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Media Cases and Social Memory in Argentina Post 2001

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Abstract

This paper seeks to define commotional media cases, to describe their structure and to provide a few examples, for the period following the economic and social crisis in Argentina in 2001. Specifically, the article aims to highlight some features of the production of these cases, which facilitate their penetration into social memory. Thus, some routines are used to record news output into memory. Repetition is a mark of the production process of these cases: cases pass from one medium to another and from one day to another, every medium repeats the background in every news story and associates news with other similar cases which generates “waves” with other news of the same type, and appeals to the archive for editing timelines to synchronize with the news. Journalists often use an earlier case as a model for the interpretation of a new case, hence, bringing it back to life. Sometimes these cases disseminate impacting images, which synthesize the content of the crisis they represent. Many cases serve a mythic function, to which politicians appeal for building their own government myths, thus nourishing collective memory. Frequently interest groups arise from these cases, which are very informed audiences affected by an issue and that appear in the public space to defend a cause. These audiences create slogans and specific forms of social protest, and actively use the media to disseminate their frame, adding their discourse of the case onto other discourses.
ESSACHESS. Journal for Communication Studies, vol. 5, no. 2(10) / 2012: 61-80
eISSN 1775-352X © ESSACHESS
Media cases and social memory in Argentina
post 2001
Damián FERNÁNDEZ PEDEMONTE
Professor, University Austral-CONICET, ARGENTINA
dfernandez@austral.edu.ar
Abstract: This paper seeks to define commotional media cases, to describe their
structure and to provide a few examples, for the period following the economic and
social crisis in Argentina in 2001. Specifically, the article aims to highlight some
features of the production of these cases, which facilitate their penetration into social
memory. Thus, some routines are used to record news output into memory.
Repetition is a mark of the production process of these cases: cases pass from one
medium to another and from one day to another, every medium repeats the
background in every news story and associates news with other similar cases which
generates “waveswith other news of the same type, and appeals to the archive for
editing timelines to synchronize with the news. Journalists often use an earlier case
as a model for the interpretation of a new case, hence, bringing it back to life.
Sometimes these cases disseminate impacting images, which synthesize the content
of the crisis they represent.
Many cases serve a mythic function, to which politicians appeal for building their
own government myths, thus nourishing collective memory. Frequently interest
groups arise from these cases, which are very informed audiences affected by an
issue and that appear in the public space to defend a cause. These audiences create
slogans and specific forms of social protest, and actively use the media to
disseminate their frame, adding their discourse of the case onto other discourses.
Keywords: media, cases, social memory, public, journalism
62 Damian FERNÁNDEZ PEDEMONTE Media cases and social memory
***
Cas médiatiques et mémoire sociale en Argentine après 2001
Résumé: Cet article tente de définir les cas médiatiques commotionnels, de décrire
leurs structures et illustrer quelques cas particuliers, à partir du moment
commence la crise économique et sociale en 2001 en Argentine. L’article cherche à
souligner quelques aspects de la production de ces cas qui facilitent leur entrée dans
la mémoire sociale.
Mots-clés: media, cas, mémoire sociale, public, journalisme
***
Introduction
Occasionally, the Argentine news media disseminate news stories which are
presented as being qualitatively distinct from other stories pertaining to the same
realm. They are accounts of events that respond to newsworthiness criteria and are
fitted to the media’s thematic sections but, in many ways entail a rupture in news
routines. These ruptures occur in the audience routines of consumers of these stories
as well as in the production routines of every medium, which must provide
extraordinary procedures to cover these episodes better than the competition. These
cases are as exceptional as any other piece of news, but are also considered
exceptional amongst the news.
The purpose of this article is to analyze the ability that particularly shocking
media cases have of becoming embedded in social memory (Olick and Robbins,
1998), due to their permanence in the public agenda and the frequent appeal to their
recollection on the part of social actors. Furthermore, the versions of these events
provided by the media tend to become a fundamental input used by historians
engaged in recent national history.
Commotional media cases have been my object of study in a dedicated research
program carried out at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council
(CONICET) of Argentina. The discourse analysis of journalistic stories covering
various dramatic episodes in Argentine political history of the last decade, on the
basis of the case-study method (Vasilachis, 2006), allowed me to carry out a case
generalization from which to propose a definition and structure of the commotional
media case, among other findings. While taking as background Katz an Dayan’s
theory of media events (Katz & Dayan, 1992), media cultural studies (Carey, 1992;
Silverstone, 1999) and recent reception theory (Alausari, 1999), my own hypothesis
ESSACHESS. Journal for Communication Studies, vol. 5, no. 2(10) / 2012 63
of the social operation of commotional media cases arises from the empirical study
of media texts understood as an archive of several public discourses, in accordance
with social representation theory (Moscovici, 1984; Vasilachis, 1997; Raiter et al.,
2002) and enunciation theory (Kerbrat-Orechioni, 1999; Mainguenau and
Charaudeau, 2002).
