(Warning: this post is very self-centered. If you are bored to death with pieces like this, don’t even start.)
“You ask me questions that you don’t ask the other side.” When I heard former U.S. President Bill Clinton give that answer to a Fox News reporter in an interview about Osama bin Laden, it make me think of questions I am asked by foreigners in interviews, conversations and social media interactions. Most of these are surely constructive and interesting, even when big disagreement arises. Some of those talks started because of misunderstandings about me or about my country, but could still be adjusted to be enjoyable. There are a few, though, that have insulted me both as a Brazilian and as a reporter. And the reason is simple: there are internationals who believe locals have to be lectured. The tone varies from condescending to aggressive, but that is the bottom line even with reporters.
Let me reintroduce myself again so this post doesn’t look like an ego trip for no reason. Five years ago I planned to make a major shift in my career; start reporting in English as much as I did in Portuguese. By then I was a reasonably experienced political reporter in São Paulo, with a steady job that I liked, about to move to Brasilia to cover all branches of power. The reason for change was my impression I could do a good job in translating my experience as a working-class Brazilian journalist to a foreign audience. Although I surely talked to foreigners that knew more than I did about particular Brazilian issues, I was also aware there was a lot to offer since Brazil has a difficulty in showing itself as the complex country it is.
Now I work for prestigious football magazine FourFourTwo, news agency INS, website Latin Correspondent, consultancy firm Southern Pulse, Deloitte Brazil’s magazine plus a number of other publications with a bit less frequency. I have written pieces that try to explain Brazilian issues with a Brazilian journalistic eye — an asset that is not common in this market. Among others, I have contributed to a series called “the death of Brazilian football,” I made top ten worst ministers lists, reasons to go and reasons not to go to the World Cup, a number of stories about Brazil’s current lagging economy, I have cast written stones on every president and every opposition leader here, both in English and in Portuguese. I have been targeted by political activists on both sides — which is great for me.
Still, international colleagues that I never met (and some that I did meet) will ask me questions I wouldn’t dare asking any other journalist. They talk as if 1 – Brazilian journalists aren’t proper journalists that can make fair accounts and 2 – Brazilians are too passionate to be accurate. “Do you say that because you are Brazilian?” “Why did YOUR team lose 7-1 in the World Cup?” “Now that Brazil lost the World Cup, do you believe YOUR president will have a tough time to get reelected?” “Who did you vote for in the elections?” “Do you support the World Cup because YOU ARE pro-government?” “Did you see Corinthians as favorites in the Libertadores Cup because you are a FAN of theirs?” Some won’t even ask those questions. They will formulate those as assertions. In public.
Curiously most correspondents are outraged when Brazilians often wrongly dismiss their reports as “gringo stuff” — which is very rare since most educated Brazilians are crazy about foreign media. But when that challenge comes, international reporters find it utterly insulting that someone from here suggests that they misunderstood something. “What you see here is what you get,” I heard multiple times. That is the line of thinking behind “likes the World Cup must be pro-Rousseff,” “thinks Pelé is bigger than Maradona and Messi because he is Brazilian” or “ask any question, there is no difference between what an average Brazilian and a Brazilian journalist can say.” The one time I made a similar innuendo to a foreign reporter he quite rightly went bananas. I surely learned my lesson.
The first shocking question came from a colleague at the master’s program I started at City University London in September 2012. “Why is Brazil important?” I never thought I would have to answer THAT one about the seventh largest economy on Earth, a place that was to host the World Cup and the Olympics one after the other, sitting where the Amazon, jet maker Embraer and the world’s biggest social program against hunger are. I got it three times from well-educated British journalists since 2012. One of them at least made the effort to study a bit more for our following conversation. In all three cases, to put it simple, there was a lot of laziness and ignorance. But that is different from disregarding a Brazilian journalist as a journalist. That is what I have been getting.
