Cover image for The Fourth Enemy: Journalism and Power in the Making of Peronist Argentina, 1930–1955 By James Cane

The Fourth Enemy

Journalism and Power in the Making of Peronist Argentina, 1930–1955

James Cane

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$82.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-04876-5

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ISBN: 978-0-271-04877-2

328 pages
6" × 9"
14 b&w illustrations
2011

The Fourth Enemy

Journalism and Power in the Making of Peronist Argentina, 1930–1955

James Cane

“Rather than simply using newspapers as a window onto public opinion, James Cane’s book does something far more intriguing. It explores how the very notion of ‘the press’ became an object of political contestation in mid-twentieth-century Argentina and, in so doing, forces us to reconsider familiar debates over freedom of expression and state censorship. This fascinating historical study provides the basis for a deeper understanding of present-day controversies over populism and media regulation in Latin America.”

 

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The rise of Juan Perón to power in Argentina in the 1940s is one of the most studied subjects in Argentine history. But no book before this has examined the role the Peronists’ struggle with the major commercial newspaper media played in the movement’s evolution, or what the resulting transformation of this industry meant for the normative and practical redefinition of the relationships among state, press, and public. In The Fourth Enemy, James Cane traces the violent confrontations, backroom deals, and legal actions that allowed Juan Domingo Perón to convert Latin America’s most vibrant commercial newspaper industry into the region’s largest state-dominated media empire. An interdisciplinary study drawing from labor history, communication studies, and the history of ideas, this book shows how decades-old conflicts within the newspaper industry helped shape not just the social crises from which Peronism emerged, but the very nature of the Peronist experiment as well.
“Rather than simply using newspapers as a window onto public opinion, James Cane’s book does something far more intriguing. It explores how the very notion of ‘the press’ became an object of political contestation in mid-twentieth-century Argentina and, in so doing, forces us to reconsider familiar debates over freedom of expression and state censorship. This fascinating historical study provides the basis for a deeper understanding of present-day controversies over populism and media regulation in Latin America.”
“In this book, James Cane examines one of the most controversial aspects of Juan Perón’s government in the 1940s and 1950s: his control of the press. Perón’s strategy, Cane convincingly argues, was actually the culmination of political practices initiated in the 1930s and of a process triggered by the modernization of the printed press. This is a significant contribution to Argentine cultural and political history.”

James Cane is Associate Professor of Latin American History at the University of Oklahoma.

Contents

List of Illustrations

Preface and Acknowledgments

Abbreviations

Introduction: From Fourth Estate to Fourth Enemy

Part 1

1 The Fourth Estate

2 Journalism and Power in the Impossible Republic

Part 2

3 The Triumph of Silence

4 Journalism as Labor Power

5 Scenes from the Press Wars

Part 3

6 The Die Is Cast

7 The Fourth Enemy

Conclusion: Journalism and Power in the New Argentina

Notes

Bibliography

Index

Introduction

From Fourth Estate to Fourth Enemy

The history of the Argentine people is the history of their liberties. The history of Argentine liberties is the history of the national press.

La Prensa, November 11, 1943

When Juan Domingo Perón announced his new government’s economic agenda from the stage of the Teatro Colón, the working men and women sitting in the posh seats of the famed Buenos Aires opera house could not miss the symbolic importance of the act. Not only was the Argentine president directly addressing Argentine workers “as compañero to compañero,” he was doing so from the cultural bastion of a national elite in clear retreat. Declaring his government “an extension of the working class in the Government House,” Perón warned the audience that their newfound political power stood imperiled by a host of serious enemies. As he listed these enemies, the audience erupted in acclamation at mention of the fourth: the press. In the midst of the sweeping social transformation underway, at that March 1947 meeting the once powerful “fourth estate” of the old order formally became the besieged “fourth enemy” of the Peronist “New Argentina.”

If those involved in the events of that evening grasped the inversion of the social hierarchy implicit in the workers’ symbolic occupation of the cultural sanctum of the oligarchy, they also understood that in decrying la prensa—the press in general—Perón was, in fact, railing against a specific newspaper: La Prensa, Latin America’s most powerful commercial daily. Only the collective refusal of Argentine workers to buy or advertise in the paper, Perón insisted, could halt its repeated “lies” and continuous “betrayal” of the national interest. Even as he spoke, government employees were already hard at work to drive home the severity of the threat posed by this “fourth enemy,” as well as to remove any doubt as to precisely which member of the press stood as the greatest menace. When the crowd poured out of the Teatro Colón and into the streets, they found the walls of downtown Buenos Aires freshly plastered with transcripts of the latest government radio commentary denouncing La Prensa as fundamentally anti-Argentine as well as ideologically, culturally, politically, and economically beholden to foreign interests.

The boycott had little impact, despite Perón’s personal appeal. Still, tensions between the owners of La Prensa and the Peronist movement grew to fever pitch, while Argentines became yet more polarized and the economic situation of the press as a whole rapidly deteriorated. Finally, nearly four years after the Teatro Colón meeting, Peronist news vendors mounted a total strike against the paper. When one newsworker died and fourteen were wounded in the ensuing violence, the minister of the interior intervened, formally declaring La Prensa’s closure. Police and congressional investigations began as the paper’s owner fled to Uruguay. In April 1951, the Argentine Congress invoked a constitutional provision that empowered the body to seize private property of public interest. Immediately, La Prensa and all of its productive infrastructure passed into the hands of the executive power, to be used “in the general interest and social perfection of the Argentine people.”

During the May Day celebrations two weeks later, Perón presented the union leaders who had organized the Teatro Colón gathering with the ultimate trophy: the newly expropriated La Prensa. A startlingly different newspaper soon hit the streets. Now property of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT)—the core of the Peronist movement—the new La Prensa had “ceased to be the capitalist instrument of a small group of proprietors to become the patriotic dominion of five million Argentine workers.” Just as the workers had occupied the space of elite culture on the night of March 7, 1947, they now ostensibly controlled what only months before had been the most powerful voice of that elite within the Argentine public sphere. From the Peronists’ “fourth enemy,” La Prensa had become, in the words of Perón himself, the “symbol of the New Press of the New Argentina.”