This study centers on news stories in the La Nación and Clarín newspapers,
which narrate four particularly disquieting stories of the last ten years, due to the
significance of the events narrated or their permanence within the public agenda and
the level of debate that they trigger, the latter stemming from a decision made by
journalists, that is arbitrary to a certain extent, at least when said media cases are
compared to similar events that practically go unnoticed. These include: Argentina’s
institutional crisis in 2001, the emergence of a public figure as an advocate for
citizen public safety demands in 2004, the armed confrontation between labor
unions during the transfer of former President Juan Domingo Perón’s body to a
mausoleum in 2006, and the longstanding conflict between the Government and
rural organizations for an export tax increase in 2008. The journalistic texts shall
illustrate certain production and reception conditions which explain the great ease
with which these cases become embedded in social memory, and thus, remain active
and influence the meaning that social actors convey to current public affairs.
The La Nación and Clarín newspapers shall be taken into consideration since
they have the largest circulation and greatest influence in shaping the public agenda
in Argentina. This study will also refer to television and Internet, in general, and the
newspaper, both in its paper and digital forms, serving as an archive for recent
historical memory.
1. The commotional media case
Aníbal Ford (1994) maintained that in the nineties, these types of journalistic
cases in Argentina had created more political debate over social issues than the
official instances of public deliberation, such as the National Congress. For example,
the Government´s intervention of a province governed by autocratic dynasties for
many years or the elimination of the mandatory draft military service, were only
second to highly exposed media police reports. The institutional consequences of
these dramatic events turned into media cases did not decline but rather increased
during the following decade, with the resignation to office of a Vice President and
the hastened fall of a President.
A reason for this is that the media coverage of scandals (Thompson, 2000) and
conflicts and public crisis (Elizalde, 2011) situations forces the social actors
involved to provide a response, especially to the political power. According to
Dominique Wolton (1989), the information-event is the genuine contribution made
by the media, one of the three players in political communication. Admittedly, when
64 Damian FERNÁNDEZ PEDEMONTE Media cases and social memory
the media case bursts into the public agenda, the other two actors (politicians and
opinion polls) are forced to express an opinion on the issue relating to the case.
1.1. A definition of the commotional media case
A case is established when the representation of certain events in the media
makes a latent structural conflict surface in the discourse, which has been hidden
until now by a dominant public discourse of politicians or of the same media, which
insist on a manifest conflict in a specific moment in time of a contrary nature
(Fernández Pedemonte, 2001, 2010). For Ralf Dahrendorf (1979) a conflict is any
relationship between elements that may be characterized as an objective opposition -
latent-, that is to say, even while conflictive it is taken for granted by the actors, or a
subjective opposition-manifest-, that is to say, acknowledged as conflictive by its
actors, in relation to an existing social situation. Those that are circumstantial in
nature arise from a singular event and give rise to a tension in the political system,
but may be solved through adequate political decisions or by the natural extinction
of its causes. Those that are structural are inscribed within the social structure as a
constituent element. This is a type of contradiction that can only be eliminated by
changing the system or whose consequences may be lessened if the contradiction
were to be institutionalized.
This means that news stories with a greater chance of qualifying as cases are
those that are most unforeseeable, most contrasting in the hierarchy and valuation of
discourse issues and actions of social actors, and more connected with main
agendas, but excluded from public discourse.
1.2. The structure of the commotional media case
Therefore, I shall illustrate those cases that took place following the institutional
crisis in Argentina in 2001, at which time the debacle of the existing economic and
financial model led to the resignation of the president, the social upheaval of
hundreds of people and the beginning of a period of institutional fragility. In the
examples I shall cite, as well as in others that have been studied but are not included
in this paper, there is a common structure made up of the following elements, which
shall be illustrated here with news stories referring to the 2001 crisis (Álvarez, Farré
and Fernández Pedemonte, 2002).
a. The first property is that the media themselves present the case as a case. They
do this through specific headlines and remarks that highlight the qualitative
difference that the current news story has in comparison to previous similar stories.
For example, during the crisis of December 2001, in the days that preceded the fall
of President Fernando de la Rúa, the news headlines in La Nación and Clarín on the
subject were headed by the following leads: “The social crisis”, “The social
ESSACHESS. Journal for Communication Studies, vol. 5, no. 2(10) / 2012 65
stampede”, “Social turmoil”, “Social outbursts” (including the placement of the
description of these events from the perspective of the actor-subject, substituting
personal pronouns or institutional subjects in headings of the type: “The social
explosion caused the resignation of De La Rúa”).
b. The case sets in motion a contrast between two conflicts, one that is
circumstantial and another that is structural. Indeed, with the case, a latent agenda
erupts which differs from the agenda that had been set by the media and the political
power. For example during the crisis of December 2001, only two days prior to the
resignation of the president one could read: “Yesterday President Fernando De la
Rúa felt for the first time that the looting of supermarkets could seriously
compromise the country’s governance and he ordered his cabinet to articulate a food
distribution plan and to avoid the use of the word looting so as to not cause alarm
among the population” (this was published on December 19th and the resignation
took place on the 20th). These statements made by La Nación anticipated a strong
contrast between the situation and the President’s tepid response in face of the crisis
and the conflict that was developing; a conflict that was much more serious than
what he perceived, which threatened the legitimacy of the Executive Power and even
of the entire leadership.
