Hasta la Vista, Bebé!
Another blow has been struck in the battle between business and editorial. This past February, Time Inc. execs quietly closed the Mexico City bureau of Time magazine, laying off some 15 people, including Bureau Chief Peter Katel, who covered Latin America from that perch. Never mind the breaking news of military coups, economies on the brink, Plan Colombia. Insiders say the closing was based on advertising losses at Time Latin America, whose budget paid the salaries in Mexico City. From now on, Time will cover all of Latin America from Miami.
"It was a business decision to restructure the edition and to let go of the bureau," said George Russell, Time's international editor for the Americas. The call was made by "the people in charge of the overseas editions of Time" and reviewed by Time Inc. editor in chief Norman Pearlstine. "There's no way I would characterize this as a happy decision," Russell said, "but I would not characterize it as a cynical, screw-Latin America-type decision."
Nevertheless, some people got screwed. Katel, a former Newsweek correspondent whom colleagues call "tremendous," has relocated to Washington, D.C. He remains on payroll, but does not report to the bureau there. Miami bureau chief Tim Padgett, a Mexico City veteran, now covers Latin America in addition to his other beats, which are Florida and the Caribbean. And sources predict Latin American readers will suffer: Without the Mexico City bureau to generate original content, they say, Time Latin America will be nothing but a watered-down version of the domestic and European editions.
"We have not abandoned the region," countered Russell. "We have retrenched." He stressed that Time is structured differently than other newsweeklies. "In the mid '90s," he said, "we radically decentralized our international editions and set them up as separate operating companies," which have since been reintegrated. Unlike the European edition, he said, "Time Latin America has never made very much money. It's a large region with a small circulation and a highly fragmented marketplace. And if Argentina isn't having a currency problem, Brazil is. From a regional business point of view, it's a nightmare."
The decision to ax Katel rankled fellow journalists. "Those of us who cover Latin and Central America were shocked," said a source at another news outlet, who pointed out that Katel was uprooted from Miami to move to Mexico City last year. Another journalist called the decision "certifiably nuts." In addition to laying off a talented reporter, critics say, the company has effectively flipped the bird to Latin America.
"The few remaining news organizations with global reach have a moral obligation not to cut continents and hemispheres from their aegis," said a source who works in the region, adding, "For Time magazine to say fuck you to Latin America is a very bad sign. As Ronald Reagan famously observed, They're all different countries down there."
To their credit, many news companies do have staffers in Latin America, including, but not limited to, the Chicago Tribune, The Dallas Morning News, the Houston Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. Nevertheless the Time cuts have a lot of journalists on that beat wondering, "What is it about Latin America that the national media disdain?"
Some see the move as part of a historical trend. In the 1980s, newsmagazines had no choice but to cover Latin America, because that's where the flags and guns were going. Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report all started cutting back in the last decade, and the networks have closed many foreign bureaus.
According to one source, Time's belief that it can cover Latin America from Miami "betrays this myopia that people have about the region. Who the hell is cooking their meals and taking care of their children while they're at work?" Even though Hispanics are now the largest minority population in the U.S., boomer editors just don't get it. "They see Hispanics as a tan white," said one source, "and they don't want to look at them as an ethnic entity with the same kind of aspirations and grievances as African Americans."
After September 11, media companies were left with what one source calls "a constellation of bureaus suited for covering the Cold War." Correspondents fanned out into the Mideast, Afghanistan, and Southeast Asia, and there has been no lack of coverage for the war on terror, Saddam, and dictators in Africa. Beyond coups and earthquakes, though, nothing seems dire enough to justify lots of coverage of Latin America. (Just the other day, 119 civilians were massacred in a church in Colombia. Hardly anyone noticed.)
And yet Latin America is a news story, sources contend. If Congress decides to give direct military aid to Colombia, it will be the first time the U.S. has backed a fight against rebels in Latin America since the 1980s. Plus, there's a nutty dictator in Venezuela lording it over vast oil supplies. Says one source of Venezuela, "There's no other story like that around the worldexcept in Iraq."
Sources give Time managing editor Jim Kelly credit for the huge special issue on the Mexican border last June. Even now, many New York editors are said to be supportive of Latin American coverage, pledging to find a place for it in the mag. Carter's visit to Cuba proved a good peg. And Russell says there is still a possibility that Time will "un-retrench."
So does Time determine the news value of a region by the amount of revenue it generates? Russell called that an "unfair" characterization and deemed the mag's decreased editorial presence in Latin America "not as dramatic as it seems." In addition to Padgett in Miami and stringers, he said, "we have Spanish-speaking people on staff who can get down there fast." He predicted that there will be "no attitudinal difference" in Time's coverage of Colombia, though they may not cover "the 400th day of the Argentinean economic crisis."
Katel declined to comment. "Events of great drama and significance are unfolding in Latin America as we speak" was all he had to say. "Beyond that, commentary on the closing of Time's Latin America bureau is superfluous."
In the March 5 and May 21 issues, this column mistakenly identified John Fund as the former editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal. Until January 2002, Fund was a member of the editorial board and a writer for the page. The Journal's current editorial page editor is Paul Gigot; his predecessor, Robert Bartley, held the position for 30 years.
Last week's column suggested that The New York Times has failed to report on the efficacy of government-sponsored anti-drug ads or to question the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. In fact, a related story ran on page C7 of the business section on April 2.
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