Media criticism in Brazil

There is a lack of non-partisan media criticism in Brazil. What we usually see are opinions from people dissatisfied with the treatment that publications give to certain parties or persons, not with the quality of their journalism.

This gap also exists in the mainstream media, as Alberto Dines, co-founder of Observatório da Imprensa (“press observatory”), a media criticism website, likes to remind. It is a pity. The most prestigious publications would be, in theory, the ideal places for non-partisan criticism and coverage.

On January 28th, we had a surprise. Folha de S.Paulo, the most important newspaper in Brazil, published an article questioning the quality of journalism in the country. The hook was a cover story of Época, a weekly magazine.

As I’ll argue below, there’s not much meat to Época’s cover story. It appears that its reporters tried very hard to uncover something incriminating, but found only vague implications. Under normal conditions, most magazines might refrain from printing such an inflammatory cover without any proof of wrongdoing. But conditions are far from normal in Brazil at the moment. Suspicion of politicians — and of Rousseff’s government especially — now runs so deep that almost any implication can stick.

Seen this way, the cover may tell us more about the polarization of Brazil’s media and political landscape than it does about Rousseff’s ex-husband.

I did not translate that, the article was actually written in English. Because, sadly, it was not exactly a work from Folha, but from one of its blogs, From Brazil, edited by journalist Vincent Bevins. And the text’s author, Alex Cuadros, is not a member of Folha’s staff — he is a former Bloomberg Businesweek reporter and now works as a freelancer.

That is what it took for a text so hard on journalism — and which actually name names — to be published on the website of Brazil’s most influential newspaper. In other words, there is nothing new in the world of Brazilian press.

As for the piece itself, I have only one note for now. Cuadros writes:

It has long been an article of faith on Brazil’s left that the establishment media — Veja, Época, the Globo media group, and newspapers such as Folha de S.Paulo — are in league to undermine Lula, Rousseff, and their Workers Party. This is an exaggeration. While it’s true that these outlets generally lean to the right of Brazil’s political spectrum (if we define the center according to electoral outcomes since 2000), for the most part their reporting is responsible. Sometimes, it is crucial. In 2012, for example, O Estado de S. Paulo reported on the massively inflated price of a Petrobras refinery in the U.S. — long before Car Wash would uncover signs of embezzlement in the project.

Also, scoops from the establishment media have often exposed scandals involving the current opposition. Perhaps most famously, in a 1997 front-page story, Folha exposed the congressional vote-buying that paved the way for a constitutional amendment to allow President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Lula’s longtime rival, to run for reelection. (The scandal was never officially investigated.)

But stories like the one I’ve mentioned from Veja, by making spurious leaps based on trumped-up evidence, undermine the credibility of the entire media. Rather than illuminating, they obfuscate, and serve to deepen the already extreme polarization of politics here.

I do not know if he noticed, but the two positive examples he gives are from daily papers, and the two big targets of his attacks are weeklies. Although we can find many errors from the former and big scoops from the latter, I think that makes for a good illustration of the work of the main news publications in Brazil in the last years. Newspapers in general have done a better and more balanced job, while magazines have been using their more analytical and interpretive approach (if not opinionated) to distort the facts at will.

Finally, an anecdote. After the article appeared, Diego Escosteguy, Época’s editor-in-chief, unfollowed Cuadros on Twitter. Ouch. That hurt.