c. The social representation of the institutions and social groups involved in the
case may change during the media coverage. While the case remains under the focus
of the media, aspects of the institution or social group that are unknown by the
public are brought to light. This intense media exposure of the institution generates
the leveling of knowledge between expert audiences or that are close to the
institution and non-expert audiences or that are remote from the institution. In the
2001 crisis, for example, the media specifically distinguished the protagonists of the
saqueos (lootings, in English) of December 19th from protagonists of the
cacerolazos (pot and pan banging, in English) of December 20th. The former appear
as depersonalized through statements made in the passive voice, impersonal
constructions, headlines where events are the subject of a sentence, and actors are
depicted as massive and politically manipulated. The latter, who protested in the
downtown city streets of Buenos Aires hitting pots and pans, however, are defined
as “persons”, “citizens”, “neighbors”, cited as sources, and are identified by their
names and origin.
d. In the coverage of cases, the media put into play two types of hypothesis. On
the one hand, the first news stories, where it can be seen to which extent journalists
are surprised by the case, all types of hypotheses are juggled, as if they did not want
to lose the hypothesis that ends up being corroborated. At that point in time the
media have more questions than certainties. On the other hand, among these
conjectures, one of them stands out and signals the causes and central conflict that
arise with the case. The media indicate that they support this hypothesis which we
may call long-term hypothesis.
66 Damian FERNÁNDEZ PEDEMONTE Media cases and social memory
For example, in the case I have discussed regarding the fall of President De la
Rúa in 2001, La Nación hinted that it supported the hypothesis of the exiting
Government, which held that the institutional crisis had been triggered by the
Justicialist Party, the opposition at that time, and was not due to a spontaneous social
protest caused by the dramatic social conditions assailing the country. This is clear
in the following statements:
“Government officials pointed to Carlos Ruckauf and José Manuel de la Sota
(two important justicialist leaders) as conflict agitators”.
“De la Rúa handled two alternatives: a government of national unity or the
accusation of those guilty of destabilizing activism”.
“The advocates of the unrest are Carlos Ruckaufand factions of Menemism”.
Hence, in these statements of La Nación, among others, it is clear that the
newspaper reproduces the government’s accusations of the existence of a plot
against President De la Rúa, a hypothesis that the newspaper upheld.
e. As a result of the case, the media seem to capture a public opinion atmosphere
that exerts pressure on the institution to drastically rectify the pernicious effects of
the crisis. This can be considered an alliance between the media and public opinion
against the institution, which, under this exceptional context is often asked to take
precautionary measures beyond its capabilities.
Let us see the following examples in the Clarín newspaper of December 2001:
“The looting and food demands cannot only be explained by political
manipulation. In fact, the nature and scope of events show that there were many
spontaneous and uncoordinated behaviors in different places.”
“A propitious scenario for the rise of violence”.
“Mobilizations reveal that popular discontent can manifest itself without
resorting to traditional political groups or institutionalized petition channels”
(editorial dated December 20th).
These statements made by Clarín prior to De la Rúa’s resignation, show the
newspaper as being distant to the Government’s interpretative model (which,
however, is embraced by La Nación as I pointed out in the previous paragraphs) and,
in contrast, in the role of a public opinion spokesperson, it interprets what the protest
-broad and spontaneous-seems to convey: “the discontent of the population”. They
constitute a demand placed on the political power.
ESSACHESS. Journal for Communication Studies, vol. 5, no. 2(10) / 2012 67
f. As the case prolongs and the different media (print or digital) continuously
narrate the story, the same coverage is frequently subject to the description or
commentaries of the same media. Inasmuch as the media -public actors yet
invisible- which frequently have an influence on the decisions made by political
institutions, but do not publicly make know their lobbying efforts -through their own
media- in cases, by contrast, they not only act as witnesses but also protagonists,
visible actors.
With regard to the fall of De la Rúa, the media may be considered the only
setting in which protest events, which took place at different times and locations
throughout the country, are depicted as a single scenario in real time and are labeled
on a unified basis. Some segments in live broadcasts of cable news or open
television news flashes about the supermarket pilfering seem to be invitations for
joining the so called “lootings”. La Nación, for example, stated that: “The
population witnessed police passivity on television”. Additionally, these high impact
images that were consumed throughout the entire day could have possibly had an
impact on the porteños that decided to protest with pots and pans that same evening
after hearing Fernando De la Rúa’s tepid speech.
g. Finally, another constant feature of the coverage of cases is the choice of a
storytelling format to narrate episodes, by means of three strategies: the focus of
news placed on the subjectivity of specific protagonists who frequently assume the
role of a subject or an object of a narrative program (Greimas, 1979); the
organization of information according to a narrative structure, with the inclusion of
plot points and secondary intrigues and suspense; and the use of literary devices.
During the “2001 crisis” journalists resorted to storytelling to account for the
myriad exploits that made up the events. The sequence is as follows:
- The looting which spread exponentially on December 19th2001.
- Spontaneous cacerolazos (pot and pan banging, in English) following the
speech of De la Rúa on the night from the 19th to the 20th.
- Demonstrations by activists and police repression that started at daybreak on
the 20th and lasted through to the resignation of the president on that same
afternoon.
- The testimonies of business owners whose shops were ransacked.
