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On 18 June I gave a paper as a member of a panel on “Media, Perception and the Consolidation of Brazilian Democracy”, part of a one-day conference, entitled “Transcending the Dichotomy”, organised by the Brazil Forum and held at the London School of Economics.
This paper greatly irritated Otávio Frias, the current editor of Brazil’s largest newspaper, Folha de S. Paulo, and member of the family that owns it. Otávio Frias was also on the panel and his angry response to my paper can be found here (about 57 minutes in).
Probably because of the controversy, several people have contacted me and asked for the notes to my presentation. So here they are, unedited.
The title of this session is Media, Perception and the Consolidation of Brazilian Democracy. And it seems
to me that some structural weaknesses in the Brazilian media are making it difficult to consolidate democracy.
I’m not talking about individual journalists – some great professionals.
What I’m talking about is the media industry itself.
So I’m going to talk about the role the Brazilian press has played in current crisis. If I have time, I’ll also talk briefly about the role of the foreign press in the crisis, which I think has been unusual and interesting
It is perhaps a bit of a truism to say that in Brazil the ‘grande imprensa’ – the mainstream press — is dominated by a few families, all of them of them highly conservative.
Mino Carta, one of Brazil’s leading left-wing journalists and currently editor of Carta Capital, has described the Brazilian press as “reactionary and conservative”, and “attached by its umbilical cord to power and those holding power”.
But not it is not just analysts in Brazil who say this.
The NGO, Reporters without Borders – an international NGO that promotes and defends freedom of information and freedom of the press — agrees, though it doesn’t use such colourful language.”
It said in its latest report: “The ownership of the media [in Brazil] remains very concentrated, especially in the hands of powerful industrial families that are frequently close to the political class.”
“Brazilian media coverage of the country’s current political crisis has highlighted the problem. In a barely veiled manner, the leading national media have urged the public to help bring down President Dilma Rousseff. The journalists working for these media groups are clearly subject to the influence of private and partisan interests, and these permanent conflicts of interests are clearly very detrimental to the quality of their reporting.”
Reporters without Borders also highlighted the problem of violence against journalists:
“With seven journalists murdered in 2015 alone, Brazil continues to be the western hemisphere’s third deadliest country for media personnel, after Mexico and Honduras. All of them were investigating sensitive subjects such as corruption and organized crime.”
It was because of this violence against journalists and the media concentration that Reporters without Borders downgraded Brazil in terms of freedom of the press.
It now ranks Brazil 104th out of 180 countries.
And it clearly believes that the situation is getting worse. In 2010 Brazil ranked 58th.
The hostility towards the PT that Reporters without Borders refers to has been there since the PT was formed in the 1980s.
But it ebbs and flows, becoming particularly evident at times when the status quo is threatened.
First time I noticed it was back in 1989 – when it seemed that Lula might win the presidency at his first attempt.
I haven’t got time to discuss this in detail but one incident has become notorious – on the eve of voting in the second round, TV Globo maliciously edited a debate between the two presidential candidates — Lula and Collor de Melo – so that it showed Lula’s worst moments and Collor’s best moments. This manipulation of the news may have been partly responsibly for Lula’s defeat.
Today is another delicate moment, when the establishment clearly want to get the PT out of government.
The bias is very evident in the editorials of the mainstream press. The journalist Cileide Alves analysed the press’s editorials for the first four months of this year:
Estadão published 83 editorials against Dilma
Globo newspaper – 29
FSP (which, we have just heard from Otávio Frias, doesn’t support the impeachment but wants Dilma to resign) – 23
Does this matter? Newspapers all over the world take positions – just think of the reporting on the referendum in this country. Newspapers have adopted very strong positions.
I don’t think this, in itself, matters. What matters is when the editorial position taken by the media distorts the way in which it covers the news. In other words, when it gets in the way of clear and honest reporting of the news.
And I think this has been happening in Brazil.
This is broadly the position taken too by João Feres, the coordinator of Manchetômetro, an organisation that monitors bias in the Brazilian press.
After examining in detail week after week the Brazilian press, he concluded: “It’s no exaggeration to say that the Brazilian press manipulates public opinion”.
Looking at coverage of the current crisis, perhaps the clearest case once again is TV Globo.
I spent over a month in the Amazon earlier this year. Isolated families – no internet but, of course, a satellite on the roof of their houses and a television inside.
Daily routine — Novela das oito, the soap opera, and then TV Globo’s Jornal Nacional.
The hostility in the Jornal Nacional towards Lula and the PT, who was being investigated for corruption at the time, was very notable. Repeated showings of Lula being taken, hand-cuffed, to give a statement. Repeated reporting of alleged corruption among PT politicians, without the same stress on the even greater alleged involvement of non-PT politicians in corruption. It gave the impression that the PT was the country’s most corrupt party, when there is no basis for this allegation. I was actually quite shocked.
The unfairness in treatment has of course struck many Brazilian analysts, including Celso Rocha de Barros, who’s a columnist for the Folha. He’s one of the group of excellent journalists, which I referred to above. He has documented how the media follows obsessively corruption stories about the PT while downplaying or ignoring equally shocking corruption stories involving politicians from other parties.