Of course a reporter can be a football fan, a voter and a supporter of any cause he or she wants. But that shouldn’t stop any of them from doing their work. Those that bothered reading a bit of my work will see that it is accurate and fair. Still, the bizarre questions keep coming to me, and I am sure there will be loads more as the Rio Olympics approach. There would be nothing wrong with them if they were okay to ask to people on the other side. But I am sure no British reporter will be asked “How did your country manage to screw up security so badly in London-2012?” No American journalists will have to respond if they supported Atlanta-96, hailed by many as the worst Olympic Games in decades. There is a reason for that: journalists have to be better than that to be truly critical.
“The Brazilian press, throughout almost all of its history, lived on the shadow of governments, receiving subsidies and grants. But the main obstacle to the development of newspapers has certainly been education. Since the majority of their population could not read, Brazil was marginalized by the boom of the press in the West in the end of the 19th, beginning of the 20th century, at a time when, because the Industrial Revolution demanded a skilled work force to avoid social unrest in Europe and the United States, education became mandatory, universal, free and secular. A great mass of citizens learned how to read and started buying newspapers. New publications came out with hundreds of thousands of copies. In Brazil, that boom offered by the increase in literacy came too late, after a century, when another means of communication, television, already brought the interest of the masses.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Brazilian newspapers were, in the vast majority, elitist, targeted at the minority that had access to education. It is sure that there were popular newspapers, specially in Rio de Janeiro, but almost all of those had fewer copies than the newspapers made for the elite.” (Matías Molina, História dos Jornais no Brasil.)
That was the Brazilian press when it was working. Now it is even worse. There reality is of lay offs every semester, a colossal struggle to craft an online product people will pay for and a self-evident submission to the few sponsors left (mainly banks, realtors, auto industry and agribusiness). Politicians have surely noted that and in recent years they have bet in establishing direct connections with their army of crazy, persistent, often paid and deeply engaged followers. Because of our less and less relevant press, they have sponsored trolls that go after journalists, spread smears about their adversaries and fire up their followers in the most aggressive ways. That movement is now at its peak and it has transformed Brazil into a country of partisan hatred.
That trend began a few years ago when President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva appointed journalist Franklin Martins to deal with the media. Martins believed mainstream media would never care for a positive outlook on administrations held by the Worker’s Party (PT in Portuguese). So he started a policy of sponsoring pro-government bloggers through state-owned companies like Banco do Brasil, Caixa Econômica Federal or Petrobras. Those adds didn’t cost much, but a network of Lula friendly trolls was glad to take on the opposition and on journalists for little money. It surely paid off in the 2006 and the 2010 presidential campaigns, when PT was involved in corruption scandals that could have stopped Lula from being reelected.
Also in 2010 the opposition learned that the dirty tricks could also work for them. During José Serra’s presidential campaign, they learned tactics from Ravi Singh, a man that had worked for a radical wing of the Republican Party in 2008. Since then, an opposition army of trolls has emerged to go after journalists, spread smears about their adversaries and fire up their followers in the most aggressive ways. One of the most famous groups of trolls is not sponsored with ads; their method is to sell “social media communication” to one of the branches of São Paulo government. Of course that product is just peripheral to the main operations. Folha de S.Paulo reported they are paid R$ 70,000 (US$ 18,000) a month.
Since journalists are being fired by their employers, overworked by their editors, attacked by online trolls and intimidated by the public in demonstrations they cover, Brazil’s filters are not working at a reasonable level. That is one of the main reasons why the political debate here has sunk like never before, despite all the information around. A part of the Brazilian press surely works with the engaged bloggers to spread their agenda, which often is the same, but even in those the financial results are disheartening — they are firing staff and losing credibility too. Government sponsored content that is created by those trolls is being massively spread on Facebook, which is more trusted by Brazilians today than the traditional media is, according to a recent poll.
In some countries the excesses of the media are scrutinized and taken seriously so manipulation never happens — or happens less often. In Brazil the press does commit excesses, but the risk lies in its shrinking below the surface. Although those trolls seem to feed on the media to poison the political debate, they are actually taking the place of the press and stimulating an environment of unjustified radicalization. Brazil’s filters are not working. It that doesn’t change in the near future, Brazil as a whole won’t be working either.