2. The memory of post-2001 crisis cases
During the period that followed the institutional crisis, after a provisional
government was set in place by the National Congress to fulfill former president De
La Rúa’s mandate, the presidency was assumed by a new Justicialist leader, Néstor
Kirchner, who governed the country between 2003 and 2007 (and died in 2010) and
68 Damian FERNÁNDEZ PEDEMONTE Media cases and social memory
was succeeded by his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. He led a new economic
and political model which started off weak, and had low electoral support and
alliances. In this era of Kirchnerism, the crisis of 2001 was a fundamental part of its
foundational government myth (Riorda, 2008) that took power in the midst of a
social emergency, with the questioning of the entire political leadership and an ever
increasing social protest that took on new forms of expression.
The memory of the ”2001 crisis”, hence, is continuously repeated in President
Kirchner’s discourse who must build his power while already in office and contain
social mobilizations which is what caused the fall of his predecessor, without the use
of repression, given that his forerunners received the most severe criticism for the
deaths of demonstrators at the hands of police. In like manner, journalistic discourse
permanently alluded to the “2001 crisis”. In this initial phase of Kirchnerism, one
may in fact refer to a convergence, at least under a general framework, between
journalistic discourse and political discourse in the model of diffused crisis.
The media case stands out in the public agenda. It has an influence on social
memory to the extent in which its representation is kept active, which from the
perspective of communications media suggests its connection with the current media
agenda (Raiter et al). A decisive factor in the permanence of these media cases and
entrance into the long-term memory of audiences during social cognition is the
repetition of similar contents in the media concerning the cases. The prevalent
model being promoted by the media is obtained from the inference of this similar
situational structure and interpretation of the event, even though it is not necessarily
adopted by audiences (Van Dijk). The media have a greater means of disseminating
representations due to their massive reach and the credibility vested in them (Raiter
et al, 2002), at least over the privileged access they have on public affairs. However,
we speak of textual representations and not yet of social representations (Vasilachis,
1997), so long as their incorporation by audiences has not been proven.
2.1. Repetition and memory
2.1.1 Repetition across the media
Repetition, therefore, is a condition of possibility for media cases to be inserted
into social memory. The first type of repetition that takes place in the production of
cases is from medium to medium, that is, the fact that diverse communication media
talk about the case simultaneously, giving them similar space and frames.
In order to illustrate this type of repetition I shall refer to a new case that took
place during the first year of Néstor Kirchner’s government, who, as mentioned
earlier, wanted to avoid the repression of social protest and criminal activity at any
cost, for political and ideological reasons. Concerned with building his own power
and with the complex network of fractions that hindered this goal (Justicialist Party,
ESSACHESS. Journal for Communication Studies, vol. 5, no. 2(10) / 2012 69
labor unions, social protest groups such as the picketers, the legislative and judicial
branches of government, etc.), he received criticism from the media, who claimed to
reflect citizen concerns about the lack of a safety policy in view of an increase in
violent crimes.
Starting on March 24, 2004 the media started to report on the kidnapping and
subsequent murder of a young man called Axel Blumberg. In the following days two
exceptional political news stories reached the front covers of La Nación and Clarín
and are covered at greater length: a commemoration ceremony of the 1976 coup
d´état held at the Naval School of Mechanical Engineering (ESMA, Spanish
acronym) was held to inaugurate a Space for Memory in remembrance of the illegal
repression that took place during the military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983, and
the celebration of the first congress of the Justicialist Party since the assumption of
president Kirchner. According to Kitzberger (2005) the episodes raised that week
dispel any phase of relative harmony that existed between President Kirchner and
the media. “This week, then, marks a turning point as the relationship between the
government and public opinion is modified. It was a short lapse of strikingly intense
ideology that heated up and refueled old antagonisms and political categorizations
which had lain dormant in the public sphere for a very long time”.
Meanwhile, the news that the young man called Axel Blumberg, who had been
kidnapped for five days and found murdered is published on the cover page of La
Nación dated 24 March. It was only for two days that the Blumberg case managed to
get a quarter of the lower section in the newspaper´s front page whose leading topic
was the cited political news story featuring the president. The father of the murdered
young man, Juan Carlos Blumberg, had already started to make statements to the
media with criticisms leveled against the police, the law, and the government (for
example: “Blumberg: ‘There are contradictions in the investigation’. The father of
the boy says that he has ‘doubts’. He complained that the case fails to mention that
his son was tortured and had his finger nails pulled out. He said that ‘there is
impunity’ and ‘a terrible lack of professionalism’. He asked for tougher laws”,
taken from La Nación).
Suddenly, on Friday, April 2, La Nación dedicates the upper half of its front page
to a public mobilization towards Congress convened by Juan Carlos Blumberg, with
a six-column headline: “A great popular outcry for safety”, accompanied with a
photograph of an estimated crowd of 150 thousand people. Curiously enough the
exceptional nature of the news story, determined by the size of the public
demonstration, was not pre-announced or assigned page space earlier by La Nación,
while it had been a medium covering Blumberg´s controversial statements (for
example, it had published an interview with him the preceding Sunday). The same is
true of Clarín which on the day following the march reported the news on the cover
page with catastrophic headlines: The people have said enough, while the report
took up almost the entire page.
