- Building the Fourth Estate: Democratization and the Rise of the Free Press in Mexico
Does a free press matter for free politics? Through the ages, advocates and analysts of democracy have argued that the free expression of ideas, including free contestation and the possibility of frank deliberation, are essential to democracy. And yet, the study of the role and impact of the mass media in Latin America remains in its infancy. To the extent that such analyses have been undertaken, they often call attention to the nefarious control of the mass media by plutocrats allied with the already powerful, to democracy's detriment. Lawson's book provides magnificent information and analysis about these neglected or partly analyzed topics and, in so doing, challenges aspects of conventional wisdom. The book addresses three broad topics: What was the old mass-media regime like? Why and how did it change? And what difference did such change make for democratic politics and society? Lawson's answers are subtle and persuasive.
Mexico's low-intensity authoritarianism routinely relied on cooptation, flattery, subsidies, bribes, and the manipulation of newsprint and broadcasting concessions and regulations in order to govern the mass media. Harsher methods were employed from time to time as well, but Lawson shows that the more banal means of control were the instruments of quotidian authoritarian choice. The result was de facto government control of the subject matter presented in the mass media, selective silence on sensitive issues (presidential abuse, high-profile corruption cases, etc.), and partisan bias in favor of the ruling party.
Change came about for a complex bundle of reasons. Lawson claims that there is no one single "silver bullet" explanation for change. He seeks to discredit the view that political liberalization alone explains the change in journalistic behavior and content. He shows that political liberalization matters at two notional moments. First, the government must significantly weaken censorship and tolerate more independent coverage, thereby opening the floodgates. Yet, as Lawson demonstrates, the government fails to control subsequent trends. Second, at a much later stage, the government must dismantle other more substantial barriers to press freedom; for this second transition, however, the mass media have become a cause of political opening and political liberalization its effect.
What, then, explains the change, given that political liberalization alone does not? Among various factors that the book explores, two stand out: norms and markets. Lawson documents the independent explanatory salience of change in the norms and behavior of journalists (see especially pp. 82-88). Ideas and human agency explain much about the development of an independent press in different states of Mexico and in the Federal District. Within the same city and historical moment, the varying behavior of journalists explains the variation in the independence [End Page 546] of different media outlets on the same side of the ideological spectrum. He also traces how key journalists cross-pollinated the most independent and daring newspapers, propelling press liberties forward.
Market competition matters too. Lawson is no more happy than most HAHR readers about the concentration of mass media ownership in a few privileged hands. Yet he demonstrates that market competition is one of the most important factors in explaining changes in Mexican radio and television coverage of politics and civic life. Market competition rivals only the changed norms of journalists as a decisive explanation for newspapers' growing independence. Advertising has replaced government subsidies in supporting the mass media and has afforded journalists better salaries, freeing them from dependence on bribes.
Finally, a free press has consequences for public life. Newspapers and radio led the way, and television followed some years later, in increasing coverage of Mexico's civic life, reducing the coverage of the official agenda, and shedding the media's hitherto de facto role as the government's Ministry of Truth. A similar pattern ensued with the coverage of once-forbidden topics. By the mid- and late 1990 s, Mexico's...