Monday, February 24, 2014

Publish and Perish

If there's a horse that's been beaten deader than "Blame The Media Hype," I hope I never have to smell it.

For example, even at 13 to the dollar I'd be rich if I had a peso for every time I heard one of my fellow expats say the only reason people in the U.S. think Mexico isn't safe is that news reports exaggerate crime and violence here.

If editors dug deeper, the idle chatter goes, they would learn that Mexico ranks well back in the global pack on per capita murders, armed robberies, rapes and other violent crimes. They would include this information in their scare stories to avoid alarming readers' in the midst of their travel and retirement planning.

It's an argument that stands up well enough to the kind of rebuttal you get at a noisy happy hour from people who already agree with you. But here are some of the problems with it.

First, the scare stories are true, and compelling. The drug cartels really are giant corporate enterprises in which systematic kidnaping, extortion and murder are routine business tactics. The State Department doesn't try to reassure us with the crime statistics; it issues travel warnings. It's an incredible, shocking story that won't quit. Mexican newspapers certainly aren't holding back. Mob hit photos are a bloody staple on the front pages of the many tabloids here.

Second, notwithstanding recent successes in capturing the likes of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the cartels' brutality has exposed to the world what Mexican residents have known since forever, which is that their government is too riddled with corruption and incompetence to be counted on for protection from random, wanton violence.

Third, editors do report the crime statistics. Even if they didn't, anybody who takes an actuarial approach to selecting vacation or retirement destinations can find them online.

Fourth, most people don't think like actuaries, praise Jesus. If there's a break-in on your block, you feel less safe when you hear about it, even if you just read that crime is down for the third straight year in your town.

Fifth, if you're looking for something to explain why more people aren't coming here to visit or buy second homes, the lingering effects of the recession are far more likely suspects than narco-terrorism headlines.

Finally, the Mexico fear factor may be a straw man. Lots of people don't seem to have any trouble figuring out that the actual risk to themselves from the drug wars is outweighed by Mexico's many attractions. I read recently that there are about 1.5 million U.S. and Canadian citizens living here at least part time, and the trend continues relentlessly up, not down.

Blaming an image problem on the media has been a popular parlor game forever for people who start with a grudge against them anyway. But players who claim to think journalists are hyping narco peril for fun and profit should be aware of an additional statistic.

Between 2006 and 2012, 67 reporters and editors were killed in Mexico and another 14 went missing, according to the country's special prosecutor for crimes against journalists. During those years, Mexico was one of the most dangerous countries in the world for people who report the news.

They continued to show up for work anyway, because they believe the cartel cancer on their society is a story that has to be told regardless of the risk to themselves. 

As they were putting their lives on the line, I doubt they gave much thought to how it might affect the plans of snowbirds and retiring baby boomers.

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