“Between you and me there’s nothing personal.”
— Armando Manzanero
Presidents, former presidents and other politicians with even the slightest semblance of authority don’t like to be questioned. These people have let power go to their heads; they can’t even imagine that they might be wrong or that they should be held accountable.
Such leaders often think there are only two kinds of people in the world: those who are loyal, and those who betray them. When their power falters, they immediately assume there is an international conspiracy against them; that people are secretly plotting their downfall, or employing the most astonishing technological advances to make them look bad.
You see this everywhere — in the United States, with President Donald Trump; in Mexico, with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (or AMLO, as he’s known); and in Bolivia, with former President Evo Morales.
When these leaders have felt threatened, they have often directed their anger at independent journalists. But Trump, AMLO and Morales have to remember one thing: media scrutiny is nothing personal; it’s the job of journalists to act as counterweights to those in power. In the age of the internet and social media, few governments have the power to completely control the flow of information among and between citizens. This means that now, more than ever, challenging those in power ought to be standard practice. Trump, AMLO and others of their ilk better get used to it.
All this reminds me of a recent interview that Evo Morales gave in Mexico City. Gerardo Lissardy, the BBC journalist conducting the interview, dared to challenge the former Bolivian president, and Morales was clearly uncomfortable with the questions: How would you define your current position? Would you call yourself president, former president, ousted president or someone granted political asylum? Would you agree that there were irregularities in the election of Oct. 20? Didn’t you make any mistakes? Why didn’t you go to Venezuela instead of Mexico? Do you expect to return to Bolivia on a specific date?
Instead of answering Lissardy’s questions, Morales chose to condemn and discredit him: “I wouldn’t want to think that you seem to be talking on behalf of the Bolivian right-wing,” he said, and later “ … Even if you were my ideological and political enemy, I would never want to see you dead,” and “ … You’re not conducting an interview, but an ideological debate.”
Then Morales made the deluded and laughable accusation that Lissardy was actually having his questions texted to him during the interview: “Someone is telling you what to ask. I know these kinds of journalists. They’re telling you what to ask.”
Lissardy, startled, then had to explain: “No, no one is telling me anything. My cellphone is in airplane mode. There is no connection. These are the questions I have written down here.”
Could Morales really think people wouldn’t have legitimate questions about his nearly 14 years in power? Did he really think, against all logic, that BBC editors in London were telling their colleague in Mexico what questions to ask, in an effort to make Morales look bad?
The president of México, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is a lot like Morales: He hates tough questions. When Spanish reporter Silvia Chocarro asked during a recent news conference if he would agree to “refrain from using stigmatizing language against journalists and journalism,” the president replied that he wanted to stigmatize corruption, not journalists, and that he has “respect for every person.” He neglected to mention the time he called reporters the “fifí press” (the “posh media”), or that time he denounced reporters he didn’t like as conservative, looking only for bad news and taking things out of context.
AMLO has also said of journalists: “They bite the hand that took off their muzzle.” He seems to have trouble understanding how many Mexicans have died, or how Mexico remains one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist, and the very serious concerns surrounding the recent appointment of the head of Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission. The primary task of journalists is to hold him accountable, not to support his “Fourth Transformation” project.
In any case, there is another president who has an even thinner skin in the face of media scrutiny. That would be Trump. Long a proponent of the notion of “fake news,” he applies the term to any information — or journalist — he doesn’t care for. His disputes with The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN, to mention just a few news outlets, have been epic. He apologizes for nothing. His self-image is divorced from reality: He describes nearly everything he does in bloated superlatives, and he himself as a “very stable genius.”
Someone like this, lacking even the slightest sense of humility or humor, will never accept questions from a journalist.
That’s why Neil Cavuto, a host at Fox News, sent a message to the U.S. president after he criticized Chris Wallace, one of Cavuto’s colleagues. Cavuto reminded Trump that journalists are not required to praise him. On the contrary, Cavuto said, they “are obligated to question you and always be fair to you … even if it risks inviting your wrath.”
Asking tough questions is what journalists do. It’s true that sometimes we may seem confrontational, or even to be part of the political opposition. But challenging the powerful is our job. It’s nothing personal. It’s too bad Morales, AMLO and Trump can’t understand that.