Human Rights

Editorial: how to cover the ghost of Pinochet

This is an editorial from the Chile Today staff

To speak of a revival of pinochetism in Chilean politics would be out of place. In fact, the dictator’s legacy has never left the country’s political landscape. But the more years pass and the memories of the military dictatorship fade, the more openly some politicians flirt with Pinochet’s ideology. The question then arises, how should journalists cover the trend of upcoming extremist politicians blowing off steam?

Of course, it might be said that we should all expect this from Camila Flores. The 31-year-old politician never lived the military dictatorship herself, but through tweets and speeches hails Augusto Pinochet as a demigod. When she entered the stage last weekend during a general meeting of her political party Renovación Nacional (RN) she said she prides herself being a pinochetista, something that earned her a standing ovation from the hundreds of supporters present.

Her comments caused outrage from Chilean left-wing parties and human rights activists, and through the storm of anger Flores got what she really wanted: attention and a live interview at CNN Chile. Responding to questions of interviewer Daniel Matamala, Flores stated that “For you (Daniel Matamala, red.) Pinochet is a dictator, but not for me.”

“With her controversial comments, Flores got what she really wanted: attention”

Camila Flores knew exactly what she was doing when she entered the stage in the W Hotel on Sunday. She knew there were cameras, she knew about the controversy her polemic comments would generate, and she knew she would get attention. Ignoring Flores would have been her worst punishment, as it would have underlined her small role in Chilean politics. But the Chilean media jumped with childish enthusiasm on the Flores-train, while the media are the very ones that should be careful when covering Chilean politics, especially with political parties laying out their strategies for the upcoming elections.

As large news websites in Chile often have millions of followers, they offer anyone appearing on their website a platform for their ideas: a platform that should be used with the utmost caution. The last thing a neutral news website should want is to sacrifice its independence by becoming a tool for extremist politicians. Politicians have already taken their positions for the elections of 2021, and are fighting for a spot on these news websites and in front of the cameras of major television stations, doing the most controversial things to get attention. And when covering outcries, such as those from Camila Flores, one is confronted with the reality that is the media industry today.

Media is all about money. Most news websites publish the most controversial things, not because they have any news value, but because they generate clicks. Clicks mean traffic, traffic means advertisements, advertisements mean money. On the Chile Today-Facebook page, the post on the comments of Camila Flores has become the most popular post of the week so far.

It begs the questions: Do media really want to be hapless vehicles for politicians’ public image campaigns? Do they want to give extremist politicians the virtual bullhorn the politicians try to commandeer through bombast? Or should they be more careful covering controversial hotheads like Camila Flores, in order to prevent further polarization of Chilean society and preferring quality of the public debate over quantity of traffic?

When Luke O’Brien wrote in The Atlantic on “The Making of the American Nazi”, he was cautious with extremist politicians, according to an interview with Columbia Journalism Review. “These are propagandists. They are liars. They are dangerous people. They are political extremists who have a very clear-cut agenda, and part of that involves manipulating the media.”

Mark Pitcavage, Senior Research Fellow of the Center on Extremism, wrote ten tips for journalists on how to cover extremists. In his fifth recommendation, he wrote: “Don’t allow extremists to avoid confronting the dark sides of their movements. Don’t let extremists distance themselves from the violence of their movement by brushing it off as a few bad apples or a ‘lone nut’ or two. Similarly, don’t let them brush away the ugly aspects of their ideology, either.”

“Part of the agenda of political extremists involves manipulating the media”

This requires a deeper understanding of the background of these politicians – their ideologies, their political parties, their countries’ histories. Instead of writing dramatic headlines and including angry responses from others who also claim the spotlights, media should be looking at what is behind the comments — in this particular case, what is behind the comments from Camila Flores.

According to Rob Wijnberg, founder of Dutch news platform De Correspondent (currently launching in the United States), such an approach requires a reform of today’s media industry. He writes: “news usually keeps its eye trained on today, it blinds us to the longer term, both past and future. Informing us about power structures that have grown over time, like the historical roots of racism, or alerting us to gradual societal changes, like the financialization of our economy, is simply not natural to the forms and rhythms of daily news.”

But with the rise of new age pinochetistas, like Camila Flores, who seek attention, it is the duty of the media in Chile to write on what is behind the ideology of political parties – the background of their followers and the history of their leaders – because only real news makes us understand a complex country like Chile.

Read also:

Against Peace — Media Style

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