70 Damian FERNÁNDEZ PEDEMONTE Media cases and social memory
The successful mobilization organized by Juan Carlos Blumberg, which led him
to become an important political figure, constitutes a case to the extent in which it
bursts into a media agenda concerned with other issues and brings back to the
surface a structural conflict regarding citizen insecurity in face of increasing violent
crime. The media synchronize their timing and framing to address the topic.
2.1.2. Repetition within each medium
A second type of news repetition that influences the relationship between media
cases and social memory is that found within each medium, regarding the series
produced by journalists reporting on a case. This is particularly true in a series of
police reports referring to the same crime where every fresh news item synthesizes
the framework established by preceding information, and is an indispensable process
for understanding the added information. During this information processing, it is
quite common that the effort of synthesis end up transforming the framework into a
stereotyped situation.
A “wave of violence” is a specific context in which commotional news stories
appear. Just as the media segment the reality continuum through an ideological and
corporate interpretation matrix called news, they usually store several violent events
in news packages that are distributed throughout the life cycle of the information
agenda. Much more than a form in which violence occurs in society, waves of
violence are a matrix employed by journalism institutions to categorize and group
together violent events. If violence in society is constant, it is however concentrated
in these relatively discrete units by these media (Fernández Pedemonte, 2008).
This specific context for the appearance of dramatic news characterized by the
“wave of violence” occurs when a type of crime demands the attention of news
media editors in a privileged manner, thus relegating news coverage of other types
of criminal offences. This usually happens when a criminal episode a kidnapping,
for example creates special impact due to its particular cruelty or the peculiarities
of its protagonists. In general, in the days following the commotional event, editors
appear to have a specially designed sense for detecting other similar developments.
At the first coincidence of two disquieting events of a similar nature seems to
encourage the search for other similar developments.
The editor has a dual temporality in mind for the selection of news. The closing
time, along with the information gathered at the moment of publication, which gives
news its daily relevance. Yet the editor also anticipates the probable life cycle of
news referring to the same event. Certainly, this second temporality exerts its own
pressure at the time of looking for similar information.
ESSACHESS. Journal for Communication Studies, vol. 5, no. 2(10) / 2012 71
2.1.3. Repetition within a single news item
The episodes connected by the association-making habits of journalists may
serve as background information in a story for a new episode they wish to report on.
This is evident in the La Nación article published on October 25, 2020 about the
kidnapping of the father of Argentine actor Pablo Echarri:
“Pablo Echarri suffered his father´s kidnapping ten days after police arrested a
woman that threatened to disfigure his face and that of his wife, actress Nancy
Duplaá, unless he accepted to date her”.
“Furthermore, the actor was nervous and concerned because two months earlier
Duplaá and her former boyfriend Matías Martin reported a perplexing phone call in
which they were allegedly being alerted about the possible kidnapping of their son”.
“In the same vicinity where Antonio Echarri was kidnapped, Fernando Nicolás
Menem, the son of national senator (PJ) Eduardo Menem, and businessman Alfredo
Ulfre, were also kidnapped months earlier”.
“Several relatives of famous celebrities were kidnapped this year, as is the case
of Cristian Riquelme, brother of football player Juan Román Riquelme, and Jorge
Milito, father of Diego and Gabriel, players of the Racing and Independiente
football clubs, respectively”.
Through said associations, the journalist, in a single news story, gathers violent
episodes that are different in nature and have occurred at different times, and in so
doing, brings them back into the public´s memory. Repetition then happens between
different media, different news and within each piece of news, due to the forced
association between diverse events that have already been reported, and that are
recalled because of their relationship with new developments, according to different
criteria, relating to the protagonists, the time or place of events, and sometimes, as
illustrated in this case, all of these at once.
News in itself is a redundant discursive genre that reiterates the event in the
headline and the body of the text and, in the latter, is generally narrated twice, if the
structure used is that of the inverted pyramid, which narrates the story in the lead
and repeats it chronologically further ahead. Major news stories that are introduced
in the front page and are developed inside the newspaper have greater levels of
reiteration. The same applies to television news, which are generally anticipated in
headlines several times and then developed during the newscasts. The televised
news broadcast comprises an introduction by anchormen in the studio floor, the
voice-in-off or live calling in from the field with the chronicler's news story, the
overprinted texts, and subsequent comments made by other journalists from the
72 Damian FERNÁNDEZ PEDEMONTE Media cases and social memory
newsroom, with each of these phases reiterating the contents that have already been
broadcasted.
2.2. Memory and archives
Another component of the production routine of journalistic cases consists of the
use of medium news archives, among other resources, to contextualize information
with chronologies, background data on protagonists and similar situations that may
contribute to the interpretation of the new episode. The material published on
previous events that are somehow analogous to the new case and were filed
according to criteria matching journalistic newsworthiness make these events or
their representation in the media current.
An example of a case with strong historical resonances in Argentina was a fight
with stones, clubs and firearms between antagonistic Peronist labor union fractions
on October 17, 2006, the day that the remains of Juan Domingo Perón, leader of the
Peronist movement, were transferred to a mausoleum erected in the city of San
Vicente in the Province of Buenos Aires. For the interpretation of the violence
between these fractions of Peronist extraction, journalistic comments drew from the
recollection of the grave incidents that occurred in 1973 at the Ezeiza international
airport when Perón returned to the country after eighteen years in exile to initiate the
process that would elect him to the presidency for the third time. That is why the
newspapers that we are reviewing gave almost identical headlines to their respective
news analysis: “The phantom of Ezeiza flew over San Vicente” (La Nación) and
“After 33 years, the shadow of the Ezeiza tragedy flew over San Vicente” (Clarín).
