Monday, April 19, 2010

in defense of Scherer

A few more columnists and bloggers have taken Julio Scherer to task for his interview with El Mayo, saying it's too softball and he doesn't ask many insightful questions (or get insightful answers; or get anything, really.)

I'm going to spring to his defense again. As a journalist, it's tough enough to ask even a politician a tough question and get a decent answer. Think of the White House press corps, which gets easy answers to easy questions and quick subject-changes to tough questions. (Once in a while you get a character like Rumsfeld, which is at least entertaining until you realize he's serious.)

As for Mexican politicans... a few years ago, when I asked Jorge Hank Rhon about the murder allegations that have been leveled against him, he coughed for 8 seconds (seriously, i counted it on the tape) before continuing. All the while, he fondled a 4-inch letter opener and leaned over the desk toward me. I left the room about 10 minutes later, and as soon as I stepped out of his office building, sweat began pouring from every pore of my body. Eight seconds of coughing is a long time in politics – or anything, for that matter. Was Hank Rhon revealing signs of guilt? I'm not convinced of that. I've been accused of many offensive things in my life of which I was not guilty and it annoyed me immensely; if I was called a murderer and I wasn't, I'd be furious too if anyone asked about it, even as a formality.

Sometimes you don't get a threat, just a temper tantrum: a journalist friend once gained great respect in Colombia for daring to ask Alvaro Uribe about his alleged links to narcos years ago. Uribe simply stormed out of the hotel room where the interview was taking place.

As for narcos, I've had pretty positive experiences with low-level guys here, but I think that's because I've played it very safe. They know what they can tell me without getting themselves in trouble and I always know when to stop asking questions. (A simple look is usually enough to change the conversation; when asking about Chapo or another major capo, the person will usually turn and walk away when the conversation is over. Unless you're a moron, you get the drift very quickly.) And unless you're willing to fork over large amounts of cash for information (which of course, is what the authorities do for informants, and what the best dirt-digging papers in the country do too) you're going to get what they're willing to give you, and nothing more. Probe as much as you like, manipulate etc, it won't happen. These guys aren't big talkers. The ones who are are rarely worth listening to, except for colour's sake. They'd be highly unreliable as real sources.

A few years back, I interviewed Haiti's most-wanted man, Amaral Duclona, in one of his safe houses. I worked through an interpreter as he wanted to speak creole, and the interpreter changed several of my questions. (I could understand just enough to get that.) When I asked him why he was changing my questions, he looked at me as if I was a fool. "Are you kidding? Do you know what this guy will do if you offend him by insinuating something that he doesn't want to hear?" Fair enough really. There were what looked to me like bloodstains on the wall in the room next door, i didn't want to take any chances.

Which brings me back to El Mayo. When someone like that offers you an interview, you ask what you can but you tread delicately. You don't ask about anything that, if he was arrested, could be used in a court against him. You can ask the standard questions, there's no harm in that; but there's also very little point. He's not going to tell you anything you don't already know, or worse, he'll give you a politican-type answer (after all, he is a politician of sorts). The guy is not some low-level punk fool, he's one of the most powerful drug bosses who ever lived. He tells you what he wants to tell you, and you print that.

Interviews with terrorists in recent years have been far more enlightening, and the simple reason is that terrorists – at least most of them – have an ideology, a message, that they want to convey. They want to talk to you, spread their word. Even Osama bin Laden stands to gain by talking. He instills fear, reminds the US that he's still around, and reminds his devoted followers that he is still out there. El Mayo probably doesn't want to instill anything, he wants to do his business quietly, and remain under the radar. He wanted to make some point through this interview, but I now think it was aimed more at the people of Mexico than at the government; ie. winning over their support for this so-called man of the people. He doesn't want to shake things up. And neither does Scherer, who at 84, still probably enjoys his life somewhat.

If there's one quibble I have about the interview, it's the way Scherer wrote it up. I would have liked more colour, more context and background, more teasing out of the details. That way, the fact that El Mayo says almost nothing might have been moot.

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