There are numerous other examples of distortion, not just by TV Globo, but by other parts of the mainstream media. You don’t often see outright lies. More common are omissions and indirect forms of manipulation. Each incident might seem trivial but it adds up to serious distortion.
Let’s take three examples provided by Calle2, a digital magazine:
- On the day before the impeachment was voted on, Globonews was reporting on the statements made for or against impeachment by deputies in the Chamber of Deputies. Globonews chose to leave the live transmission and to get a comment from one of its journalists or another commentator exactly when a pro-government (ie pro-Dilma) deputy was speaking. So it gave the impression – without actually saying it – that almost all the Chamber supported impeachment.
- Soon after Michel Temer came to office on 18 April, it was revealed that the main ministers in his new government were being investigated as part of the LavaJato (Car Wash) probe or were being cited in testimonies. This was clearly an important development – and widely reported by the foreign press. But it took the Folha de S. Paulo a fortnight to tell its readers about this development. And, according to Calle2, this only happened after it, Calle2, had contacted the Folha ombudsman. And even then, says Calle2, it wasn’t dealt with in a satisfactory way.
- When the Brazilian jurist Janaina Paschoal took part in a debate in the Senate on 28 April, she admitted that she had received 45,000 reais from the PSDB to draw up her parecer, her legal argument, which is the basis on which the demand for Dilma’s impeachment is being made. This is obviously an important piece of information because it suggests that the parecer may not be an impartial, legal document but something commissioned by the PSDB, which is the party which is pressing most strongly for the impeachment. But on the following day neither the Folha nor the Estadão newspapers had a report on this.
Does all of this matter?
Yes I think it does.
We’re seeing the emergence of new sources of information – alternative websites (Pûblica, Midia Ninja, Fluxo, Nexo, Indymedia, Conectas and so on) – but, at the moment at least, the mainstream media still sets the agenda.
The PT promised to reform the media and even to set up its own news agency. But it didn’t deliver. I think that reform is still urgently required if democracy is to be consolidated in Brazil.
Now briefly a note on the role played by the foreign press.
I think on the whole the foreign press has covered the crisis well, though of course it’s easier to avoid political bias if you’re covering a country a long way off and not usually high in the news agenda of your own country.
What it is interesting is the way the coverage changed. In the beginning the foreign press tended to cover the anti-Dilma protests fairly uncritically. It was as if the press was seduced by the excitement of millions going on to the streets to protest against corruption.
But then doubts grew as to the legitimacy of the decision to open a process to impeach Dilma. Perhaps a turning point was the vote in the Chamber of Deputies.
On 17 April Brazil was a big news story – a breaking news story – for the eight hours it took for the voting to take place. And, while the Brazilian media tended to cover the story like a sports event, with the latest ‘score’ recorded on boards, the foreign press began looked at the politics.
It was shocked by the tone adopted by some of the deputies.
This is how The Guardian described it:
“On a dark night, arguably the lowest point was when Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right deputy from Rio de Janeiro, dedicated his yes vote to Carlos Brilhante Ustra, the colonel who headed the Doi-Codi torture unit during the dictatorship era. Rousseff, a former guerrilla, was among those tortured. Bolsonaro’s move prompted left-wing deputy Jean Wyllys to spit towards him.
Eduardo Bolsonaro, his son and also a deputy, used his time at the microphone to honour the general responsible for the military coup in 1964.”
The foreign press also began to report on the grotesqueness of having deputies, who were deeply involved themselves in corruption, accusing Dilma of corruption.
This was clear in much of the US the coverage — in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. And in Europe Der Spiegel, the German magazine, went as far as dubbing the vote the “uprising of the hypocrites”.
The New York Times, generally regarded as a very conservative newspaper, even carried a fairly strongly worded editorial about the process in the Senate.
“While Ms. Rousseff has not managed the country effectively, the senators relishing her exit must remember that the president was elected twice. The Workers’ Party still has considerable support, particularly among the millions it pulled out of poverty over the last two decades.
Confidence in Ms. Rousseff and her party may have plunged in recent months. But Ms. Rousseff is poised to play a disproportionately high price for administrative wrongdoing while several of her most ardent detractors stand accused of more egregious crimes. They may find that much of the ire that has been focused on her will soon be redirected at them.”
More predictably, Al Jazeera, the Qatar news agency, was critical, not only of the impeachment process itself but of the coverage of the crisis in the Brazilian media. It was, I think, the first to describe what was going on in Brazil as a ‘coup’.
This foreign reporting, which was looking at angles of the story not covered by the mainstream press in Brazil, had consequences in Brazil.
More than any other country I know, Brazil is intrigued by the way it gets covered abroad. News stories and features tend to be either translated or quoted from at length in the Brazilian media.
In this way, I think, the foreign press played an important role. It brought to the attention of many Brazilians new aspects of the crisis. It broke through the monolithic walls of the mainstream press and helped explain to Brazilians why a significant section of the population was calling what was happening a coup.
This was something that the mainstream press in Brazil wasn’t doing. And I think it helps to drive home the point I made earlier – for democracy to be consolidated in Brazil the mainstream press in Brazil has to change.