Peronism and the Transformation of the Argentine Press

The expropriation of the newspaper produced shock waves felt well beyond Argentina. Yet, as momentous as the Peronist seizure of La Prensa proved in itself, it also marked the culmination of an even more dramatic transformation of the entire Argentine newspaper industry. With the addition of the morning paper, Perón and his associates now controlled eight newspapers in the city of Buenos Aires alone, including what had been not just Argentina’s, but Latin America’s, five largest dailies at the time of Perón’s election in February 1946. Through a series of violent confrontations, backroom deals, economic pressures, and legal actions between 1946 and 1951, Juan Domingo Perón had managed to fashion the vast majority of one of the world’s more extensive and developed newspaper industries into an enormous quasi-state media empire.

The present study traces this unparalleled transformation of the Argentine press from the crises of the 1930s to the height and dissolution of the region’s archetypal populist experiment in the mid-1950s. This book is as much a history of the disputes that permeated the Argentine commercial press in the years 1930 to 1955 as it is a study of a key aspect of the growth and consolidation of Peronism as the focal point of Argentine political life. It is the story of the nation’s major newspaper institutions, their proprietors, and the newsworkers who daily created the media in the midst of a series of often debilitating ideological, economic, and political crises. At the same time, it is an account of the conflict-ridden emergence of the Argentine military, Juan Domingo Perón, and the urban working class as the major protagonists of a social transformation more profound than even its architects imagined.

The press conflicts of these years have largely escaped careful scrutiny by scholars of modern Argentina, despite the wealth of literature on Argentine populism and the great significance that Peronists themselves placed on control of the press. Though passing reference to conflicts with La Prensa are frequent in histories of Peronism, modern Argentina, and Latin American journalism, scholars have tended to overlook the experiences of other major Argentine newspapers and have left the narrative put forth in the wake of Perón’s overthrow in 1955 largely unchallenged. In this view, the history of the press in the Peronist years has become little more than a manifestation of Juan Domingo Perón’s authoritarian, unerring, relatively effortless, and perhaps inevitable subjugation of the whole range of institutions of Argentine civil society. In turn, those who have more directly engaged the question of populism and the Argentine media, as well as those scholars with a more nuanced understanding of Peronism’s complexity, have either left the specific process by which Peronists came to control the commercial press underexplored or strayed little from that same interpretive framework. For scholars of Peronism, then, the evolution of the movement’s relationship with the press has tended to serve primarily as an illustrative anecdote that has little to do with the historical development of the Argentine press and everything to do with the widening sphere of Peronist power; scholars of the media—far fewer in number—have tended to view the Peronist transformation of the press essentially as an aberration imposed from without, a sudden authoritarian intromission into the otherwise progressive development of an internally coherent, autonomous press.

Without doubt, the history of the Argentine press in the Peronist years is inseparable from the authoritarian tendencies of Perón, Eva Perón, and sectors of the Peronist movement. The military regime from which Perón emerged systematically silenced sectors of the press through strict censorship, the detention of journalists, and the withholding of government advertising. On several occasions, Peronist crowds violently attacked newspapers like La Prensa, Crítica, and El Mundo—most notably on the evening of October 17–18, 1945, the very night that gave birth to Peronism proper. Later, while eschewing overt censorship, the democratically elected Peronist government seized control of newsprint distribution and used bureaucratic measures to pressure the opposition press. State-run and sympathetic media mounted relentless propaganda campaigns to discredit opposing media. Even the decisive conflict between news vendors and the owners of La Prensa received open encouragement not just from broad sectors of the Peronist movement, but from President Perón and Eva Perón themselves. Finally, the practical consequences of the Peronist transformation of the press bore little resemblance to the rhetoric invoked for that transformation: it neither democratized the Argentine public sphere, nor did it create a newspaper industry that effectively served as a vehicle for the exercise of working-class citizenship. As Cristián Buchrucker has signaled, for all their differences, Perón’s creation of a large propaganda apparatus stands as one of the more striking similarities between Peronism and the European fascisms.

To ascribe the dramatic transformation of the Argentine press in the years 1946 to 1951 solely to Peronist authoritarianism, however, leaves several crucial questions unanswered and many of the specific moments of what was in fact a complex set of conflicts difficult to comprehend. Given the great power that Perón wielded and the enormous popular support he enjoyed, why did the process take so long? Why did Perón and his associates opt for the creation of a private media holding company, Editorial ALEA, to run much of the commercial press, rather than simply closing or nationalizing opposition papers? Why did many newsworkers endorse specific actions that set the stage for the transformation of the newspaper industry, and why did many journalists join the ranks of Peronism? If “the press” was under threat, what prevented commercial newspaper proprietors from forming a common front against first the military and then the Peronist governments? Why did Peronists put such intense and prolonged effort into articulating a coherent discourse of journalism and the press when, on the one hand, they had little hope of convincing the opposition of the validity of government press policies, and, on the other, Perón loyalists ostensibly needed no such persuasion? Finally, what does the nature of the multiple disputes surrounding the press—and even the fact of their existence—tell us about the ideological climate, the bases of press legitimacy, and the character of political conflict in mid-twentieth-century Argentina?

The approach to these questions that I adopt here owes much to the origins of this study and the particular path that this project took. Few books spring fully formed, like Minerva, from the foreheads of their authors; the present study is not one of these. This book began as an investigation of Argentine political ideology in the wake of the military coup of September 1930, the country’s first unequivocal interruption of constitutional rule in the twentieth century. Like many other scholars, I turned to the press as both mirror and repository of a fairly broad segment of opinion and as a window into political, cultural, and social history. Yet, as I examined the concrete manifestations of press discourses around particular themes, it quickly became clear that the proper role of journalism and the press was one of the more contentious issues of that decade. This was due, in no small measure, to the way that the conflict over the social role of journalism lent concrete expression to more fundamental issues regarding the distribution of power in Argentine society, the meanings of democracy, the shifting nature of citizenship, and the reworking of the boundaries between state and civil society and between public and private. Relatedly, actual control over the commercial press also became crucial in gaining influence in these and other political disputes, as newspapers grew in importance as vehicles of public mobilization with the severe crisis of the Argentine party system in the 1930s. Simply put, the press was more than a focal point of conflict for the duration of the decade; it was also a site at which a whole range of ideological, political, cultural, and class struggles intersected in tangible ways.

