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JOURNALISM IN THE AMERICAS Blog

Venezuelan journalist Boris Muñoz wins Cabot Prize and says Latin American journalism is living its best moment



To this day, after 30 plus years in a successful career, Venezuelan journalist Boris Muñoz still wonders if he should not have followed in his mother's footsteps and studied medicine. Inspired by his poet father, who was published in the Venezuelan press, he studied social communication. A wise decision, it turns out, as he was recognized this year by the Maria Moors Cabot Prize, announced in July.

Boris Muñoz: “The closure of our autonomous operations [of The New York Times en Español] will have a negative impact on the incipient conformation of a debate on a Latin American scale.” (Photo: Earl Wilson/The New York Times)

Prior to being an opinion editor for The New York Times en Español, Muñoz worked as an investigative journalist, cronista and columnist. He was a New York correspondent for El Nacional, of Venezuela, editor-in-chief of Nueva Sociedad magazine and editorial director of investigative journalism magazine Exceso.

In 2010, he was awarded a Nieman Foundation fellowship. Throughout his career, the journalist has written the books “La Ley de la Calle” (The Law of the Street) and “Despachos del Imperio” (Offices of the Empire), among others.

“As opinion editor for The New York Times en Español, Boris Muñoz has brought fresh, vibrant and diverse voices to its pages. Muñoz’ groundbreaking efforts have also resulted in the proliferation of Latin American views in the English-language daily,”  said the statement from the Columbia School of Journalism, which awards the Cabot Prize.

Two months later, however, Muñoz was taken aback by the newspaper’s decision to end the Spanish edition.

“However, there are new publications following the path we opened in The New York Times en Español. I hope that they, I mean the big media outlets with economic muscle and regional and global ambition, can continue with the challenging task of creating a truly Latin American public sphere,” Muñoz said.

The Knight Center spoke with Muñoz about his career and the current state of journalism in Latin America. Despite the financial crisis that has led several media outlets to close, the journalist is optimistic: “Latin American journalism is in one of its best moments. Despite the economic crisis of the big media as a result of the irruption of the internet, few times before had there been such a diverse and high-level journalism throughout the entire region,” he said.

The complete interview, done in Spanish and translated to English, continues below.

Knight Center: When and why did you decide to enter journalism?

Boris Muñoz: I will tell the short version of a long story. At 16, I wandered through the halls of the Central University of Venezuela (UCV, for its initials in Spanish), where my mother was a professor of histology in the Faculty of Medicine. I am a university student by birth, because I did all my studies, from pre-kindergarten to the journalism program, in schools that were part of the UCV. I never had doubts that I would do my undergraduate degree at UCV. The idea of ​​attending a private university never crossed my mind.

But at 16, when Venezuelan students must decide what program they will choose, I found myself faced with the dilemma of choosing the medical career, following the example of my mother, or of applying to writing following the path of my father, a fervent and inspired poet. My disillusioned mother warned me that if I studied letters I would starve and would be an intellectual in an anti-intellectual country, who saw its writers and artists, as dilettantes or lost bohemians who are good for nothing. But my dad wrote for the press and had friends who also did it and it was they who somehow shaped public conversation in the Venezuela of the 70s and 80s where I grew up. So to calm my mother's concerns about my ability to survive in the future and to do well by the memory of my father, who by then had already died, I opted for what would eventually be a path for myself. The entry form for the university offered three options in order of importance.

First I selected Medicine, second Social Communication and third Letters. It was like playing the lottery. I knew that my grade point average was not strong enough to enter medical school, although the children of employees and professors had the right to a place in the most competitive programs thanks to an internal agreement of the UCV. That is the story of my decision.

In the third year of the journalism program, I entered a transcendental boredom. It seemed like nonsense to be a journalist. It was, I suppose now, a small vocational crisis that I solved by taking classes as a auditor at the School of Letters. It was only there, when the humanist side of literature met the utilitarian side of journalism, that writing and being a journalist began to make sense to me. The intersection between journalism and literature that led me to the crónica, my favorite literary-journalistic form. Then I completed that intellectual and journalistic training guided by Susana Rotker and Tomás Eloy Martínez, two essential figures in my life. However, to this day, I wonder if it would not have been better to study medicine following the dictates of my mother. In fact, for a long time and until I realized that it was too late, I had the fantasy of leaving journalism to be a doctor.

