Newly elected Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes is not your typical politico; after all, he made a name for himself as a war reporter and television journalist. Writer Roger Atwood says that it was Funes’ media experience that gave him the edge.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. El Salvador elected FMLN candidate Mauricio Funes to be the country’s next president this month, a notable victory for a couple of reasons. It was the first time the FMLN, the party of former leftist guerillas, outpolled the right-leaning ARENA Party since the end of the civil war in 1992. And Funes, unlike most politicians in El Salvador, didn't fight in the civil war. He covered it, as a reporter. Writer Roger Atwood, an author who reported on the election from San Salvador for Mother Jones, says Funes built his reputation as an intrepid reporter.
ROGER ATWOOD: He began his career as a reporter during the civil war here in El Salvador in the late 1980s. He worked for a couple of local television broadcasters and then for CNN Espanol right at the end of the war. And he was very good at getting interviews with guerilla commanders and, you know, knowing about their plans on the ground.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Didn't that relationship cast a shadow on him that perhaps he might be a collaborator?
ROGER ATWOOD: No, I think he did keep his independence and standards of impartiality. There were a lot of journalists who covered the civil war who weren't really able to make the transitions from war reporters to post-war investigative reporters covering other things, and he actually did that very well in his own programs after the war.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: His show was called, in English, Without Censorship.
ROGER ATWOOD: Yeah, Uncensored or Sin Censura. And he had a few programs, but that was one of his best-known programs, and that was one of the programs where he did some of his real investigative work. And he would cover things, like he'd go out into the countryside and interview a, like a community of battered women, for example, or cover things like, you know, child abuse. He was covering stories that Salvadoran reporters really weren't covering very much, about poverty and the real effects of underdevelopment on people’s lives. But he was also a very good interviewer. He was a very incisive interviewer. He actually got this very well-known - a businessman, basically to admit on the air that he had not paid taxes, or was a tax delinquent. That businessman then later had to leave the country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So this guy seems to be the quintessential journalist. Here, that wouldn't get you elected dogcatcher. How come it works over there?
ROGER ATWOOD: I think in the United States there’s been this kind of erosion of the credibility of journalism, and polls show that it’s really down in the dumps in terms of its public credibility. But that’s not really the case in Latin America. Here in Latin America, investigative journalism is really getting going, and there’s a long history of governments being brought down, in fact, in part by good investigative reporting by journalists in Argentina, in Peru, under Fujimori, in Brazil. And I think to some extent that’s what’s happening here. I mean, you know, he was very good in the years after the war at exposing corruption, and his reports really raised the kind of profile of investigative reporting and showed the possibilities of it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He isn't just a journalist, though. He’s also a very savvy media guy, and that was apparently clear throughout his candidacy.
ROGER ATWOOD: Yeah, he was. He was very much involved in the FMLN’s media campaign and developing their commercials. There was one out, I thought, really a very effective ad, that started out saying, in the United States, voters overcame the dirty campaign against Obama - that Obama was a terrorist, that Obama was a Muslim, that Obama was this, Obama was that - and now we can do the same thing in El Salvador. And the words, “Yes, we can” in English appeared. And then they would interview Salvadorans standing on the National Mall in Washington with the Capitol in the background, saying, yes, here in the United States we overcame those fears, and now our brothers and sisters back in El Salvador can do the same thing. And then you'd see again the smiling face of Obama, and then it would dissolve and you'd see the smiling face of Mauricio Funes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Funnily enough, much of the entrenched mainstream media in Salvador don't like him much, do they?
ROGER ATWOOD: Most of the establishment media here in El Salvador are kind of right-tilting, so it’s taken a while, I think, for the media to kind of accept him as a candidate here. But, you know, Funes does have a really great delivery. When they interview him on the air, when they show him at rallies, he really does light up the screen the way that his opponent hasn't, wasn't really able to do. There was a big debate over here about whether there was going to be a presidential debate between the two candidates, and Rodrigo Avila, the candidate for the ARENA, refused to debate Funes, I think quite wisely, because he realized that Funes, with his television experience, would really [LAUGHS] show up his opponent on the air.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You've written that Funes’ election marks the true end of the civil war. Was this a revolution through media?
ROGER ATWOOD: It was a revolution through lots of things, and I think it had a lot to do with Funes’ prestige and the credibility that he'd gather through his various television programs. He has shown the power of a kind of subversive [LAUGHS] way of going about the media and using free speech and free press, which are basically in charge here in El Salvador, and use those, along with the democratic political system, to create a new order.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Roger, thank you very much.
ROGER ATWOOD: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Roger Atwood is the author of Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers and the Looting of the Ancient World, and has been covering the Salvadoran elections for Mother Jones.