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Retiring media legend warns, ‘stay independent’

Spain’s Iñaki Gabilondo sees ‘destructive’ polarization as threat to democracy

Editors note: This article was originally published in October 2020, on Entrepreneurial Journalism, created by James Breiner. You can sign up for his newsletter here.

What better model of Spanish eloquence and journalistic integrity could there be than Iñaki Gabilondo. For decades, he was the host of Spain’s top morning radio program, “Hoy por hoy” (Today).

I got to know him by listening to audiocasettes with excerpts of his programs when I was learning Spanish 20 years ago. Gabilondo’s deep, expressive voice accompanied me in my car to and from the office. The stories made the language memorable and tuned my ear to the varied cadences of interview subjects from all around Spain and Latin America.

It was only three years ago that I had the chance to hear him in person at the University of Navarra in Pamplona, Spain, where he earned a degree in journalism in 1963. He addressed students and faculty of the Communication Department, and challenged us to create a new journalism with the highest standards of accuracy and ethics. (I was an assistant professor there at the time.)

In 2018, Gabilondo, center, told students and faculty at the Universidad de Navarra, his alma mater, that the future of journalism depends on “what you do, what you don’t do, and what you allow to happen.” (Photo: Universidad de Navarra).

Worried about democracy

Gabilondo, 78, announced his retirement from the SER Network this past May in an interview with Aimar Bretos on the “Hora 25” program. Why retire now? Bretos asked.

“I felt a very powerful psychological and sociological fatigue because of the polarized political atmosphere,” said the veteran of almost six decades of radio news. He saw a disfunctional system in which the political opposition “is dedicating itself to destroying what the other half is building. If that is democracy, count me out.”

“If there are no ideas in common, common sense goes by the wayside,” Gabilondo continued. “There are tons of things that can’t be done without agreement. And if there is no possibility of agreement, the most important things are put aside.”

The political opposition he was referring to is the conservative Popular Party (Partido Popular), but he added that similar movements are taking place in the rest of Europe and the US.

Journalism as a defense

In this polarized environment, the public has started to realize that journalism is their best defense against disinformation, he said. “They recognize that they need drinkable water. Fake news is an industry that intentionally poisons the wells of information. The primary job of of news media is to make themselves more identifiable as sources of untainted information.”

Although traditional news media have lost revenue and audience in the digital revolution, Gabilondo pointed to “a flourishing crowd of journalistic initiatives” that give him hope for the future.

He emphasized the importance of investing in quality journalism with on-the-ground reporting. “Opinion is cheaper, that’s why there is more of it. It’s easier for me to sit here than to send someone to Afghanistan.”

Radio takes new forms

Although traditional radio formats have lost listeners, podcasts have captured new ones, Gabilondo observed. The role of radio remains accompanying people wherever they are at whatever they are doing.

Podcasts are simply a new form of radio that the listening public can carry with them via their portable devices. “We are intimately involved with people in the activity of their daily lives. Our role is to relate the facts truthfully and honestly.”

Today the news media have to find their audience with quality content and develop “an immense foundation of trust. Put the needs of the audience first. It is very important that the media re-read their history of independence, and re-examine their connections with the powerful that have sometimes been inappropriate. If we are not understood as independent, we are going to have problems.”

The one-hour interview ended with tributes from several former news colleagues as well as film director and star Javier Bardem. “Iñaki Gabilondo is a model of journalistic integrity and freedom of expression,” Bardem said. “Besides being a great communicator, he is a great listener. When you talk to him, you feel valued, not judged.”

Let me add my own thanks and tribute to Iñaki Gabilondo, a master of the spoken word and a model journalist. Goodbye and good luck.

More from The Fix: How to fight the power of fear and polarization

Photo by Michał Franczak on Unsplash


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