KC: When you think of all the people you've interviewed and all the stories you've covered, which ones were the most interesting or from which did you learn the most?

It is a question that covers almost 30 years of career and thousands of pages of interviews, crónicas and reports. I have interviewed fascinating personalities that marked my adolescence and influenced me intellectually and literarily like Gabriel García Márquez, Umberto Eco and the poet Octavio Paz. My first student interview was the great Venezuelan poet Vicente Gerbasi. And I have fond memories of my interviews with many writers and thinkers.

But the stories that have interested me most were those of the marginalized and violent young people I interviewed for “La ley de la calle” (The Law of the Street), my first book. None had come of age and already had several murders to their name. I don’t forget an 11- or 12-year-old boy who had committed four murders. Knowing what was behind the violent life of these young people marked my career. I was 25 when I understood that journalism could also provide many elements to understand an opaque reality such as that of the traumatic experiences of those boys whose biographies shared common denominators: poverty, intrafamily and social violence, lack of attention, education and love in broken homes. It had not been two years of the interviews and many of them had already died because of their lifestyle always on the edge of law and of death, in a very marginal environment that anticipated today's apocalyptic Venezuela.

In the years I covered Chavismo in Venezuela, I did many interviews with Chávez followers who were very interesting for the almost religious fascination that they showed for Chávez and that in almost all cases depended on some type of favor or promise that tied them to the leader. I realized that the strength of populism lies in a symbolic pact between a leader who promises a utopian dream and a population that gives its will and individual autonomy seduced by that fantasy.

At Chávez's funeral, I met a very poor woman who confessed to being Chávez's lover. She had allegedly married him in secret and had a secret relationship for years. Chávez, she said, had given her a huge heart of roses at her wedding. She even told of supposed erotic escapades; they had spent the honeymoon in a stilt house on Lake Maracaibo. I could never corroborate this story, but the woman seemed to be in a kind of rapture or divine trance. Upon reaching the coffin, she fell down on the glass that protected Chávez's body and promised him eternal love. It is, of course, a Faustian pact because in the end the material progress of the people in populism is usually limited and the price paid is the total destruction of civility and the common good. At least that has happened in Venezuela. In that sense, reporting on Chavismo has been a great school to understand a world that seems to have fallen under the populist spell.

KC: What is the most interesting story you have edited or written lately?

BM: Working with authors to shape their stories (in many cases they are opinions but also narrations) has given me enormous satisfaction and I cannot single one out without feeling terribly unfair. They are not my stories, but those of the authors, many of them old or recent friends with whom I have had the great pleasure of exchanging ideas and sometimes working side by side. However, I dare to say that, to a greater or lesser degree, in some or many of those articles, there is some of my own interests and passions. Among hundreds I choose only a handful:

Regarding me, I have written just a little lately, but I’ll be back soon.

KC: What is the most important story in the Americas today?

BM: The Venezuelan apocalypse. Because of its depth, extension and radioactive effect. Second, even if it is a problem of multiple and enormous consequences, the political madness in countries such as the United States and Brazil, where a morally corrupt right has taken power and does not seem to intend to leave without altering the institutional order to perpetuate itself and continue destroying democracy. After that there are many other fascinating stories that need to be told: the migrations from the northern triangle, the precarious peace of Colombia, the future of the Amazon, the devastating influence of political, economic corruption and organized crime. And the stories of ordinary people, those of beauty and Latin American ingenuity. And it is because of all these stories that are waiting to be told that journalism must always be awake.

KC: What was the worst mistake you made in your career and what lesson did you learn from it?

BM: It would be silly and a lie to say that I have not made mistakes. But the worst thing a journalist can do is believe that he knows something definitively. I don't write down the mistakes I make in a notebook, but I learned a lot from the first mistake I made. My first job, professionally speaking, was as a writer in the supplement Letra G of the newspaper El Globo, in Caracas in the early 90’s. Once I went to do a trivial crónica about a group of politicians of different parties that met every Saturday to play bolas criollas. I could never know if I was a victim of manipulation or simply committed a gaffe, but I wrote in my notebook that a former minister who was part of the group had debts with the judiciary. The day after the article was published, the man appeared in the newsroom demanding immediate correction of that error. Luckily, it didn't cost me the job. Ewald Scharfenberg, my then boss and winner of a 2019 Cabot mention [for Armando.info], apologized for my mistake and published a brief correction.

