Monthly Archives: November 2013

Brazil in my 10 years as a journalist

Exactly 10 years ago I started my first job as journalist at a sports website in São Paulo. Boy, these years went by real fast. I, the media industry and Brazil have changed a lot in the last decade. And there is probably much more to come after the big sporting events are finished and my country becomes a little less self-absorbed. The improvements have been notable enough, however, to start a change in our communicating culture. When I started, all a young reporter could hope for was to write for print media or be on TV (if you were good looking enough), earn US$ 15,000 a year and work on stories about how failed and corrupted we are. That Brazil is no more.

And the biggest changes came in the last 10 years.

Like it or not, the media business has changed a lot in Brazil.

Back in November 2003, working at a sports website meant I could have my college education paid for. But no one who worked there was truly happy: a couple of years before their printed version had died. They only kept it on the Internet because it was much cheaper and got proper funding from… the college I went to. In those days, lecturers would say my class was starting in journalism at the worst moment ever. “I bet no more than 10 out 100 of you will still be in journalism within five years,” one of them said. He hasn’t worked in mainstream print media since, but those who adapted to the Internet are doing well now.

Another change was in the number of people speaking foreign languages. Since I speak a few, I could do loads of stories on international football. That was basically because I was looking where no one else was — I had about 20 colleagues, a few spoke English, a couple could do Spanish well. It is quite a difference from my most recent job. Many could do great in foreign languages, some could even do Mandarin. That reflects how much Brazilians have traveled and studied abroad in the last 10 years. Before the last decade, that was an asset to our narrow-minded elite. Now middle-income people can afford it.

I left the sports website for Reuters to work in the coverage of the 2004 Olympic Games. It was the best move I ever made. When the flame was put out, I started reporting politics, which has been my main turf since then. That allowed me to follow the mensalao scandal from the beginning. The votes-in-Congress for-bribes scheme discovered in the Lula administration has been a driving force in Brazil since then. It has also been pivotal to understand how Brazilian mainstream media works: most of them were fair to hit the Worker’s Party (PT) for their behavior, such a different one from what they promised.

But they haven’t given the same treatment to politicians of other parties involved in corruption. Reporters are not to blame.

That has fostered a web of fanatical online PT followers, a very notable one when I covered the political campaigns that ended in Lula’s reelection (2006) and Dilma Rousseff’s election (2010). Those Lula boys don’t treat journalists with due respect because they are led into believing whatever media publishes is to go against them. They exist because of something new in Brazilian media: many are funded by the government and some get their news straight from cabinet ministers who don’t like mainstream media. Although I have voted for both PT and opposition candidates, it is difficult to say these people’s perceptions are completely wrong.

If you look at bare figures, Brazil’s success in the last decade is going to be measured by social programs like Bolsa Familia, which is a revamped version of social programs ran by Lula’s predecessor, opposition’s Fernando Henrique Cardoso. But if you read Brazilian media, that will always be tainted by the mensalao scandal that took place in 2004, was discovered in 2005 and still seems big enough to take down most of old PT leadership since then. Some of those were arrested recently and might actually do time in jail. There was surely too much political influence in the trial that led to those convictions.

At least the whole process brings some closure.

Let’s see if our mainstream media agrees to move on. Brazil has improved as a whole, but political debate is still poor.

After I worked at every desk in the Reuters Portuguese service and came back from the coverage of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, I left for a new adventure. That was to be the editor-in-chief of the Brazilian issue of British football magazine FourFourTwo. My hopes were really high, since that was my first print media job. The material we had to work with was really great, although the publisher here wasn’t to the level it should for such a product. But the timing couldn’t be worse: September 2008. That means the exact moment Lehman Brothers went bankrupted and the world economy entered a depression.

We definitely tried, but there were no ads. Sales were low. And forecasts were grim. I stayed for six months and the magazine is no more. I am still a correspondent for the main FourFourTwo, a task that has given me great moments — three cover stories and interviews with Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos, Zico, Socrates and many others. But in the beginning of 2009, going back to the Internet business seemed like a better idea.

That is an idea I would never think of back in 2003.

Firstly I became an economy news writer for UOL, Brazil’s most popular news website. But soon afterwards I was invited to be a political reporter — another decision that shows more change in the media business here. UOL started less than 20 years ago as an online shopping window for Folha de S.Paulo, Brazil’s best-selling newspaper. In 2008, there was a massive shift for them: they decided to produce their own content, since its future looks better than Folha’s.

I was assigned as their main reporter for political news and I had no predecessor to talk to, just a few editors that had been reporters long before. When they sent me to Brasilia, after Rousseff was elected, I was their only staff reporter there. Now they have a proper office, more reporters and bigger ratings.

The internet is not a bet anymore.

In Brasilia I noticed why Brazilian politics are so detached from the man on the street. Covering Congress is like going to a fantasy island where everyone overstates their importance. Those who really know how to pull the strings and get things done are usually less interested in online reporters. Those old foxes are mostly baby boomers who can only understand the impact of print media. Reporters like me have a shot at interviewing a few ministers, being in presidential press conferences, covering big Supreme Court trials and taking part of historical moments. I got all that.

But scoops are almost exclusive to print and TV journalists.

I left UOL shortly before the London Olympics for three reasons: I was going to the UK anyway for my MA at City University, I wanted to start an international career and I was eager to cover the biggest event on Earth for Yahoo! Brazil. Those would be my third Olympic Games, the second at the proper venues and a good preparation for Rio-2016. When I left, Brasilia was still the fantasy island where protesters would never come to. Most politicians had always downplayed the impact of demonstrations.