There was also a battle back then between left-wing and right-wing Peronist
fractions, although with deadly victims that time, and it became the first of a series
of armed incidents that continued throughout the decade of the 70´s. Reference to
the “Ezeiza massacre”, as the event was labeled, in addition to reviving the event,
reclaims it as an interpretative device and a as framing tool for today´s events. The
currency of the “Ezeiza” model may connote that the analysis of incompatibility
between the right and left wings of Peronism and the latent violence inside of
Peronism over the dispute for the legacy of Perón and the place of each fraction
within the power scheme are still valid.
We mentioned earlier that repetition is a key factor in the sedimentation process
of news events in social memory. We now add the possibility that the reiteration of
news stories from the recent past refreshes them in the collective imagination as a
precedent of what is happening today and, in a more or less conscious way, as a
hermeneutical key of the present. For this to happen, it is necessary that the news
story being recalled be filed in media archives, which is an essential input for
contemporary journalists and historians. The retrieval of archive material is possible
through the labeling work conducted by the media. As I discussed previously, the
first distinct characteristic of commotional media cases is that the media themselves
ESSACHESS. Journal for Communication Studies, vol. 5, no. 2(10) / 2012 73
present them as cases, and that the first step in that direction is to give the case a
name. The job of writing headlines which journalists are accustomed to take on
special importance at the moment of loading digitalized news of hard copy
newspapers or their online versions for later retrieval. Thus, for example,
commotional national news stories labeled as a “case”, “tragedy”, “massacre”, etc.,
are easily retrievable for enquiries made from Argentina. This makes these cases
immediately accessible to users, which depend on the Internet for retrieving details
about the events whose recollection they need. However, it must not be forgotten
that when one searches the Internet for information on an event, the most easily
retrievable information is that provided by the news media. News headlines are
extremely pertinent given that it is the media themselves that give a name to the
events in the news.
The San Vicente episode is easily brought back to memory because of a striking
image that circulated among the media from the very first moment it was captured,
and was repeated in television, and later recorded in the graphic and digital media.
A 24-hour cable news broadcast recorded a man firing several shots into a
crowd, who was later identified as being a close friend of the central labor union
leader (General Confederation of Labor of the Republic of Argentina or CGT, for its
Spanish acronym). The shot of this individual pulling the trigger with his arm
outstretched was widely distributed and somehow served as an iconic synthesis of
the confrontation, and in time became a marker of memory, a visual label, from
which to recover the context of this image. As we remember episodes of recent
history, certain images of photojournalism come to mind, which have similar roles
to texts in visual memory, including the ability of being labeled and recovered by
image search engines, increasingly relevant in the semantic web. This return from
images is well known by the social actors that produce messages or gestures to be
captured by cameras or circulate images in the media. An example is Juan Carlos
Blumberg, mentioned above, who temporarily became a leader in the protest against
insecurity following his successful public call. He went to every public venue with
folders, allegedly containing documents related to the judicial case for murder of his
son, whose smiling photograph he circulated countless copies of. Both of these icons
are immediately found upon performing a Google Images search from Argentina for
“Juan Carlos Blumberg”.
3. The memory of social actors
EliseoVerón (1988) has argued that the production and reception instances of
media contents respond to various logics, separated by insurmountable ideological,
semiotic and institutional gaps. Consequently, the reading that audiences will make
of the prevalent models disseminated by the media cannot be anticipated, even if
there are no alternative models. In other words, textual representations do not
determine social representations, whose consolidation is considerably influenced by
74 Damian FERNÁNDEZ PEDEMONTE Media cases and social memory
social conversation. Without going outside the media analysis, the validity of
interpretative models transmitted by the media can be identified because they are
taken up by those social actors that have access to the same media. The social actors
make them reappear in public discourse when they intervene as the privileged
enunciators they truly are.
3.1. The Government
A noteworthy example is the set of speeches delivered by President Cristina
Fernández de Kichner during the confrontation between the national government
and the Argentine rural organizations resulting from the increase of export taxes on
agricultural production. In the same manner that she faced this crisis with the rural
sector in 2008, her deceased husband, former president Néstor Kirchner, also had a
media case that resulted in a public crisis with the social mobilization against
insecurity, which he had to manage from a communicational as well as political and
technical perspective.
The presidential speech on the rural situation begins with a lecture against the
long strike carried out by the sector´s entities. As a part of her framing of the
conflict, the President confronts the media believing that they have taken sides with
the privileged rural sector that, having benefited from the policies implemented by
herself and her husband, refuse to yield part of their privileges to benefit the rest of
society. She proposed to make a comparison between this rural owners “lock out”
and the “pickets” following the crisis of 2001 that fully define the Kirchner´s
rhetoric and policy. Taking the image of demonstrations carried out by poor people
and the unemployed during the Argentine institutional crisis of 2001 and 2002, she
stated: “(…) from that real tragedy to this comedy drama” “(…) the pickets of
abundance, the pickets of those sectors with higher profitability margins”.