Nonetheless, the conflicts surrounding the press in the 1930s that first drew my attention had not only failed to reach even tentative resolution by the beginning of Perón’s ascent in 1943, but they escalated with ever-increasing urgency with the Peronist transformation of Argentine society. Like many other historians of Argentina, I was pulled by the sheer gravity of the Peronist era—reluctantly at first, enthusiastically later—into its orbit. When I turned my attention to the press conflicts of the Perón years, however, I did so with the great advantage of having already seen the opening of multiple fissures in the Argentine newspaper industry over the course of the previous decades. In fact, it is the particular form of the Peronist engagement with these gestating conflicts that not only shaped the fate of the commercial press in the years 1946 to 1955, but constituted an important component of Peronism’s rapid evolution into the nation’s dominant political force.

In placing the battles surrounding the newspaper industry in Peronist Argentina within the greater trajectory of Argentine journalism history, then, I am responding less to a search for origins than to a recognition of what this approach reveals about the commercial press, Peronism, and mid-twentieth-century Argentina. The story of the transformation of the Argentine press between 1946 and 1955 emerges in its full complexity only when considered not merely as a consequence of the rise of Peronism or as an aspect of the Peronist experience, but also as a moment in the longer historical development of the Argentine press. Examining the Argentine press within the whirlwind of Peronism’s emergence makes apparent the complexity of the newspaper industry’s internal tensions, the intricacy of its interactions with other aspects of Argentine life, and the ambiguity of its ideological bases. The conflicts of the Peronist era, in effect, reveal “the press” not as a static, unified, and monolithic entity, but as an internally divided array of institutions and a historically fluid set of less formal social relationships.

Similarly, these struggles belie any conception of Peronism as a singular movement responding to the preconceived designs of its founder and leader. A clearer understanding of the social history of Argentine journalism casts new light on the ways in which the heterogeneous ideological, political, social, and economic components of a frequently improvised and contentious political practice evolved in tense interaction not just with each other, but with the surprisingly resilient residual elements of liberal Argentina. To paraphrase The Eighteenth Brumaire, the protagonists of this story made their own history, but they did not make it as they pleased; they did so within the confines and opportunities inherited from deeply rooted historical circumstances. The story of journalism in this period illuminates the degree to which Perón and his followers built the “New Argentina”—and the Peronist movement itself—from the ideological and institutional debris of an old order that had begun to crumble from its own internal fissures more than a decade earlier, but whose definitive collapse remained stubbornly elusive.

Journalism and Power

In an initial impassioned plea and through his subsequent scholarship, David Paul Nord has long urged his more methodologically conservative colleagues to recognize that the “fundamental purpose of mass communication, and especially journalism, is the exercise of power.” Yet it is also clear that the discursive and textual practices of twentieth-century journalism can become socially meaningful only in relation to the productive infrastructure and distributive capacity of media institutions. As the media conflicts of mid-twentieth-century Argentina demonstrate, struggles for hegemony are over not only the mobilizing potential of ideas, but control of the material and institutional means necessary to forge the level of social consensus that hegemony entails. Underpinning this study of the specific conflicts surrounding journalism and the press in a decisive period of modern Argentine history are a more fundamental set of concerns and a more ambitious agenda: in the broadest sense, this book is an attempt to trace concretely the dialectical relationship between contests for the exercise of power and the institutions of civil society—that is, between struggles for hegemony and battles for control of the instruments through which hegemonic power is established, defended, contested, and perpetually reshaped.

The importance of print media in Argentine daily life and their centrality for the fashioning of multiple forms of power also ensured that newspaper institutions would emerge as major battlegrounds—often literally—in the political, ideological, and cultural conflicts of the Peronist years. The Argentine capital in the mid–twentieth century was a world in which the media’s permeation of everyday life was not only well underway, but increasingly rapid. Both urgent and ubiquitous, newspapers formed an integral part of the urban landscape, adorning the hands of pedestrians, job seekers, and subway and streetcar riders. At once symbols of the city’s cosmopolitan character and catalysts for the nation’s economic modernization, newspapers were also ephemeral. Discarded and disintegrating, dirty and crumpled on the city streets, by late afternoon the morning papers had already ceded their place to the evening dailies to assume a different role in the urban landscape as commonplace markers of the accelerating pace of modern life.

Though the growth of the press in the city of Buenos Aires overshadows that in the cities and towns of the Argentine interior, newspapers became an important part of daily life for Argentines across the nation. Between the mid-1880s and the 1930s the Argentine public ranked near the top in world per capita newspaper consumption. As a result, the press played an increasingly important role in shaping both the mundane and extraordinary lived experience of what Beatriz Sarlo has aptly called Argentina’s “peripheral modernity.” In the pages of popular dailies like Crítica and Noticias Gráficas, global culture, politics, and sports intersected with local concerns, while the divisions blurred between world and national events, public and private lives. Even the ritual of purchasing a newspaper, performed by few peoples anywhere more often than by Argentines, not only helped mark the rhythms of everyday life in the Argentine capital, it helped mold readers’ collective and individual cultural, political, ethnic, gender, and class identities.

More explicitly and insistently than most other commodities, newspapers served as an instrument for the creation of meaning and hierarchy regarding broad swaths of social, political, and cultural life. Indeed, the heterogeneity of newspaper content and the ubiquity of newspapers made the press a meaning-creating link between the minutiae of everyday life, the shifting events of city, nation, and world, and the abstract, universalizing expressions of the dominant ideology. This crucial role in the creation of meaning for such large sectors of the population makes the press an essential element of the shifting “structure of feeling” in modern Argentina; or, as James Carey has stated more emphatically, “journalism not only reveals the structure of feeling of previous eras, it is the structure of feeling of past eras, or at least significant portions of it.”

While Argentina did boast a vibrant partisan press in the first decades of the century, between 1880 and 1920 partisan proprietor-journalists largely gave way to politically and economically independent newspaper entrepreneurs tied not to specific political factions, but to the market. The size and diversity of the Argentine newspaper market facilitated an enormous degree of economic independence for the nation’s press, with the owners of even medium-sized newspapers capable of maintaining themselves beholden primarily to the reading public and private advertisers rather than to state institutions and explicit forms of political power. Directors of the large commercial newspapers still regularly placed their papers’ weight behind specific political figures, parties, and programs. Yet these endorsements were largely tactical alliances to be discarded at will, manifestations of the political convictions of autonomous newspaper proprietors, or commercial strategies directed at gaining the readership of a particular market segment. Thus, while media scholar Silvio Waisbord’s assertion that “the [South American] press never attained independence from the state, and for the most part did not try to become separate” may hold true for much of the continent, the commercial press of Argentina—and, in particular, that of the Argentine capital—marks a clear and important exception. Indeed, it is the progressive erosion of this autonomy and the corresponding formation of a more direct relationship between the power of the press and that of the state—an extremely contentious, two-decade process—that forms the basis for the multiple conflicts that I examine here.

