The Mexican Press and Civil Society 1940-1976: Stories from the Newsroom, Stories from the Street – SMITH (THT)

SMITH, Benjamin. The Mexican Press and Civil Society 1940-1976: Stories from the Newsroom, Stories from the Street. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018. 382p. Resenha de: CUDDY, Zachary. The History Teacher, v.52, n.4, p.725-727, ago., 2019.

Benjamin T. Smith’s The Mexican Press and Civil Society examines three and a half decades of journalism in mid-twentieth-century Mexico. Smith makes the argument that press readership increased significantly in the 1940s and 1950s, culminating in the 1960s, which saw a more literate Mexico of all classes read the press. In addition, Smith argues that control of the press was often heavy-handed and corrupt. Nevertheless, it varied regionally, and geography played a bigger role than previous historical accounts have posited. The press, Smith argues, was never truly free, but it was not controlled completely by a centralized Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) in Mexico City either. Rather, numerous individuals and organizations worked within the rigid and corrupt system to reach out to many different types of social classes in civil society. Like most historians, Smith pays homage to past works, but he argues that some literature does not go far enough in truly explaining the nuances of the press. For example, Smith argues that Daniel Cosío Villegas’s idea of Mexican newspapers having unimportant, national news is inaccurate because it ignores tabloids and the decentralized nature of the regional press (p. 6).

Smith’s eight-chapter, 282-page book has three major sections and begins with “Part One: The Reading Public.” The only chapter in this section is an important foundational piece, for it traces political, economic, and social elements of how newspaper readership rose in Mexico from 1940-1976. Smith brings up the role of Mexican presidents, U.S. surveys, censorship, specific national and regional newspapers, and important government bodies like Productora e Importadora de Papel (PIPSA). Smith then pivots to “Part II: The Mexico City Press.” The three chapters in this section detail themes of how to control the press, how and why satire declined in newsprint, and how Mario Menéndez and the radical press functioned in and out of the capital. Smith’s last major section, “Part III: The Regional Press,” encompasses four distinct chapters, the first of which comes back to the theme of controlling the press (badly) from a regional perspective.

The author then explores “gangster journalism” in context with Mexican press baron José García Valseca, and concludes the book with two specific geographic case studies in Oaxaca and Chihuahua.

Smith’s book is highly recommended for upper-division and graduate students of history or journalism. However, it might be too much for 100-level students, for it is quite dense at times due to Smith’s extensive research. For example, in “Chapter 2: How to Control the Press,” Smith has almost eight pages on financial incentives. From a pedagogical perspective, this works, but an inexperienced student might get lost in all of the numbers. Conversely, Smith’s book is most effective when driven by significant and interesting characters, which help attach the reader to a region or time. For example, in “Chapter 6: The Real Artemio Cruz,” Smith breaks down the life of José García Valseca, examining themes of gangster journalism, government killings, shifting ideologies, and extortion. But the chapter also introduces potential historical connections to today’s underworld of journalism and the “deep state” in Mexico, while bringing up unanswered questions such as how involved the Mexican government was in engineering García Valseca’s bankruptcy. Moreover, the relationship “between business and journalism, regional editors and state governors,” is very much alive today as well (p. 189). Therefore, Smith’s book could arguably be more effective when used one chapter at a time, due to the fact that there is so much information to soak up in each chapter. At the very least, the book should be available in the library as a resource reference because of the thorough geographic nature of Smith’s work.

The Mexican Press and Civil Society is well organized, has clever chapter titles (e.g., “The Taxi Driver”), and has useful acronyms at the beginning of the book for non-Spanish speakers. On the other hand, there were a few instances where Smith could have used more clarity. For example, in “Chapter 4: From Catholic Schoolboy to Guerilla,” Smith begins by saying the Mexican government “probably bombed” the offices of Roger Menéndez (p. 114). The reader is left wondering what evidence there is of this “probable” bombing. However, for the most part, Smith does a fine job interweaving primary and secondary sources with his own insight. Despite the fact that there are no pictures and very few graphs, Smith’s use of songs and humorous quotes add flavor to each chapter.

For example, when delving into the alcoholic male world of journalism, Smith quotes an editor telling a journalist, “You write much better when you’re drunk” (p. 53). Overall, Smith’s book leaves one with a much greater understanding of the struggles and triumphs journalism went through, and gives the reader a desire to begin pouring over the archives of newspapers like Por Qué?

Zachary Cuddy – Southwestern College (California).

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