When I was in college I had a friend who was getting a PhD in Literature. His opinion of my choice of reading material was typically summed up as, “While you spend time reading THAT, another classic sits unread”. I think my usual response was, ‘Yeah, I can dig it’; I had read some classics but left thousands unread, while perusing 20th century bombast. And I am still guilty of leaving classics unread. The other day, I started The First Circle by Solzhenitsyn, a highly praised post-World War II Russian novel. I struggled into chapter two, put it down and picked up Murder Machine, a long ghastly true account of a 1970s Brooklyn Mafia gang that killed and dismembered dozens. This was 450 pages of sensationalism, death, sex, gore, betrayal– the Mafia food chain in action, 15 years of slaughter leading up to the ascension of John Gotti as Capo di Capos. I devoured Murder Machine while another classic sat unread. This book had all the graphic shock value the modern reader could ask for; even the cover had the words Murder Machine in blood red capital letters.
Reading this book put me in mind of El Diario Extra, the best-selling daily newspaper in Costa Rica. If you have never taken the time to sit down and look through a copy of El Diario Extra, I would recommend it, because the editors of this rag truly have their fingers on the jugular of the average Pedro Fulano walking the streets and backroads of Costa Rica. Sensationalism sells and it never hurts to have the lowest common denominator in mind when putting together the daily report. The edition I am right now looking at has a headline reading:
SE METE A RÍO CON
NOVIA Y SE AHOGA
Rough translation: He goes into the river with his girlfriend and he drowns.
The present tense headline, the promise of more tragedy and disaster inside are hallmarks of the Diario Extra style. This article included a color photo of the drowning victim, body balled up against the boulders along the riverside.
The front page typically features two large photos, at least one of which will be: a) a bloody body trapped in the wreckage of a vehicle, or b) a bloody body lying dead on a street, or c) a bloody body strapped to a gurney and being lifted (too late) into an ambulance. (In a laughable gesture toward the privacy of the victims lying in their own blood, the Extra adds a black censor bar to cover their lifeless eyes.) One of the Extra’s favorite front page tricks is to juxtapose the bloody body photo alongside a pic of one of Costa Rica’s countless model wannabees; almost always, the flavor of the day will be striking an over the shoulder pose with her thonged buttocks prominent in the picture; no black bars of privacy will appear there.
There is also a surprising amount of text, primarily dry political analysis and opinion articles from a generally left of center point of view, but the pages of words serve much as articles in a smut mag: They are filler to thicken out the newspaper and provide a bit of buffer between the colorful photos of mayhem and tragedy and scantily clad young women.
EL Diario Extra is the best selling paper in Costa Rica and you will see that mentioned several times an edition. “El periodico con las mas ventas en Costa Rica” is how this paper references itself– one would like to believe that there is a degree of self parody involved, but I believe that assumption to be wrong.
I have come to the conclusion that the editorial philosophy of the Extra toward its readers can be summarized as follows: Dear Reader, No matter how bad a day you have had, no matter how miserable your existence may presently be, somewhere there is someone, WHO HAS IT WORSE OFF THAN YOU! Have you suffered a recent death in the family? Check out this article about the old man in Iran who lost three generations of family in an earthquake, leaving him the sole survivor in a family of thirty-five. Did you just lose your job? Here is an article about a guy who lost his job, car, house and dog, all on the same day. Are you a legless, homeless person reduced to selling trinkets on the street to survive? Today’s El Diario Extra will have an article, complete with color photos, about a legless– and armless– blind person who also suffers from leprosy, and lives and sleeps in a child’s wagon in a Calcutta doorway.
There you have it. Like my days of leaving classics unread, I rarely scan a copy of La Nacion, or La Prensa Libre, or any other thoughtful and intelligently edited newspaper. El Diario Extra is my newspaper of choice in Costa Rica.