The twentieth-century Argentine commercial press thus formed part of an array of institutions whose effectiveness as bulwark of the long-term vitality of the social and political order rested on its relative autonomy from state power proper. This distance from state power proper allowed for the fragmented presence of antisystemic political and cultural discourses within the popular press, giving voice to dissident intellectuals and articulating the interests of broad sectors of the Argentine public in more immediate ways than their formal political representatives. Often while at its most confrontational with regard to state power, the commercial press helped create the kind of pluralistic—even chaotic—public sphere that seemed to confirm rather than undermine the realization of liberalism’s egalitarian promise of universal citizenship. As an integral component of the broader Argentine social order, the press served as a crucial forum for the articulation of normative aspects of what remained powerful ideological precepts (for example, “democracy” in the abstract) as well as their practical implications (what “democracy” meant in concrete practice). On a daily basis and usually in the most mundane ways, the commercial press of mid-twentieth-century Argentina thus repeatedly served to generate consent around the dominant ideology as “common sense” and the larger social order as “natural,” while at the same time giving voice to contestation in ways that generally tended to regenerate, rather than weaken, the legitimacy of the social order. As a “fourth (e)state” (cuarto estado) beyond the state, Argentine newspapers formed “part of a process by which a world-view compatible with the existing structure of power in society is reproduced, a process which is decentralized, open to contradiction and conflict, but generally very effective.”

At the same time, the growing reading market that allowed for this relative autonomy from explicit forms of political power also fostered the emergence of newspapers as important economic entities by the 1920s, employing large numbers of journalists, graphic artists, and vendors, consuming productive inputs like newsprint and technologically advanced presses, and mediating between a broad range of producers and Argentine consumers. Just as journalism as a practice of power gains broad social significance through media institutions, media institutions themselves could not exist without newsworkers. To limit any understanding of the twentieth-century press to that of cultural institution, or to reduce newspapers to shapers of ideology and conduits for the exercise of power, is to overlook a fundamental aspect of the social reality of the modern media: the twentieth-century press is as much industry as it is culture. Not only do newspapers help produce social meaning, but people produce newspapers, through processes that involve tools, raw materials, and, from the 1880s onward, an increasingly elaborate division of labor.

Rather than simple instruments of power within the broad array of social contests, the institutions of the twentieth-century Argentine press constituted a commercial newspaper industry. As such, they were riddled not just with the tensions between the cultural/ideological and economic/productive practices of the modern press, but with the more profound struggles inherent in industrial relations of production. If, as Nord argues, the purpose of journalism “is the exercise of power,” this power is not wielded by disembodied journalists through institutions above the social order, but by real people embedded in the real social conflicts of institutions themselves embedded in the broader social order. The tumultuous history of the press in Peronist Argentina is thus one of struggles not only for control of the instruments necessary for the socially meaningful exercise of journalism’s ideological and cultural power, but within a set of institutions permeated by the more far-reaching social conflicts of modern Argentina.

Peronism and Journalism History

To examine at once the Argentine commercial press and Peronism, then, is to engage two “total” phenomena: the first, a set of fluid and internally fragmented cultural, political, and economic institutions that by the 1920s formed an integral part of the rhythms of urban life; the other, a movement inaugurating changes so dramatic as to reshape Argentina for the remainder of the century. As I show here, the Peronist relationship with the Argentine press was not a direct confrontation between two powerful historical agents, nor did it develop in linear fashion. Instead, it proceeded as an accumulation of multiple and often indirect disputes concerning the relative balance of power between newsworkers and newspaper proprietors, between individual newspaper owners, between public and press, and between state and press. It is in the course of a whole range of specific struggles like these, played out across the spectrum of Argentine society, that Peronism emerged and Peronists and non-Peronists alike forged their claims to hold the reins of power in the nation’s political, cultural, and economic institutions. It is also the convergence of these many disputes and their contingent resolutions that constitutes the sweeping transformations of the Peronist era.

The approach to journalism history that I adopt here is a pragmatic response to a surprisingly complex object of study. While historians have long relied upon newspapers as important sources for the study of the past, we have only begun to move beyond our tendency to accept them either as reflections of popular sentiment—while wrestling with the slippery question of audience reception—or as vehicles solely of elite opinion. Too many media scholars, in turn, accept a historically static view of the press, anthropomorphizing “the press” as a coherent collective agent while reifying the ideological underpinnings of the newspaper industry—even though the specific, practical meanings of the latter are often the fiercely contested terrain of press-related conflicts. As a result, contemporary (often North American) norms frequently serve as a de facto transhistorical yardstick in media studies, bringing researchers to see ideologically charged notions like “freedom of the press” not as the contingent products of social contests, but as concrete and stable, existing or lacking in any given time and place, at once beyond history and capable of being born, dying, and even rising from the dead.

The wide-ranging nature of the debates as well as the depth and complexity of the conflicts examined in this book caution against these approaches. In fact, these struggles bring to the fore the historically changing character of our own understanding of what, in fact, “the press” is. In his history of violence against the press in the United States, media scholar John Nerone offers a far more useful conception of what we study when we study the press. Nerone describes the press not as a static entity, but as a multifaceted “network of relationships,” and sees violence directed against press institutions as part of episodic struggles over precisely what this network entails. We can go further: disputes over the press are limited neither to moments of violent confrontation nor to periods of heated public debate. Instead, these mark points of inflection in the unceasing process of reproducing this network of relationships and readjusting the relative power held by the myriad parties involved.

Rather than fundamentally stable, then, the descriptive understanding and normative nature of the press—that is, what the press is and what the press should be, respectively—are contingent elements of a whole range of disputes in a network of relationships no more static than any other set of relationships in capitalist societies. Changes in the status of newspapers as commodities, the relative importance of commercial display and classified advertising, the complexity of newsroom relations of production, press jurisprudence, and the nature of the reading public all send ripples throughout the press’s entire network of relationships. These relationships, in turn, are not above the social order. Instead, they form an integral part of more fundamental social norms and practices, embedding each newspaper institution in processes of historical change not as simple agent or object, but as an array of sites of contention.

The intricacy of the network of relationships that comprised the press and its interpenetration with the broader structures of power in Argentine society meant, quite simply, that the newspaper industry formed an integral part of the social and political order whose crises in the 1930s gave way to the unexpectedly profound transformations of the Peronist years. In its institutional character, the mid-twentieth-century commercial press was ambiguous and internally contradictory: at once political-cultural forum and commercial enterprise; indispensable medium of public opinion and source of private profit; channel of dissent and bolster of the social order. Similarly, with its thousands of newsworkers, high-tech capital goods, and extensive material inputs, the newspaper industry was an important element not just of the political and cultural spheres of Argentine society, but of the economic realm as well. Given its hybrid nature, the rapidly shifting distribution of power and accompanying political conflicts in Argentine society had inescapable consequences for the commercial press, and made it both weapon and prize.

Well before the emergence of Perón as a significant national figure, disputes surrounding the status of journalists’ rights in the workplace and the social meaning of journalism practice had begun to expose the growing discrepancy between the ideological and juridical foundations of the press in nineteenth-century liberalism and the commercial practices of the twentieth-century newspaper industry. As a result, Perón-era conflicts for control of the press as an instrument of social power remained intimately linked to long-running struggles over the balance of class power within the newspaper industry. The attention I pay to working journalists in this study, then, stems less from a desire to restore newsworkers to the historiography of the press than from a recognition of the pivotal role that newsworkers played in the broader debates over the meaning of journalism, the clear impact of union militancy on the juridical standing of press institutions, and the importance of class cleavages within the newspaper industry for the reshaping of state-press relations in the 1930s and 1940s. Similarly, I explore the links between changing relations of production in the newsroom, emerging notions of social citizenship, and the practical consequences of the profound economic and ideological crises that racked the country. In examining the transformation of the Argentine commercial press, I also point beyond the state-press conflicts of Peronist Argentina to the inherent volatility of relationships between state, market, public, and crucial institutions of civil society in the age of mass politics.

In engaging the press, Perón and the Peronists thus faced a powerful set of institutions permeated by the same set of profound crises that would give rise to Peronism. The increasingly strained relations between journalists and proprietors within an economically complex and capital-intensive newspaper industry, the consequences of the commercial press’s legal and ideological dependence upon a faltering constitutional liberalism, and the growing legitimacy of state interventionism all shaped press development in the 1930s. Conflicts surrounding these processes did more than provide convenient excuses for authoritarian intromission in the Argentine press in the following decade. Though they certainly did that as well, more significantly, it was in no small measure the aggravation of these same crises in even more rapidly changing circumstances that determined at once the opportunities and limits—the realm of the possible—not just for Perón in his approach to the press, but for the shifting distribution of power between newsworkers, newspaper proprietors, the state, and the reading public in the Peronist years.

For this reason, the emphasis that I place on the evolution of state-press relations in both the 1930s and under the military regime of 1943 to 1946 responds to more than a desire to avoid condemning these years to the status of “prelude” to the Peronist heyday. Like other scholars, I consider the profound changes of the 1930s key to understanding not just the conditions that made Peronism possible, but also the social and political forces whose conflicts called the movement into existence. The surprisingly sophisticated forms of media management developed by the Augustín P. Justo regime in the 1930s have remained virtually unexplored by scholars, despite their importance as crucial points of inflection in both the development of the Argentine press and the course of Argentine political history. From 1943 to 1945, Perón and his military allies drew from these precedents when formulating their own media strategies; the nearly disastrous consequences of those strategies had important implications for the press following Perón’s election to the presidency in 1946. Perón’s heavy-handed press policies of the years 1947 to 1955, I argue, did not follow strictly from the demands of a scripted, preconceived totalitarian media project, nor were they merely a local adaptation of foreign media models. Instead, they responded as much to Perón’s spectacular initial failures in engaging the press as to his unexpectedly resounding success in mobilizing public support in the crisis of October 1945—support that came, significantly, despite the unanimous opposition of “public opinion” as expressed in the pages of the nation’s major newspapers.

Rather than unidirectional phenomena in which the press repeatedly stood as a simple target of Peronist action, the conflicts surrounding the newspaper industry that I examine here left not just the press transformed, but Peronism as well. Indeed, the public and private disputes for influence over—or outright control of—the Argentine press formed an integral part of the process through which Peronists forged the legitimacy of their project while simultaneously undermining that of their opponents. Long-running struggles over the institutional, political, and economic aspects of journalism practice played a crucial role in helping shape Peronism’s passage from its roots in a military regime seeking civilian support in 1944 to a loose and contradictory reformist movement born of an abrupt democratic opening and unprecedented working-class mobilization in 1945 to 1947. These same disputes—and the seismic shift in the media landscape that they produced—also helped determine the Peronist government’s consolidation by the early 1950s as an increasingly bureaucratic regime invoking formulaic and ritualized public acclamation.

Thus, to view the “Peronization” of the Argentine press as an essentially linear process or as the preordained result of an unequivocal, fascist-inspired authoritarianism is to underestimate at once the gravity and consequences of Perón’s miscalculations upon his entrance into national politics, the strength of the broader historical precedents and constraints within which Perón and the Peronists operated, and the shifting nature of Peronism over its first decade of existence. Similarly, to imagine “the press” as a coherent, passive, or helpless object of state intromission fails to account for the importance of deep, ongoing conflicts surrounding a socially powerful, institutionally diverse, internally fractured, and rapidly changing newspaper industry. The commonplace reduction of the Peronist transformation of the press to a manifestation of Perón and Eva Perón’s personal aspirations to power, finally, neglects what was both a crucial element in this particular process as well as a fundamental component in the broader unfolding of Argentine history in the second half of the twentieth century: the utopian appeal of Peronism as a force seemingly capable of resolving acute social contradictions, realizing long-neglected egalitarian promises of citizenship, and empowering Argentine workers in unprecedented—though ultimately ambiguous—ways.

This book shares with other recent studies an emphasis on the articulation of a more heterogeneous “Peronist ideology” rooted not exclusively in the authoritarian Right but in the pragmatic incorporation of a broader array of political philosophy. Looking at the articulation of that ideology in relation to the press, however, brings me to place even greater emphasis on the ambiguous persistence of fragmented liberal currents in Peronist discourse. In its self-portrayal as at once revolutionary rupture with Argentina’s liberal past and final realization of the unfulfilled emancipatory promises of that same past, Peronism came to occupy a vast ideological spectrum. This study helps to show that the movement’s ability to manage the ambiguity of this stance owes much to an overarching set of contradictions in mid-twentieth-century Argentine political life. Well before the military coup of 1943, the nation’s established liberal political forces had long proven themselves either unable or unwilling to bridge the gap between the promises of egalitarian political citizenship that they repeatedly invoked and the increasingly stark reality of political and social exclusion. That they had also become entangled in the degeneration of even the most basic of formal democratic practices in the course of the 1930s only served to make that abstract crisis of legitimacy all the more specific and real. By late 1945, those same contradictions had also engulfed the Argentine commercial press, making it a powerful set of institutions whose primary ideological vulnerability lay not in the liberal norms upon which it rested, but in the press’s failure to embody those ideals convincingly in practice. As a result, Peronists found they could best challenge the legitimacy of the whole array of anti-Peronist newspapers less by directly confronting the liberal basis of journalism practice than by embracing and transforming it.

The course of these disputes reveals the incoherence and internal contradictions of “Peronist ideology” as flexibility and strength. I make no claim that Peronists convinced the unconvinced by repeatedly formulating their approach to the press in terms of the highest values of what Mariano Plotkin has called the liberal “unifying myth” of the opposition. The great energy that Peronists nonetheless put into justifying their press policies less as negation than as practical realization of liberal abstractions, however, suggests that many Peronist leaders believed that appeals to notions of “rights,” “democracy,” and “freedom”—regardless of the equivocal and instrumental manner in which Peronists invoked them—constituted an important component if not of public support for the regime, then at least of public acquiescence to specific state actions. Similarly, by repeatedly proclaiming the construction of a truly open, democratic, and representative public sphere as the goal of government media policies, Perón and his allies could undermine the most salient element of opposition discourse. In this light, the objections of newspaper owners like La Prensa’s Alberto Gainza Paz not only ran counter to Peronist notions of “social justice” and “national sovereignty,” but formed part of long-running attempts to subvert even the egalitarian political impulses of traditional liberalism itself. In turn, controversial state acts like the manipulation of newsprint distribution became set within the context of struggles for the creation of a “New Argentina” that would embody the whole range of utopian aspirations—liberal and illiberal alike—articulated by the Peronist movement.

The Limits of This Study

Readers will no doubt quickly become aware that this work, like most scholarship, leaves out more than it explicitly includes. First, my intention is not to determine whether Argentines in this period abided by a statically conceived “freedom of the press”—the ideological and juridical cornerstone of the modern media. I instead explore the ways in which the nature of the press as well as the ideological foundations upon which its legitimacy rests are not only historically contingent, but constitute key elements in broader social contests. This study serves as a caution that, when we are approaching the media, concretely historicizing competing discourses of “freedom,” “class,” “citizenship,” “democracy,” “rights,” and even “the press” itself are of fundamental importance, especially when analyzing moments of rapid social and political change. I do not, however, deny qualitative distinctions in the functioning of the media under different political regimes; my use of such distinctions will become apparent throughout the course of this work.

Second, this is a study not of explicitly partisan periodicals, but of the commercial newspaper industry. This is not because the partisan press had become wholly irrelevant; in fact, the most widely read of these periodicals, the Argentine Socialist Party’s La Vanguardia, had by 1945 achieved a circulation level equal to that of the largest newspapers of both Colombia and Chile. Yet even La Vanguardia operated on a small scale compared to commercial dailies like La Prensa, La Nación, El Mundo, and Crítica. By the onset of the crises of the 1930s, explicitly partisan writing had become a subset of an increasingly broad array of journalism practices. More obviously, the so-called political press formed part of explicitly partisan conflicts that did not necessarily carry direct consequences for commercial newspapers; disputes involving the commercial press, on the other hand, tended to quickly encompass the press as a whole. Partisan media did play an important role in the period that I examine here, and formed part of the wave of press-related conflicts of the Peronist years. The more far-reaching struggles surrounding the press, however, played themselves out more dramatically and revealingly in the context of the major commercial newspapers.

Similarly, my focus does not extend beyond the federal territory of the city of Buenos Aires. Not only did Buenos Aires hold what were without question Argentina’s—and even Latin America’s—largest newspapers, but the 1880 federalization of the city created a separate juridical universe for publishers in the new Federal Capital. Newspapers in the Argentine capital thus fell under the legal domain of a federal government whose Congress, unlike provincial legislatures, remained constitutionally prohibited from dictating “laws that restrict the freedom of the press, or establish federal jurisdiction over that freedom.” As a result, legal measures affecting the Buenos Aires press also encompassed the provincial press; regulations of provincial newspapers, however, had no legal effect on the press of the capital. As with the partisan press, then, I have not incorporated a systematic discussion of provincial periodicals in this period, even as I hope that my own work opens avenues of exploration for both topics.

Finally, the history of radio and other newer media falls beyond the scope of this book, even as I recognize the growing need for further research into this area. The Argentine Constitution of 1853 recognized not a general freedom of expression, but the more specific libertad de imprenta—perhaps most accurately translated as “freedom of the printing press”—leaving the constitutional guarantees for radio on much more ambiguous terrain. In addition, prior to the Perón era many important radio stations operated as extensions of commercial newspaper organizations like El Mundo and La Razón. As a result, disputes around the Peronist appropriation of Latin America’s largest private radio network took place in a legal gray area and remained to some degree subsumed in the more central debates surrounding the newspaper industry. As with the partisan and provincial presses, the inclusion of these elements here would have proven unwieldy, while centering this study on commercial print journalism more accurately captures the contours of the multiple disputes surrounding the press in this period.

Journalism and Power in the Making of Peronist Argentina

The following chapters uncover the mid-twentieth-century contests to define the social role of the Argentine press both as it should be and as it was in practice, tracing the ways in which these disputes became instrumentalized in the struggle for hegemony within and over the Argentine newspaper industry. Drawing upon and advancing fundamental changes in conceptions of the social aspects of citizenship and the proper relationship between civil society and the state, Peronists adeptly inserted themselves into the institutional and ideological fissures that had begun to emerge within the newspaper industry in the 1930s. Their success in this struggle rested at once on the ability of Peronists to present the “resolution” of particular press-related conflicts as consonant with the creation of a socially just “New Argentina” as well as with the unrealized egalitarian promises of Argentine liberalism. This book is an examination of the competing claims to resolve the tensions between the twentieth-century commercial press and the ideals proclaimed by those nineteenth-century liberals who had established the ideological and juridical foundations of Argentine journalism practice. It is also the story, however, of how the volatile historical processes that had at once given birth to Peronism and undermined the legitimacy of the newspaper industry status quo ultimately militated against the realization of utopian media projects—Peronist and non-Peronist alike—in anything but an authoritarian simulacrum for the duration of the subsequent decade.

In addressing the multiple conflicts within and surrounding the Argentine newspaper industry, Peronists fashioned a discourse of the social role of journalism that posited the state not as a threat to the functioning of the press, but as a defender: of the “true press” from the corrupting influence of commerce; of public opinion from the distorting effects of powerful private interests; of newsworkers from newspaper proprietors; of smaller news organizations from more powerful ones; and of the newspaper industry as a whole from very real external economic shocks and internal production bottlenecks. Perón and his allies, with the balance of state power in their hands, portrayed their actions as falling within the bounds of this discourse, combining their arguments with a capacity for concrete action that outstripped, delegitimized, and divided the opposition. That the confiscation of La Prensa took place through formally legal channels and under conditions of constitutional normality reveals more than the extent to which Peronists had come to dominate Argentine political life. It also reveals the degree to which opponents of Perón failed to articulate convincing alternative visions of the social role of journalism and the press that recognized not just the profound changes inaugurated by Peronism, but the commercial transformation of the press itself in the twentieth century.

Four interrelated processes helped create these circumstances. First, the industrialization of newspaper production produced a press clearly different from that envisioned in classical liberalism, as newspaper institutions became increasingly capital-intensive, profit-oriented organizations. The potentially exclusionary implications of this process for the universal practice of public expression and the distorting power that commercial interests might exert on the means of social communication became important elements in criticism of the press as early as the 1910s. Allegations that the “marketplace of ideas” had degenerated into nothing more than a market in commodities and audiences only increased in the crises of the 1930s and 1940s, setting important precedents and providing useful fodder for subsequent Peronist critiques.

Yet two other elements of this industrialization also played crucial roles in shaping the Peronist transformation of the commercial press: the increasingly clear and elaborate division of labor in the newspaper industry, and the growing importance of newspapers as economic entities. In the course of the 1930s, disputes within newspaper institutions between newsworkers and proprietors emerged into the open, while the worldwide newsprint crisis in the wake of World War II aggravated both those conflicts as well as the competition between newspapers. By the time of Perón’s ascent, then, the industrialization of the Argentine press had produced a triple fissure: between conceptions of the press as a vehicle of general public expression and the private, capital-intensive and commercial nature of the newspaper industry; between labor and capital within the press; and between those newspaper institutions with access to increasingly scarce and expensive newsprint and those that approached bankruptcy.

Second, the economic crisis of the 1930s, together with the post–World War II restructuring of the world economy, brought a dramatic expansion of the legitimate realm of state activity, fundamentally shifting a view of the proper balance between public and private realms that had achieved broad consensus within the Argentine political class. In the course of the Depression, consensus grew within the Argentine political class for the expansion of state intervention throughout the economy as the primary corrective factor to the domestic impact of a world market in disarray and as a mediator between different sectors of capital. The political crises of the 1930s and the multiple threats posed by the world war only boosted state coordination of the economy and lent weight to state intervention in information circulation (through censorship) and production (as wartime propaganda). Increasingly, traditional liberal claims that the state stood as the primary threat to the functioning of the press shared space with pragmatic appeals to the state’s capacity to insulate sectors of the newspaper industry from the devastating effects of postwar economic restructuring. Many began to argue that the state, rather than being a categorical menace, could protect the press’s proper mission from the far greater threats of irresponsible commercialism, monopoly formation, and financial ruin.

Third, the rise of the Argentine urban working class as a significant political force reshaped notions of the proper social role of the press and the ability to exercise the power of journalism in meaningful ways. The new style of politics that this rise inaugurated had at its core broader conceptions of the nature of citizenship and representation and, relatedly, emphasized the importance of the state as a mediator between collective and individual interests. As Daniel James has so convincingly argued, the basis of Perón’s power lay in “his capacity to recast the whole issue of citizenship within a new social context.” In relation to the press, this renegotiation of the meanings of citizenship included assertions of the rights of Argentine workers to continuously articulate their aspirations, interests, and daily life through the means of social communication in ways that at once incorporated and transcended liberal notions of individual freedom of expression.

Rather than negating traditional conceptions of the press as a vehicle for the citizen’s constitutional right of expression and as an embodiment of public opinion, Peronists built upon them. Perón and his followers argued that the problem with the press lay less in the century-old liberal norms of journalism practice than in the refusal of newspaper owners to adhere to those norms in ways that recognized the increasing breadth of the Argentine polity. While proprietors unceasingly invoked the expression of public opinion in their newspapers as the cornerstone to press legitimacy, Peronists added a crucial caveat: the commercial press failed to embody that aspiration in practice, serving instead simply to “publicize the private opinion of newspaper owners.” This failure points directly to a long-standing fissure between public and press that finally revealed itself with the sudden, unexpected political protagonism of a crucial section of that public. In explaining the unanimity of newspaper opposition to Perón in October 1945—just as popular support for the colonel became impossible to ignore—metalworker Ángel Perelman declared that “having neither means nor form of expressing ourselves, we [workers] did not constitute ‘public opinion.”’ The gap between formal citizenship (full and equal membership in “the public”) and the obviously unequal distribution of wealth and the exercise of power in Argentina would find its promised bridge, supporters of Perón argued, not just in the “social justice” policies of the Peronist state, but in the representation of working class interests in the pages of the daily press—provided that journalists faithfully fulfilled their true mission.

Finally, the growing political polarization of the 1930s became, in the following decade, what Tulio Halperín Donghi has evocatively called a guerra civil larvada—civil war in gestation, or veiled civil war. Yet it was more than the depth of the cleavages that had opened within Argentine society that facilitated and even encouraged the instrumentalization of the more utopian elements of Peronist discourse in the struggles over the press: Peronists had also quickly come to control all three branches of a vastly more powerful Argentine state. It is within these conditions of unprecedented political dominance that Perón deftly managed to use long-running labor disputes within the newspaper industry, competition among different newspapers, the perception of an Argentine public sphere held captive by private interests, and the growing legitimacy of state economic interventionism to wholly refashion the Argentine media. This transformation culminated in the congressional expropriation of La Prensa in 1951.

