< The Real Slim Shady


Friday, January 30, 2009

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Andres Martinez is a fellow at the New American Foundation and a former editorial page editor at The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. He’s recently written in Slate about the mysterious Mr. Slim. Andres, welcome to the show.

ANDRES MARTINEZ: Thank you, thanks for having me.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Exactly how rich is this guy?

ANDRES MARTINEZ: Well, I don't know today exactly, given the vagaries in the stock markets on both sides of the border, but Mr. Slim appeared out of nowhere on people’s radar screens in late 2007, when Fortune and Forbes were proclaiming him the richest man on earth. And he pretty much has been neck-and-neck with Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. You know, somebody teasingly calls Mexico Slimlandia. [BROOKE LAUGHS] He was able to leverage his close friendship with former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari to take over Telmex, the state-owned telephone company. But he’s in retail, infrastructure, insurance, banking, tobacco. His enterprises are across a slew of industries.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: I think you noted in your article that one out of every fourteen dollars somebody in Mexico spends generally goes into his pocket.

ANDRES MARTINEZ: That's right, and his enterprises control, it’s estimated, seven percent of Mexico’s GDP and about a third of the value of the stock market in Mexico. John D. Rockefeller, in his heyday, might have controlled about two percent of GDP. So this is Bill Gates, Rockefeller, Carnegie, J.P. Morgan all rolled into one.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You also write that despite his massive wealth, he’s not known for having an outsized personality, and yet not so self-effacing that he hasn't policed his own public image from time to time. Tell me what happened to Denise Dresser.

ANDRES MARTINEZ: Denise wrote a book that was a parody of Mexican history, not unlike Jon Stewart’s book on American history, and it had some unkind references to Mr. Slim. Now, one of the stores that Mr. Slim owns, called Sanborns in Mexico, probably sells more books than any other store. And Denise was leaned upon to kind of reconsider the passages about Mr. Slim. My understanding was that Sanborns had kind of hidden their copies of the book for a while. And there was then a very public outpouring and boycott of Sanborns until they started selling the book.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So now this staunch First Amendment advocate has [LAUGHS] become a huge individual lender to The New York Times to the tune of a quarter billion dollars. Now, I think we know what The Times gets out of the deal, but you argue that what Slim might get is gentler treatment from The Times’ editorial page, which, we should stress, is separate from its news pages. Do you really think that cash will buy him a pass?

ANDRES MARTINEZ: You know, I don't think there is a media company in the United States with a greater sense of integrity than The New York Times. The problem that this creates is an appearance of a conflict. I don't think The New York Times would have struck a deal with a tycoon of a similar profile from Russia or, say, Israel or Iraq or many countries that matter more, journalistically, in the U.S. And in this sense, I feel, as a - somebody who grew up in Mexico that our neighboring country’s being treated with the soft bigotry of low expectations [BROOKE LAUGHS], but in the sense that, well, it’s Mexico, we don't really need to worry about it, who knows how people make money down there, and the fact that The New York Times is not covering the crony capitalism in Mexico, the inequality that feeds a lot of the social unrest. Every day that these stories are not covered in The New York Times from now on, the question is going to be, is Mr. Slim’s ownership stake in The New York Times a factor here?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Even if The Times doesn't cover the region that well, its coverage of the region is very important in the region.

ANDRES MARTINEZ: For sure. The editorial page of The New York Times has called Mr. Slim a robber baron, prior to his first investment in The New York Times. And any time there is an editorial in The New York Times or a big news story, that almost becomes news in and of itself. I mean, you have countries where people do not trust their local media. Very few Mexican publications are going to take on Mr. Slim directly, not because he necessarily owns the media companies, but because he is the largest advertiser. And it’s not just about Mexico. Mr. Slim’s America Movil cellphone company has businesses in more than a dozen Latin American countries. In Latin America the perception will be this is now Mr. Slim’s newspaper.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You write that even if and when Slim is inevitably criticized by The Times again, he'll win again. How so?

ANDRES MARTINEZ: That's right. I think it’s a win-win proposition for him. The greatest benefit for him is it legitimizes him. It gives him a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval within Mexico. It’s the same reason that foreign tycoons give to the Clinton Foundation, that they go to Davos; it’s the same reason Andrew Carnegie built libraries. It diffuses any criticism within Mexico, because if The New York Times, of any institution, will partner up with Carlos Slim, he must be okay. And to the extent that there is negative coverage of him or the lack of any kind of antitrust regulation in Mexico going forward, he can then really brag about the fact that even this newspaper that he basically is in the process of saving can take shots at him.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, what do you think that the careful reader, the lover of The New York Times, ought to keep an eye out for as this relationship with Mr. Slim develops?

ANDRES MARTINEZ: I think the test for The New York Times is going to be as the situation in Mexico continues to deteriorate as a result of drug violence, but also as a result of this crony capitalism, is The New York Times going to continue to neglect that story? And to the extent that The New York Times editorializes against economic inequality in the U.S. or in other parts of the world and neglects the very same phenomenon in Mexico, that’s going to raise troubling questions, because it really is a story about whether a weak state can rein in the likes of Carlos Slim.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.

ANDRES MARTINEZ: Thanks for having me.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Andres Martinez is a fellow at the New American Foundation and a former editorial page editor at The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times.