According to the President, the media were more acquiescent with the rural protest
than with the protests of the poor and unemployed. She affirms that the media
scorned “those Argentines that were thrown into the streets, desperate for the lack
of jobs and the misery”, and even, “asked the Government to put down the
demonstrations and restore order” (Fernández Pedemonte, 2011).
What is interesting here is to realize how the actors, and not just the media, can
make a media case present again. The media do not have hegemony over the social
discourse. Furthermore, in contrast with the beginnings of her husband´s
administration, the confrontation of Cristina Kirchner´s administration with the
media´s versions of events became systematic, regardless of whether they happened
during her term of government or in the past. Moreover, her version of the 2001
crisis feeds her government myth, where she presents herself as the continuator of an
epic re-foundation of the nation after a process that almost took society to the verge
of social disintegration.
ESSACHESS. Journal for Communication Studies, vol. 5, no. 2(10) / 2012 75
3.2. The Public
3.2.1 Definition of a public
On the opposite side of symbolic power are audiences. An audience reception
study is required to ascertain the influence that the media have on their memory of
events. However, audiences have a growing participation in conventional media and
especially in the new digital media. When an audience appears in the public sphere
through its own discourse and bursts forth in the public space through some
mobilization form, it publicly emerges as a social actor as well, leaving behind a
testimony of its memory that can be reconstructed in the media.
I follow two authors on the delimitation of the concept of public: Sonia
Livingstone and Daniel Dayan. Already in 1998, in her article Audience Research at
the Crossroads. The ‘Implied Audience’ in Media and Cultural Theory (Livingstone,
1998) Livingstone drew attention to a dimension of the audience that at the time
remained practically unexplored. In order to characterize the ´implied audience´,
which is the conception of audience used in the political, economic and cultural
fields, five sociological methods are utilized to link the “micro” level of social
analysis of contingent individual acts, with the “macro” level analysis of collective
forces. Out of these five methods are derived another five approaches on the
individual. (1) Instrumental individualism emphasizes the analysis of investments,
costs and opportunities; therefore, its conception of an audience is that of an
audience as a consumer. (2) Interpretative individualism, emphasizes social position
from a constructivist perspective, represents the micro level as a source of social
order and the audience as an active actor. (3) This is follow by a less active version
of social constructivism that perceives the audience as a public, in which the micro
level is autonomous but more dependent on the social structure than the previous
approach. (4) Then there is an approach that emphasizes socialization as an
internalization of the macro level, a blend of the conception that favors the collective
position about social order with a subjective instrumental position of the action, and
perceives the audience as potentially resistant. (5) Objective structuralism, that links
a collective position of order with an objective position on individual action,
considers the audience as masses.
Since for Livingstone option 3 remains unexplored, the work is: “to capture the
force of the micro-macro relation as conceived within democratic theory, for despite
significant limitations, both structural and contingent, the political system is built on
the informed consent of the thinking citizen”.
In his paper The peculiar public of television, Daniel Dayan (2001) intends to
conduct on the field research through an experimental study, about what television
viewers form a public. To that end, he begins by asking himself about the
relationship between an audience and a public. He responds by stating that the term
76 Damian FERNÁNDEZ PEDEMONTE Media cases and social memory
“public” is both a noun and an adjective. As a noun it presupposes the existence of a
real society, and as an adjective it implies public conversations or behaviors in
contrast to those that are private. Hence, the public is ostensible: it sees and it is
seen, which is the result of its particular style of performance. A public emerges
from the act of taking a position and affirms its loyalty to the rest of the group.
According to Dayan (1) the public offers a certain type of sociability, (2) it emerges
from the practice of internal debate, (3) it has performance capacity: it expresses
itself through presentation to other publics, (4) it is characterized by its loyalty to
certain values related to a common good, (5) it is capable of transforming its tastes
into demands and (6) only exist in are reflexive manner. In 2005, in a subsequent
paper, Dayan (Dayan, 2005) widens his characterization of publics which he
describes as simultaneous cultural constructions and social realities. In fact, instead
of widening the concept, he proceeds to make it more precise by contrasting it with a
series of close entities. The first of these entities are the viewers, who are audiences
that don't know they are audiences, and whose representativeness, if they have it, is
foreign to them. The “public” is not the sum of viewers. It is a coherent entity of
collective nature characterized by a shared sociability and identity, and a sense of
that identity. While the attention of the viewer is open and prepared for surprise, the
attention of the public is concentrated: issue driven. They know beforehand what
they are looking for. Viewers become involved in texts, while publics become
involved in collective performances.
Publics are not crowds either, because they are in the public space and in the
public sphere. Instead, the crowd is just in the public space. Bodies circulate in the
public space and speeches circulate in the public sphere. In the public space there
may be physical violence, while in the public sphere violence is symbolic. The
crowd only exists when it congregates, whereas contiguity is no longer an essential
defining feature of the public with the Internet. The public is community. To join a
public implies taking political, ethical or aesthetical decisions. The public also
differs from the activists or militants that are affiliated to a specific group. A public
is perceived as being potentially endless, whereas an activist is a part of an
institutionalized entity with defined hierarchies, rules, and decision levels. Lastly,
the public also differs from witnesses. A witness is an individual and his/her
temporality is retrospective. Instead, the public experience has a prospective
temporality and is a crucial actor of the social process of agenda setting: an activity
steering public attention.
