How Claudia Lopez Resigned from El Tiempo

Claudia Lopez’s last column for Colombia’s most prominent newspaper, El Tiempo, attacked the newspaper for its reporting on a corruption scandal, linking the newspaper’s coverage to the political interests of the family which controlled the newspaper. Her editors printed the column, then fired her. The newspaper’s major shareholder, Juan Manuel Santos, went on to win the presidential election.

In his column last week, Rudolf Hommes asked why some issues become scandals and others do not.

El Tiempo’s coverage of the the Agro Ingreso Seguro (AIS) scandal provides an opportunity to discuss the topic.

Unlike other publications, El Tiempo has not reported in depth on the AIS program, but rather on its political implications. This was a valid journalistic angle to pursue, since the newspaper’s colleagues at Cambio magazine had already done the legwork on the story. However, what El Tiempo actually produced was not so much coverage as a manufactured story which supported its own preferred interpretation of the political effects of the scandal.

The slanted story began with a poll question in a forum on the newspaper’s site, tiempo.com, followed by an article which discussed the forum’s response, and concluded with a supposed news analysis article. Forum members were asked whether [candidate Andres Felipe]Arias should resign over the AIS scandal. Of course, it never occurred to El Tiempo to ask its forum members whether Juan Manuel Santos should resign over the ‘false positives’ [extrajudicial murders by the army]scandal. But in the case of Arias, the question did occur. After the forum, the paper published an article entitled, “Anger at Andres F. Arias over the Agro Ingreso case among readers of eltiempo.com, writing that ‘most users demand that the ex minister end his candidacy,’ and that ‘very few defended Arias.’ After the specious forum and the news analysis, El Tiempo finished up with an article whose headline intoned: ‘Andres Felipe Arias Emerges Weakened, and Juan Manuel Santos Gains Strength After the AIS Scandal.’

It is clear that Arias has been weakened, but not clear at all that Santos ‘gains strength.’ El Tiempo assures us that Arias’ stumble ‘made Juan Manuel Santos a clear winner this week.’ Where does El Tiempo get the idea that the ground lost by Arias was gained by Santos? Did they take a poll? No but in place of a poll, the newspaper used its internet forum to ask the question, induce the desired response and from their construct its conclusions.

Although Arias is not competing with Santos in the Conservative primaries, but with Noemi [Sanin], the supposed analysis does not even mention that one of the possible winners after Arias’ slip is Noemi. In addition, the analysis invents an event to reinforce its argument. One of the reasons that Santos emerges stronger, the paper suggests, is that “the Conservatives have to go through a primary election to choose their candidate, while La U [former President Alvaro Uribe’s party]already has theirs: Santos.” La U has not chosen a presidential candidate. The only thing Santos has officially been offered in La U is the party presidency, not the party’s nod as its presidential candidate. La U is promoting the referendum which allows a second presidential term, and if it succeeds, the party will choose to re-run Uribe, and not Santos, as its presidential candidate. I imagine that these details would cloud the focus of the ‘analysis’ and for that reason they were left out.

“It would be difficult for Noemi to gain Uribe’s support, after she has accused him of ‘buying’ the referendum and threatened to ‘defeat’ him in the voting booth.” This sentence, practically copied from Santos’ speeches, tries to present as neutral and journalistic Santos’ position that he, in contrast to Neomi is no political traitor seeking to defeat Uribe. Anyone who knows a little of Santos’ career knows that changing sides has been a continuous feature of his political career, just like Noemi, and everyone knows that both are eager to succeed Uribe; only that Santos is trying to do it without appearing to be a traitor.

El Tiempo’s journalistic integrity is more and more compromised by the increasing conflict of interest between its commercial ambitions, (acquiring a TV channel) and its political ambitions (cover the government which is going to award the channel, along with covering the campaign of its own shareholder) and finally its journalistic interests. Slanted coverage like this does not help resolve the conflict; all it succeeds in doing is display it.

Editor’s Note: El Tiempo rejects Claudi Lopez’s allegations as false and slanderous. The newspaper’s management understands her attack on our journalistic work as a letter of resignation, which we accept effective immediately.

Claudia Lopez