When the New York Times covers Carlos Slim, which is extremely rarely, they make him out to be a shopkeep, the friendly, goodnatured bodega owner down the street. As it happens, Slim is the ruthless head of a transnational conglomerate, Grupo Carso, who is Mexico’s leading oligarch and one of the richest men in the world.
I reviewed the Times coverage of Slim from 1998 to the present and it consists of a grand total of 48 mostly dull, lifeless articles. They offer nary a crumb of information as to the power that Slim wields over Mexico and his global influence. The Times isn’t nearly as restrained when it comes to covering the Russian elite, which it routinely describes — accurately — as corrupt oligarchs who thrive through their contacts with Vladimir Putin’s government.
However, this poor reporting, or underreporting, is not surprising given that Slim owns almost 17% of Class A stock in the New York Times. He also extended the Sulzberger-owned company a desperately needed credit line when the company was in danger of becoming the main dish of a finance feeding frenzy.
Clearly, having a top-echelon billionaire as its chief benefactor is a conflict of interest for the paper — not that the Times is ever eager to aggressively cover billionaires, especially the American breed, unless it’s to laud their exquisite taste in restaurants, mansions and luxury goods. When it comes to the Slim, it has turned a succession of Times reporters into low-grade PR shoe polishers.
Nowhere in the Times coverage will you find reporting on how Slim’s operations impact the poor in Mexico and throughout Latin America. He employs 200,000 people and their pay and working conditions are reportedly not stellar, but the Times has not displayed an iota of interest in the topic. The only time the paper actually criticized Slim was when his actions caused shares to plummet at a company called América Móvil, which cost shareholders, including Americans, some $5 billion.
The Times was appalled by the suffering of those poor investors but has been unmoved by the plight of Slim’s low-paid work force. The newspaper routinely covers poor working conditions in China, for example; why not take a look at how their chief stockholder’s employees are making out just south of the border? The answer is pretty obvious.
Instead, the Times regales us with stories of Slim’s alleged business acumen. His money is the result of “smart purchases of ailing companies” and turning around “battered companies.” Slim passing his companies on to his sons and other family members gets more attention than the government connections that helped him pile up wealth. No critical questions are ever raised about how intergenerational wealth and extreme inequality might be awful for Mexican democracy.
Dating back to the 1990s, the Times has failed to pursue intriguing leads that surround Slim’s business deals, a topic that has been covered by the Mexican press. The oft-repeated rumors that he is a prestanombre, or someone who puts powerful public officials’ assets under his name, never comes up in the paper’s coverage. In Mexico, many believe this is how Slim’s fortune grew into the billions during the course of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari’s NAFTA-era privatization bonanza. The Times can’t be bothered to look into it.
Only one article, by Eduardo Porter, mentions that Slim benefitted from his ties to the hideously corrupt Salinas. In 1990, Salinas’ government “sold his friend Mr. Slim the Mexican national phone company, Telmex, along with a de facto commitment to maintain its monopoly for years,” Porter wrote in 2007. “Then it awarded Telmex the only nationwide cellphone license.”
Back in 1993, the Times mentioned that Slim and 38 other robber barons met — in a scene out of The Godfather when Don Corleone calls together New York’s mob chieftains — to “invest” in the Institutional Revolutionary Party. The fact that 22 of these people became part of Mexico’s billionaire class over the next years was fit to print just once, in an investigative article by Anthony DePalma.
The omissions are egregious given that they would help explain why “many of Mexico’s leading industries are dominated by one or two companies that use their market power to block new competitors,” as Elisabeth Malkin wrote in a 2011 story. One suspects if the country in question was Russia or China, the word “corruption” would be used to describe the oligarchy’s influence.
Back in 2009, Marc Lacey, then the Times’ Mexico Bureau Chief, mentioned that Denise Dresser, a respected commentator at the magazine Proceso, “regularly suggests… that favorable government treatment, rather than business acumen, made [Slim] rich.” Yet this line is quickly abandoned in favor of presenting Slim as a philanthropist with an “unassuming, avuncular persona.”
“Avuncular” is a word that Times reporters like to use when describing good-natured Uncle Carlos. Last August, Malkin wrote a rare piece that discussed Slim’s political and economic influence in Mexico, but it was counterbalanced by lengthy quotations from her subject. Slim, she said, was “often likened to Warren Buffett for his relatively low-key, avuncular style” and still lived “in the modest home where he raised his children and drives himself around town, unlike many in Mexico’s minted class.”
Here’s a suggestion for a story the Times should be interested in pursuing: the case of a commercial-religious mall Slim has planned at Mexico City’s Basilica de Guadalupe. Rodrigo Vera at Proceso reports that Slim and the ghastly conservative Archbishop Norberto Rivera have colluded to profit by privatizing this public space and booting 250 vendors off the property to make way for their project.
They could follow up with a story on how Slim has been setting up charitable “foundations” as fronts for business deals. For example, as part of that commercial-religious mall, Slim and Rivera set up the Fundación Plaza Mariana, which was reconstituted as the Fundación Pro-Peregrino de Guadalupe after this alleged charity ran into some legal trouble with the Mexico City government.
And here’s one more tip: How about a deep dig into the ties between Slim, Bill Clinton and the Clinton Foundation? There’s strong evidence that Slim, one of the Clinton Foundation’s biggest donors, has benefited from his relationship with the Clinton family. That would have made a great Election 2016 deep dive but it doesn’t look like the Times has an iota of interest in going down that path.
For the Times, Slim is treated like a business story rather than a political story. His corporate acquisitions, appearance on the Forbes list of the world’s richest men, his companies’ share prices — these are all topics for the Times, a dick-waving contest without end. Of course, why would we expect anything else given that the Times is one of his business properties?