The leading newspapers of Spain are stolid and gray and thoughtful, befitting a nation that transformed itself from a dictatorship to a democracy in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the press chronicling and analyzing and encouraging every hesitant step of the way.
A glance at the newspaper headlines would make any visitor believe that Spaniards spend most of their time gossiping about the ideology of the ruling Socialist Party, the annual growth in gross national product, the future of Europe, and the rivalry of labor unions.
Actually, most Spaniards read far more titillating stuff, as is obvious at any of the enormous, street corner newsstands where gossipy weekly magazines sell twice as fast as newspapers. With their garish covers and insinuating headlines, the magazines reflect more accurately what really interests the country--real-life soap operas, deeply rooted in Spanish culture, involving the rich, famous and powerful.
Take the story of the rich and beautiful Koplowitz sisters and their cheating husbands, for example--a story that has entertained Spain for two years.
Alicia and Esther Koplowitz lived tranquil lives of leisure while married to two cousins, Alberto Cortina and Alberto Alcocer. The men ran the gigantic construction firm that had been started by the Koplowitz sisters' late father, a Jewish refugee from the Nazis.
Then one of those weeklies published a photo of Cortina leaving a luxury hotel in Vienna with the young, exuberant wife of the Marques de Cubas. That naturally infuriated his wife, Alicia. The Spanish press then revealed details of an affair Alcocer had with a secretary, equally infuriating sister Esther.
Macho Spanish society tends to pooh-pooh such affairs. Also, it was rumored that some business rival had leaked information about the infidelities. But the Koplowitz sisters, although they had little business experience, turned on their respective husbands, wrested control of the $2-billion construction company from them and started divorce proceedings.
The feat of the Koplowitz sisters, both in their late 30s, earned them the admiration of many Spanish women, and their adventures are still reported every week in the Spanish magazines.
Another case involving Deputy Prime Minister Alfonso Guerra could have enormous political impact because he has been a close associate of Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez since the fascist years when the Socialist Party was illegal. Guerra, whose arrogance shines through almost every news account, seems to be despised by most journalists. But he is widely recognized as a paragon of organizational efficiency for the Socialist Party and the government. Gonzalez, perhaps unwisely, has stated that, if Guerra were forced to leave the government, he would leave as well.
The problem centers on Alfonso's brother, Juan Guerra, a businessman accused of setting up shop in a government office in Seville. The stories imply that Guerra, invoking the influence of his brother, peddled contracts and arranged government jobs and favors for friends and contacts. All this is under investigation now by government prosecutors.
None of this would have come to light, however, if Juan Guerra had not strayed from his matrimonial home a few years ago and taken up with a young nurse. When his wife, Maria de los Angeles Lopez Rubio, surprised him with his love one night, the angry Guerra batted his wife around so badly that a judge sentenced him to jail for three days.
After Guerra refused last year to increase his support payments from $1,500 a month to $6,000 a month, an angry Angeles took a dossier with details about his shady business activities to Manuel Fraga, a well-known conservative politician. Within weeks, the magazine Epoca broke the scandal.
The tale turned tragic a few weeks ago, however, when the 43-year-old Angeles collapsed from a cerebral hemorrhage and died in a hospital in Seville.
In her last interview before the collapse, she told a reporter for the magazine Tribuna: "The best thing that could happen to me is death. Until I die, no one will leave me in peace." Both brothers Juan and Adolfo Guerra showed up at the funeral while prosecutors insisted her death would not prevent them from mounting a case.
Another story that Spain has taken to heart is that of Isabel Pantoja, the beautiful Andalusian singer once married to Francisco Rivera, better known as Paquirri, the leading bullfighter in Spain. Although courted by several other men, Pantoja proclaimed to the Spanish press that she was a virgin on her wedding day in 1983. This marriage, set against a background reminiscent of an old-fashioned Spanish novel, came to an end in a bull ring three years later when Paquirri was mortally gored.
The tears of Pantoja became the tears of Spain and she took on the mantilla, as the weeklies put it, of "the national widow." Still a popular singer on records, Pantoja emerged from isolation this year by starring in a musical movie, which has brought a cascade of new publicity.
Some of the press notices are negative. Detractors accuse her of being overly ambitious. Meanwhile, Paquirri's first wife, Carmen Ordonez, is suing the singer for allegedly refusing to turn over some Paquirri mementos that rightfully belong to his children from the first marriage. But the movie has been a rapturous success, and most of the publicity has been adoring.
All these tales have been embellished by the weekly magazines that have become Spain's main publishing success in the last 15 years. They now sell 7 million copies a week, and it is clear that their success is founded on gossip, sensationalism and voyeurism.
The most influential and serious newsmagazine, Cambio 16, for example, has only half the circulation of Interviu, which publishes a nude on the cover every week and a nude Playboy-style photo essay alongside its news reports inside.
It's just the opposite with Spanish newspapers, which have a total daily circulation of 3 million copies. The most serious newspapers do best. El Pais, a newspaper founded the year after Francisco Franco died and now as analytical and thoughtful as Le Monde in Paris, is the country's largest newspaper, with a daily circulation of 375,000 and a Sunday circulation of 760,000.
Some analysts believe there are too many newspapers in Spain. More than two-thirds of the 116 newspapers have circulations of less than 25,000 and only three have more than 200,000. Many old fascist newspapers folded after the death of Franco in 1975, but for every paper that went under, another emerged.
And even though some think there are too many newspapers, it is generally agreed that there are too few newspaper readers. Only 80 copies of newspapers are circulated for every 1,000 Spaniards--the lowest total, except for Portugal, anywhere in Europe.
Two other characteristics of the Spanish press stand out. The first is the enormous space, especially in newspapers, devoted to literature, philosophy and other intellectual and cultural matters.
When Mexican poet and essayist Octavio Paz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in mid-October, the Madrid newspaper ABC devoted its front page, five pages of photos, an editorial and a supplement of 24 full pages to the news. El Pais covered the award with a front-page story, an editorial, and seven full pages of coverage inside.
Also striking is the inordinate amount of space devoted to coverage of America's National Basketball Assn. One magazine, SuperBasket, with a weekly circulation of 28,000, reports little else.
Why should the Spanish press care so much about American basketball? Apparently it all started in Los Angeles in 1984 when Spain finished second to the United States in the Olympic basketball championships and the country became obsessed with the sport.