In summary, according to Dayan, performance unites the public with the public
sphere. The public exists in a reflexive manner: it is a collective subjectivity that
emerges in response to the mirrored image of itself. Loyalty is a condition for
belonging to a public. A public is stable, it goes connecting issues, since it is
characterized by issues and not by its responses to words, texts, manuscripts, or
media. The public is a reverse dichotomy of the audience, and first needs to be an
audience for the following three reasons: (1) when it responds to an issue, dealing
ESSACHESS. Journal for Communication Studies, vol. 5, no. 2(10) / 2012 77
with mediated situations in which it is exposed as a audience, (2) the public needs
the media to reach more members, (3) the necessary skills to become a public are
acquired in the media.
3.3. Publics and cases
Since the crisis of 2001, different subjectivities or groups of individuals emerged
in the public space of Argentina that were not aligned with the Government, or with
labor unions which are usually the great articulators of Peronist social entities
(Sidicaro, 2005), or with the political parties. They constituted self-convened groups
that mobilized and developed new forms of protest against the power, without
following the slogans of political leaders.
I am also interested in considering the testimonies of these publics regarding
how media cases are imprinted into collective memory, which can be reconstructed
from the media. Through their appearance as a source, enunciator or protagonist,
also analyzing the representation of these publics provided to us by the media, as we
saw in the case of the agents of the 2001 crisis looting and cacerolazos. In such a
way that publics utilize media material on cases as an input, and are incorporated by
the media into the coverage of these same cases or new ones.
Where there is a case, there is a public. Said public has a confrontation strategy
with the media for attracting their attention and being able to disseminate their
messages through attractive forms of protest (silent marches, blocked roads and
bridges, occupation of city central squares, surrounding headquarters of Government
power branches, etc.). These strategies are designed on the basis of memory so as to
keep the attention of the media and to position the structural conflict connected with
the case in the public agenda. There are multiple examples of these groups´
performances, from neighbors resisting the installation of a pulp mill on the opposite
bank of their city´s river to the families of victims and survivors of a fire in a party
hall or of a train accident where hundreds of people died.
The role of publics is precisely to recollect the media case which is at the onset
of its cause in order to keep an issue in the memory of audiences, to invite them to
protest alongside them, and in the memory of the political power, to demand a
solution. Due to the sympathy they obtain from audiences and their aptitude to relate
with the media, these publics grant much attention to public mobilizations. As I
already mentioned, frequently, an alliance is created between publics and the media
in order to place pressure on the political institution for it to provide a solution to the
issue. Hence, the social protest of groups mobilized by these commotional media
cases also serve as a social function to maintain the memory of the case alive, and
this is made evident in all of the demands for justice in a crime on the basis of the
memory of its victim.
78 Damian FERNÁNDEZ PEDEMONTE Media cases and social memory
Conclusion
One of the qualities of news that the new media have strengthened is that of
ongoing updates. The audience that follows a news story does not wait to see it on
the evening news on broadcast television, or much less wait until the next day to
read how the newspapers reports on it. Instead, it searches for information at brief
intervals from a mobile phone at the office or while traveling. Hence, from the point
of view of its duration, it would seem that news tends to be ever the more
ephemeral. An event succeeds another event and every incident remains in an
interim version, always waiting for new data that can be added at the last minute.
However, the format of media cases works in the opposite direction of oblivion.
Because of the importance that the media give in unison to a resonating case and the
impact it produces on public opinion, it tends to last a long time. The different forms
of repetition among the media and within every medium in particular, as well as
other news elicited by the story, help maintain the anchoring of the case to the public
agenda, with respect to the present time. Furthermore, with the use of journalism
archives of texts and images, new media cases render past events current, which can
also regain their interpretative capacity over new events.
In addition to repetition, the journalistic work of headlines plays an important
role in the preservation of journalism cases in social memory. This is so because the
media name and give a headline to cases, which are archived and later recalled by
means of these labels. Just as Internet has accelerated the flow of information, it also
allows searching for information that is vaguely remembered, perhaps with the name
that the media gave the case.
Other social actors, in addition to journalists, contribute to the relevancy of news
stories. As a paradigmatic example we referred to the case of a leader who retook a
journalistic case from the recent past, in favor of or against the version of the media,
as a resource to nourish his/her own government myth.
The collective memory of events from the recent past seems foremost to be
based on journalistic versions, which tend to be stereotypical and to increasingly
lose nuances with the erosion of time. A relevant question is posed when publics are
made to enter the scene. They are audiences which turn information into a political
resource, which are activated by the commotion that a case affecting them produces
in the public opinion, and fight to keep their cause under the attention of the media
so as to interpellate the population and the authorities.
These publics are generally experts on the issues that mobilize them, and they
share information from many sources, nowadays through the social media, and they
are not only active audiences but manage to get their messages to the media and
provide their own versions of the facts. The possibility that the narrative of these
ESSACHESS. Journal for Communication Studies, vol. 5, no. 2(10) / 2012 79
publics be made to prevail over the stereotyped versions of the media and defeat,
with their communication strategies, the oblivion which tragically threatens the
news, may only be raised here as a problem for future investigation.
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