briefly set out his views about the pervasiveness of violence in the culture, a pattern he traced from the Aztecs, through revolution, independence and anti-government guerillas to the illegal drug trade.

She apologized that you thought that Mr.Galloway’s response to your tweet was “dismissive.” She thought that he was emphasizing Mr. Najera’s expertise, not endorsing his views.

REVIEW

Your complaint raises several points. You mention that you have no objection to Mr. Najera expressing his view, but you object to the forum he was given without probing the basis of his arguments. That is a valid point, but there is some nuance here. If he has a right to express his opinion, then it follows that it is reasonable that the interviewer, in this case Matt Galloway, asked questions that allowed the interviewee to explain what he thinks and why. If there was a serious error or fact, it would be important, at some stage, to try and correct it. In this case, it was eliciting expert opinion about the escape of a major drug criminal.

You don’t seem to disagree that the guest has the expertise to comment on the subject at hand. The introduction to the piece provided some of those credentials so that people listening would, as CBC Journalistic Policy states, “give the context and explanations necessary for the audience to judge the relevance and credibility of their statements.” This is the introduction listeners heard:

For North Americans the escape from prison of Mexico’s most violent drug lord is both intriguing and disturbing. Chapo Guzman escaped through a well-lit ventilated tunnel. Cost millions of dollars to build – hardly your average jail break. But according to one veteran journalist who has risked his life covering Mexico’s drug wars, perhaps it’s not that surprising. Luis Najera came to Toronto as a refugee, now a research fellow at the University of Toronto’s citizen lab. His focus is understanding the violence which pervades not just Mexico’s drug world but every aspect of Mexican culture. Luis is in studio with me now. Good morning.

Ms. Melanson told you that the introduction might have been clearer that the belief that violence is pervasive in Mexican culture is Mr. Najera’s. I agree with that. Had it been better stated, it would have been clearer that this was the interviewee’s view, based on his experience. CBC Journalistic language policy states that writing and presentation should avoid reinforcing stereotypes. This introduction fell short of that.

There is a judgment call required of an interviewer in allowing a guest to expound his or her views on a given subject and when to challenge those statements. Again, the context of the interview would be important and, of course, what the person had to say. Most of this interview revolved around Mr. Najera’s reaction to the escape of “El Chapo.” He was an appropriate person because of his expertise in covering Guzman and the drug violence in Jaurez. Other than in the introduction, there is only one mention of the “culture of violence.” Here is the exchange:

Matt Galloway: You are no longer working as a journalist here but you still focus on what’s happening in Mexico – why is that so important for you?

Luis Najera: It’s very important for me because my job but also it’s important particularly to non Latin American countries to understand the culture of violence.

Matt Galloway: What do you mean by that, the culture of violence?

Luis Najera: The culture of violence. Mexico has been in contact or a culture of violence in the Aztecs, ancient history. And if you go through the history of Mexico, revolution, independence, the sixties with the guerrilla movement. Now we have this new movement with the narco-traffic. There is always a pattern of violence ah – it’s really attached to the culture. Now in this case, the drug dealers and the drug business, we have this narco-culture which is the exaltation of the image of the drug dealer as a successful powerful. Now with social media, it’s even more interesting because for instance, apparently two sons of El Chapo they tweeted – oh my Dad is out . And there is other members of organized families, particularly the new generation they like to tweet pictures of them for instance in a movie theatre with a gun. You know watching a movie, enjoying with my friend and a big gun. Or they take pictures, selfies, with Lamborghinis and guns – so it’s very interesting phenomenon around particularly now the internet.

It is within accepted journalistic practice to have allowed Mr. Najera to express himself and explain why he thought the way he did. You asked why the program did not probe the social and political factors that contribute to the drug-related violence and corruption in Mexico today. That is another valid and important question. The fact that they didn’t does not necessarily imply bias. Daily news is not always the deepest. It is about the day’s headlines – which in this case were fairly sensational. But one interview and one item can’t carry the freight for something as complex as the crime and murder rates in Mexico. So while I don’t think there was a violation of CBC journalistic policies in this instance, I am sympathetic to your observation that daily journalism tends to the over generalization and does not capture the nuance of a complex situation. It is a truism to say that news is defined by the different and the dramatic. The headlines about drug cartels, kidnapping and corruption create an image of a place. In the case of Mexico, it contributes to a notion of a violent society. There is also a circular process at work – if the image is one of a violent society, then there is a tendency to focus on those stories. It is clearly not the whole picture, but it is not entirely inaccurate either.

Most organizations concerned with press freedom cite the threat to that freedom because of the number of journalists that have been killed or forced to flee. There have been significant instances of kidnapping and intimidation. And whether it contributes to a stereotype or not, there is an obligation to report on violent events. That it “pervades the culture” is one person’s view. It is worth emphasizing that there is always a need to provide a larger context. The need to provide other perspectives and explanations and context about why that is the case belongs not to just Metro Morning, but to other CBC news and current affairs producers, reporters and editors. Over time, CBC news and current affairs have provided a range of coverage that delves into the factors contributing to the violence experienced in Mexico. Metro Morning has done items about Mexican business, arts and culture. The reminder that presenting the big picture without exploring the underlying factors is important and one I hope CBC programmers will take to heart.

You also raised a concern about Mr. Galloway’s response to your comments on Twitter. You observed that the interview dealt in “broad generalizations” and questioned whether it would be acceptable to talk about other cultures in this way. Mr. Galloway responded that Mr. Najera spent years covering the story and “knew what he was talking about.” You thought his response indicated that he agreed with Mr. Najera’s views and that “he was presenting them as fact.”

I have spoken to Mr. Galloway about the exchange with him on Twitter. He explained that he was saying that the journalist’s comments were his opinion based on his experience living and working in Mexico. Mr. Galloway did not agree the decision to have Mr. Najero on the programme was racist. It is hard to catch nuance and deeper meaning on Twitter. I suggest in the future, if there is a desire for a meaningful exploration of views, other means of communication be used. The tweet did not violate journalistic policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman