TIME Magazine's Pay-to-Play Puff Piece on Mexican President Provokes Widespread Ridicule in Mexico

The Government of Enrique Peña Nieto Paid Time-Warner $44,000 Prior to a Recent Cover Story on Him Titled “Saving Mexico”

The kicker headline on TIME magazine’s most recent international edition cover says it all: “Saving Mexico.”

With it is the image of the dapper 47-year-old Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto, standing clad in an expensive suit and sporting a red-and-silver diagonally striped necktie. His hands are clasped in front of him; his head is cocked slightly upward; his jaw clenched — as though he is a determined man staring down the future.

TIME’s cover, however, drew instant ridicule across the social-media circuit in Mexico, inspiring numerous parody covers, such as one showing a zombie-faced Peña Nieto holding a scythe with the kicker headline, “Slaying Mexico”; and others depicting Peña Nieto as Moses or the Lady of Guadalupe or Mad magazine’s mascot Alfred E. Neuman.

The inside story, like the magazine’s cover, also was panned by critics as a shameless promotion of a political leader who is downplaying an increasingly bloody drug war in favor of pushing energy, education and fiscal reforms that many Mexicans believe will damn the larger nation to decades of misery for the benefit of a rich elite — among which are US investors.

One Twitter post blasted out on Feb. 13 to the author of the TIME story, Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Michael Crowley, in reaction to his story states, “I think u don’t really ‘get’ what is really happening in Mexico. Take a look at today Mexico news.” Another message, tweeted on the same day, says, “We are used to see[ing] this [in] paid media. No worries.”

The reaction to the US magazine piece on social media in Mexico was so swift and so negative that it seemed to catch the TIME’s Crowley by surprise.

“Seems Mexico’s president is not a popular guy on Twitter!” TIME correspondent Crowley tweeted on Feb. 13. “Critical feedback welcome — but do read the story first.” That same day, Crowley also tweeted: “Remarkable how many critics of Mexico’s president seem to believe I must have literally taken a bribe to write a positive story about him.”

Well, Crowley may not have “literally taken a bribe,” but it does appear TIME itself had plenty of pecuniary incentive to sing Peña Nieto’s praises.

In fact, some critics are questioning whether the recent TIME magazine puff piece on Peña Nieto was part of a larger quid-pro-quo deal between TIME’s business side and the Peña Nieto government. But such an accusation seems beyond the pale with respect to a journalistic institution such as TIME magazine, or does it?

Unfortunately, many revenue-strapped commercial media outlets today, among them the giants of the business, are now crossing all too frequently the time-honored line that used to separate advertising from editorial integrity.

(Story continues below sidebar...)

Peña Nieto’s Message Seamless Across TIME’s Ad/News Platforms
The narrative of TIME magazine’s recent news story on Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto — with the cover-page headline “Saving Mexico”— is eerily similar to the script of the 14-page special advertising section (advertorial) that ran in the Dec. 23, 2013, edition of TIME —with the headline “‘Mexico’s Moment’ Set to Last.”

In fact, the two are so nearly identical that passages from each can actually be blended together to read like a single story.

From TIME's news story:

Now the alarms are being replaced with applause. After one year in office, Pena Nieto has passed the most ambitious package of social, political and economic reforms in memory. Global economic forces, too, have shifted in his country’s direction. Throw in the opening of Mexico’s oil reserves to foreign investment for the first time in 75 years, and smart money has begun to be on peso power. “In the Wall Street investment community, I’d say that Mexico is by far the favorite nation just now,” says Ruchir Sharma, head of emerging markets at Morgan Stanley. “It’s gone from a country people had sort of given up on to becoming the favorite.”

From TIME's advertorial:

Osorio Chong [who also is quoted in the Time news story] says the series of market reforms means 2014 is the ideal time to invest in Mexico and that foreign investors are welcome to bring their money, knowledge and skills to any of the nation’s industrial, commercial and manufacturing sectors. [Miguel Angel Osorio Chong is Peña Nieto’s Interior Minister, the top post in his administration.]

… A former energy minister, Luis Téllez-Kuenzler, who is now president of one of the country’s most important financial institutions, the Mexican Stock Exchange, adds:

“Mexico is very investor-friendly. Anyone wishing to invest from any other country just needs to go to their bank or stock brokerage house and invest. It’s transparent, efficient and very easy to do.”

From TIME's news story:

Want proof? On Feb. 5, Mexico’s government bonds earned an A- rating for the first time in history when Moody’s revised its assessment of the country’s prospects, ranking it higher than Brazil, the onetime darling of international investors, and making it only the second Latin American nation after Chile to get an A.

“I believe the conditions are very favorable for Mexico to grow,” Peña Nieto told TIME in an interview at the Los Pinos compound. “I’m very optimistic.”

From TIME's advertorial:

… Despite dark economic clouds hovering over countries, a bright new dawn recently arrived in the proud nation of 120 million people through a series of innovative labor, fiscal, tax, energy, and education reforms made possible by a cross-party pact.

From TIME's news story:

The secret to his [Peña Nieto’s] recent success lies in the way he then built a powerful legislative coalition. After meeting secretly with the two leading opposition parties, he struck the kind of legislative grand bargain that has eluded his counterpart across the northern border. The resulting Pacto por México gave liberals higher taxes on the wealthy and conservatives an end to Mexico’s ban on the re-election of politicians, while Peña Nieto won support for a raft of other reform, including opening up the country’s oil monopoly.

From TIME's advertorial:

… Such is the enthusiasm for these reforms, senior economists and officials coined the expression “Mexico’s Moment” to emphasize the significance of the upbeat outlook and opportunities created by the historic multiparty agreement. The day after Peña Nieto was sworn in, on Dec. 1, 2012, the so-called “Pact for Mexico” was signed by the leaders of the other three political parties and is hailed as the country’s cornerstone for growth and development for the years to come.

— BILL CONROY

And in the case of the Peña Nieto cover story, it does appear TIME tripped over that line as well — maybe because the once-venerable magazine company later this year is about to be spun off from its parent company, Time Warner, and forced to survive on its own accord, without the benefit of being propped up by its parent company’s huge revenue stream.

The Evidence

In TIME’s Dec. 23 issue — the edition featuring Pope Francis as “Person of the Year” — the magazine also featured a 14-page “sponsored-content” section (an advertorial) that promoted Mexico as a tourism destination and also hyped the reforms being pursued by the Peña Nieto administration, billing his plan as a smart agenda for attracting foreign investment.

The advertorial includes several promotional stories paid for by government and corporate advertising sponsors, as well as a number of high-impact ads, all under an opening headline: “‘Mexico’s Moment’ Set to Last: Against a backdrop of comprehensive economic reforms, Mexico’s reputation as a secure destination for investors is boosted by a record performance of foreign direct investment (FDI).”

Atop each page of this advertorial are the words: “Special Advertising Section.”

The narrative of this advertorial section is remarkably similar to the story line of the TIME news story penned by Crowley and published less than two months later — officially in TIME’s Feb. 24 issue, though the story appeared online more than week prior to that date. [See sidebar.] 

It is not clear how much the multiple Mexican public- and private-sector sponsors of this “special advertising section” paid for the content and its placement in a national publication like TIME, but it’s certain the cost was not cheap. National magazine advertising can cost as much as $25,000 per page or more — putting the cost of a 14-page section at $350,000 or more.

A story now making news in Mexico, based on documents obtained from a Mexican government agency, indicates that Peña Nieto’s government paid Time Warner — the owner of TIME magazine — a total of 576,000 pesos (about $44,000) between January and October of last year for “publicity” (advertising). That might have covered the Mexican government’s portion of the costs for the multi-sponsor 14-page advertorial, though the Mexican government documents do not offer specifics.

Regardless, the fact that TIME was willing to publish a major cover story touting Peña Nieto as “Saving Mexico” — after only two months early publishing a 14-page advertorial that does essentially the same thing — raises some serious questions about who is really calling the editorial shots, ultimately, at the magazine. Is it the editors or the business department?

In any event, it should be no surprise to TIME’s editors that the public reaction to the magazine’s Peña Nieto “news” story in Mexico has been so overwhelmingly negative, given that the perception has been created that the story was part of a pay-to-play deal.

To make matters worse, Peña Nieto’s administration, via the Mexico Tourism Board (or Consejo de Promocion Turistico de Mexico, CPTM) has hired a US public relations firm to further tout the Mexican president’s reform agenda as well as Mexico as a tourist destination. That US PR firm is CLS Strategies (CLS) — formerly known as Chlopak, Leonard, Schechter & Associates.

This is not the first time the Peña Nieto administration has hired CLS Strategies as its trumpeter.

Following his election in July 2012 until the end of that year, Peña Nieto employed the services of the Washington, D.C.-based communications and marketing firm to help him spread positive propaganda during the transition period prior to his official swearing-in as the president of Mexico on Dec. 1 of 2012.

CLS is the same US image-building firm that was retained in the fall of 2009 by the Honduran regime led by “de facto” President Roberto Micheletti in the wake of its coup d'état in that Central American nation. CLS’s Foreign Agents Registration Act filingwith the Department of Justice described its mission in Honduras as promoting Honduran President Roberto Micheletti’s dictatorship as a democracy “through the use of media outreach, policy maker contacts and events, and publicdissemination of information….”

The current contract between Peña Nieto’s administration and CLS, inked this past December, is outlined in documents filed on Dec. 24, 2013, in the US under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

From that FARA filing:

CLS will communicate to interested parties about the important changes that have occurred in Mexico that make it an attractive destination. The work will be performed through outreach to media and third party stakeholders with an interest in Mexico and dissemination of information in meetings, events, speeches, interviews and other related forms. This project will initiate on December 19,2013, for a monthly retainer of $40,000.

… The registrant [CLS] shall disseminate information regarding the important political, social and economic changes in Mexico that make the country an attractive destination. This includes scheduling media interviews and disseminating materials to interested third parties and the public-at-large.

Activities will include communications to the media and to the general public on behalf of foreign principal.

Given the language of the contract, it seems reasonable to expect that among the media tools CLS will use to promote further positive coverage of Peña Nieto in the US and elsewhere is the recent TIME cover story itself, since it hypes “the important political, social and economic changes in Mexico that make the country an attractive destination.”

In fact, one of the major sponsors of the 14-page advertorial appearing in TIME’s Dec. 23 issue is the Mexico Tourism Board, or CPTM in its Spanish initials — the same Mexican agency that has now retained the US marketing firm CLS as its public-relations mouthpiece.

Yes, news becomes advertising and advertising is now news. That is the commercial media world we all must endure in 2014 and beyond.

Maybe the real challenge we face now is “Saving Journalism.”

Update 02/18/2014

Time Inc. News Group’s executive director of communications, Kerri Chyka, sent an email to Narco News today, Feb. 18, in reaction to the above story. [TIME magazine is part of Time Inc. News Group.]

Following is the text of Chyka's email:

See below for a statement from TIME regarding TIME's international cover featuring Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. 

STATEMENT FROM TIME

TIME does not accept payment in exchange for editorial coverage under any circumstances. Rates listed on TIME's public media kit refer to the cost of advertising with TIME and have absolutely nothing to do with editorial content. 

A Spanish-language version of TIME's cover story is now available here: http://ti.me/1jC66z8

REPORTER’S NOTE:. Below are passages from the website of Time Inc.'s Custom Content unit, which develops paid-content, or advertorials, for advertisers. Narco News put key words in bold type for emphasis to demonstrate that the message Time Inc.'s advertising department is giving advertisers like the Mexican government is very different from the message that its editorial department sent to Narco News today.

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