Part 1 of this study examines the rise of the modern Argentine press from the period following the battle of Caseros (1852) through the multiple crises of 1930 to 1943. The rapid expansion of the Buenos Aires press transformed its nature: as capitalist relations of production came to dominate the newsroom, conflicts of interest emerged between a new class of professional journalists and the owners of newspapers, undermining notions of “the press” as an internally unified institution. Similarly, the increasingly capital-intensive nature of the newspaper industry began to belie the notion of press freedom as a universal right, while the growing economic weight of the newspaper industry threatened to undermine in important ways the nineteenth-century juridical and ideological foundations upon which the relationship between press, state, and public stood.

Chapter 1 examines the transition from the small partisan press of the nineteenth century to the massive commercial newspaper industry of twentieth-century Buenos Aires. Chapter 2 looks more closely at three particular aspects of the commercial press in the crises of political and economic liberalism in the 1930s: the resurgence of partisan journalism, though now in hybrid form; the increasingly complex state/press relations of that decade; and the unionization drive of Argentine journalists.

The press policies of the military regime (1943–46) that gave birth to the Peronist movement are the topic of part 2. Beyond rapidly expanding state authority in the realm of information production and dissemination, military reformers also fundamentally revised juridical definitions of the nature of the press, recognizing newspapers as commercial institutions and the newsroom as a site of class conflict. In addition, the sudden articulation by military officials of notions of citizenship centered on social rights implied a substantive change in conceptions of the proper relationships between the press, civil society, and the state. The dual fissure that had begun to emerge in the course of the 1930s now suddenly became impossible to ignore: the growing rift between working journalists and newspaper proprietors belied the coherence of the press as a unified collective subject; and the explosion of new social groups onto the political scene seriously undermined claims of newspapers as broadly representative institutions within the public sphere.

Chapter 3 examines initial regime attempts to bring the Argentine press into line with the dictates of military authoritarianism by means of increasingly bureaucratic—and ultimately counterproductive—forms of censorship. Chapter 4 uncovers the process behind the extension of collective bargaining rights to journalists and the multiple conflicts that this move engendered. Chapter 5 analyzes the changing relations between the military regime, the press, and the public in the midst of the stark political polarization of 1945. Ironically, the circumstances surrounding the foundational moment for Peronism also revealed that the emulation of the methods of press cooptation that had served Augustín P. Justo so well for nearly a decade quickly ended in disaster for Perón, in no small measure due to the unexpected depth of the social transformation that the military had only tentatively unleashed. The vivid contradiction between the press’s ideal role as the voice of “public opinion,” expanding conceptions of citizenship, and the Buenos Aires commercial newspapers’ overwhelming rejection of the clearly popular Juan Domingo Perón in his moment of crisis, I argue, forms the basis of the most violent episode of the mass mobilizations that gave formal birth to the Peronist movement on October 17, 1945: the sustained and deadly attack on the offices of the newspaper Crítica.

Part 3 explores the transformation of the Buenos Aires commercial press from the Perón’s February 1946 electoral victory through the consolidation of the Peronist media apparatus in 1951. The failure of Perón’s carefully cultivated ties to powerful newspaper owners like Crítica’s Raúl Damonte Taborda to provide him any support during his fall from grace in mid-1945 signaled to the newly elected president that alliances with figures possessing an autonomous capacity for political mobilization were simply too dangerous. The creation of a “New Argentina” called for a significantly more thorough reworking of the relationships between state, press, and public in ways that might address the growing political and cultural protagonism of Argentine workers; it also meant that the Peronist government would seek to avoid the tactical mistakes of the past and seek to build a media apparatus that might both generate consensus around the regime and make betrayal by newspaper owners impossible. Still, the creation of a properly Peronist communications conglomerate owes much to the particularly dire economic circumstances that most Argentine newspapers faced after the war. These conditions not only aggravated the existing fissures within the newspaper industry, but set the stage for the expropriation of Latin America’s most powerful commercial daily by the Argentine Congress.

Chapter 6 traces the intricate process by which Perón replaced his set of alliances with powerful but unreliable newspaper owners in favor of hidden direct control of the majority of the Buenos Aires commercial press through the private holding company Editorial ALEA and the Undersecretariat of Information and the Press. Chapter 7 examines the complex legal, ideological, economic, and workplace conflicts that culminated in the Argentine Congress’s expropriation of Latin America’s most powerful commercial daily, La Prensa. I argue that the newspaper passed to Peronist hands not simply due to the authoritarian tendencies of Peronism, but also because Peronists managed to articulate relatively coherent solutions to the set of increasingly acute crises that had surrounded and permeated the Argentine newspaper industry since the 1930s. In doing so less by denying liberal claims of the press’s proper role as a vehicle of expression open to all citizens than by asserting that La Prensa self-evidently and repeatedly failed to embody that lofty ideal in practice, they added a layer of ambiguity to opposition invocations of traditional liberal notions of “freedom of the press.” Ironically, in consolidating a media apparatus that acted less as a forum of public expression—working-class or otherwise—than as a stage for the regime’s public acclamation, the expropriation of La Prensa served to generate only an illusory unanimity and a silenced but increasingly desperate opposition.

In this study’s conclusion, I briefly trace the history of the Argentine newspaper industry in the wake of the fall of Perón. It would become clear to a subsequent generation of Peronists that the movement’s leader had proven unwilling and unable to move beyond a clearly authoritarian, sublimating “resolution” of the tensions within the Argentine press. Similarly, the bureaucratization of the newspaper industry had betrayed fundamental promises that the Peronist press might serve as a more open vehicle for citizen rights of collective and individual expression. For a more radical group of influential Peronist intellectuals, I argue, these failures called into question not only the possibility that any compromises with capitalist forms of media ownership might allow for a truly free and representative press, but also nothing less than the emancipatory potential of Peronism itself. Finally, I briefly place the Argentine press conflicts of the period 1930 to 1955 in their transnational context. Despite their uniqueness, these conflicts are not isolated phenomena; they form part of the perpetual, contentious negotiation of the relationship between state and civil society, the power of journalism and commercial media in the age of mass politics, and the nature of citizenship and democracy in capitalist societies.