As a student and London correspondent for Globo.com, I could read Brazil differently. When I wrote about the city I was living in, I was actually writing about Brazil too. Living abroad showed me how Brazil is little known and how insufficient our efforts are in making it a more international place. That is why I came back to open a content agency to work in both Portuguese and English. So far it there have been good businesses, but I am eager for more.

If Brazil doesn’t get fashionable until 2016, when?

In the last 10 years I had loads of responsibility, some fun and a few tears. Responsibility came as I got to see two different presidents taking office from the insides of the presidential palace, elections in three other countries and the conclave that elected Pope Francis. Fun came when I saw Usain Bolt win the 100 m dash in London, Corinthians become Fifa Club World Cup champions in Japan and a concert by R.E.M., my favorite band ever. Tears came as I worked at the site of an air crash that killed 200 people in São Paulo, when I met people that had been tortured during the dictatorship and when tennis player Gustavo Kuerten retired (I know the last one sounds shallow…).

But the biggest gap in my CV is surely the fact I wasn’t here during protests of June. I tried to fill it with this blog, which has been, in a way, another example of how media has changed here and abroad. It is this blog that gave me the chance of being a bridge between Brazil and the rest of the world. It is also this blog that has given me even more friends than those I gathered in the last 10 years as journalist. How could I not love this profession even more now?

Well, I hope I still have you all in the next 10 years too. 

World Cup spending shows Brazilians can’t tell policies from corruption

Brazilians are difficult. They want better services provided by the government. They also want the government to spend less. They might protest for both at the same time. Common sense dictates it would all be paid for if governance were better or if there weren’t so much corruption. But when real cases are found, they don’t know how to react and keep the very structure that allows the misdeeds in the first place. That partly explains why some groups are critical of World Cup spending: the event galvanizes more attention than schemes difficult to understand and gives people leeway to moan and do very little about it.

For most Brazilians spending on the World Cup is the equivalent to corruption. It is as if the tournament were all about new useless high-tech stadia, and not any infrastructural improvements. Of course Brazil should have done more and could discuss its national projects with the population — people of Munich have just voted on a bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. But it isn’t reasonable that some people are angrier at FIFA than at notoriously corrupted Brazilian politicians — some of those are on their side.

That is not a new thing, we call it “selective indignation”. When it is appealing enough, we can go on and on and on. If there is a twist that is difficult to understand after a first look, we blame the usual suspects and carry on. Governments did a bad job in explaining, so many Brazilians think it is wise to see the World Cup here as a scandal in itself. They don’t know there are much bigger scandals ready to pop out. But those can be too complicated for our Homer Simpsons to understand. That low level of debate makes crooked politicians succeed. To do that, they use the very political disengagement of their voters to give their spin and hide what is essential.

The trials of a votes for bribes scandal were on TV all day long and exacerbated the perception of corruption in Brazil.

When São Paulo City Hall decided to give Corinthians a US$ 250 million tax exemption to build their arena to open the World Cup, loads of people cried foul as if there were no difference among government spending, financing mechanisms and corruption. The tax exemption was given because it was according to a law passed in 2004 so constructors got interested in the impoverished East Zone — where the new stadium is. The region of Itaquera was dead for business until now. But many Brazilians find no difference between that policy and a US$ 250 million scandal in which senior taxmen at City Hall took bribes to forgive debt for constructors. In the end, it’s all money.

This is one of the examples to show most Brazilians are unable to tell a policy from a crime. There are many others. The same goes for most protesters and critics, I’m afraid. Although the World Cup is a great opportunity that deserves proper scrutiny and transparency, most talking points have been around the endless yada-yada-yada-healthcare-is-more-important. Nothing could be less effective. Every government will repeat rising figures for investments in hospitals and doctors and call the next patient in. As a journalist who covers Brazil since 2004, I have seen authorities play with that incomprehension over and over and get away with much worse.

Average Brazilians believe corruption is soaring because more cases have come out since the end of the dictatorship (1964-1985). In the recent case put out by São Paulo City Hall, those that revealed the scheme are frequently considered as responsible as the parasites they go after — even by the press. Very few clearly understand what is at stake. It is the same when it comes to World Cup spending. Contracts that are remade or reconsidered because of suspicions are seen as “more corruption” instead of “we dodged that bullet.” That is also why governments don’t insist in controversial plans and just give up.

Some are so naive that they think Brazil should be boycotted because it is spending. More than six million people from all over the planet tried to get tickets to the World Cup. Sorry, Carla Dauden.

Disinformation has been a big hindrance for Brazil to tackle its political problems. That is the root of corruption and bad governance. The level of the public debate is very low, almost primitive, except when big unions or a few bright lights are involved. It was high time we began being more vocal, despite all the newbie mistakes. But it is also that politically virgin hysteria that explains why it is so easy to find people who are comfortable to go to the cameras and say they don’t want the World Cup at the same time they try to buy tickets. Brazilians have a very ambivalent mindset, like Roger Cohen explains

There is surely a fair and important debate about the need for new stadia. There is no reason to believe cities without big clubs like Cuiaba, Manaus or Brasilia will use them anytime soon. FIFA has said they can put a show with eight arenas and it was Brazil who insisted to have 12 host-cities — basically because of awkward political arrangements. But it is also true only the World Cup could put these places on the tourism map. And that can make services improve there. If that is not the case, as this post by Al Jazeera’s Gabriel Elizondo suggests, it can make their politicians more accountable.

The expensive stadia can actually make that happen.

Adding some perspective is almost the same of being in favor of corruption — mainly after the June protests. So far not much has changed for the better and Brazilians still think of themselves as the most corrupt country in the world (they haven’t heard Russia will spend US$ 50 billion in their Winter Olympics). Citizenship and self-awareness could well be other legacies of the World Cup, but it seems Brazil is going to miss that deadline too.

Let’s hope for better in the Rio Olympics in 2016.