The incident did not go further, but made me understand that the verification of data along with good investigation and an attractive and well-thought out presentation of information are the backbone of journalism. Journalism is a dangerous trade and is besieged at all times by errors of all kinds. There is no definitive moral of this story, but there is a lesson: precision must be cultivated with an obsessive commitment. As Ryzsard Kapuściński said: "a cynic wouldn’t suit this profession." And I would add: only the paranoid survive.

KC: In recent years, the state of the media in Venezuela has become increasingly challenging. What is your vision for the near future of journalism in your home country?

“That journalism without fear and without too many ties to power will be essential in the reconstruction of Venezuela,” said Boris Muñoz, the winner of the 2019 Maria Moors Cabot Prize. (Photo: Bruno Muñoz)

BM: It's hard to be optimistic when talking about Venezuela. But journalism is one of the fields that seems most promising. The balance of the media war during the first 15 years of Chavismo was the almost total destruction of the media ecosystem that had been created in the twentieth century, including major newspapers, major television channels and the radio channels with the most penetration (although some still exist, they are not the shadow of what they were). But in the last decade a new generation of media has emerged, mutations resulting from digital possibilities in connection with the dynamics of all kinds created by Chavismo. The most interesting is seen in sites such as Armando.info, Efecto Cocuyo, Prodavinci, Runrunes, La Vida de Nos, which explore a diversity of genres and technical resources of current journalism that range from investigative and data journalism, to testimony, the crónica and micro blogging on social networks.

In that sense, I have high hopes for the future of Venezuelan journalism. Those who will bring it forward come from generations that have fought against the most brutal obstacles, including the destruction of public space, official censorship and self-censorship, disinformation, false news, economic debacle and political persecution. We can then talk about a new Venezuelan journalism. That journalism without fear and without too many ties to power will be essential in the reconstruction of Venezuela.

KC: Your work in The New York Times en Español was highlighted by the awards jury. How do you feel about the decision to close the publication?

BM: Obviously it has been a surprising and very hard blow for those of us doing The New York Times en Español. The closure of our autonomous operations will have a negative impact on the incipient conformation of a debate on a Latin American scale of national and regional problems. For three years we made a sustained effort to raise the level of conversation with demanding coverage and perspectives that would help cut through the noise of our troubled countries. Now that effort has been truncated. However, there are new publications following the path we opened in The New York Times en Español.

I hope that they, I mean the big media outlets with economic muscle and regional and global ambition, can continue with the challenging task of creating a truly Latin American public sphere. For that they must first become fully aware that Latin American journalism is in one of its best moments. Despite the economic crisis of the big media as a result of the irruption of the internet, few times before had there been such a diverse and high-level journalism in the entire region. This diversity is a source from which the media with regional breadth must be fed to broaden the impact and resonance of their coverage. I offer a key product of the experience: combining the knowledge and high standards of international quality journalism with the great talent of Spanish-speaking journalists.

KC: What does receiving this award mean to you?

BM: I quote Nicanor Parra, the wise poet:

“Awards are

like the Dulcineas del Toboso

The more we think of them

the more distant

         the more dull

                    the more enigmatic

Awards are for the free spirits

And the friends of the jury.”

But the Maria Moors Cabot Prize has fallen on me and I receive it with humility on behalf of the team that forged the New York Times en Español for three years and seven months. The Cabot feeds the tradition of rewarding top-level journalists, who have largely defined the tone, height and scope of the debates in which they participated and participate in their respective countries and beyond national borders. It is an award that recognizes the effort to defend press freedom, democracy and inter-American understanding. For me it is obviously a great honor to be part of the lineage that Venezuelans I greatly admire represent, such as Teodoro Petkoff, Monsignor Jesús María Pellín and Ramón J. Velásquez. Or intellectuals and journalists such as Mario Vargas Llosa, Carmen Aristegui, Gustavo Gorriti, Ginger Thompson, Jorge Ramos, and close friends of mine like Martín Caparrós, Carlos Dada and Jon Lee Anderson, three masters of journalism today. Can you aspire to better company?



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