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Brazzil - Media - May 2004

NY Times Affair: Brazil in a Major Hangover

If commentaries on the redness of the Brazilian President cheeks
and nose have increased recently in the political and journalistic
circle of the Federal District, this does not make it especially
relevant. Larry Rohter ought to have known that gossip in Brasília
does not always reflect the great questions of national concern.

Alberto Dines


Picture The article in the New York Times on President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is defective. Third-class journalism. It is not at the level of the professional who signed it, nor of the great newspaper that published. Even the reporter/fraudster Jayson Blair would be more cautious and less scandalous in talking of the private life of a citizen—even if he were not the President of Brazil.

To begin with, reporter Larry Rohter erred in dimensions and in emphasis: Lula's habits are not a "national concern" because he never made a secret of the fact that he likes a drink. The photo used to illustrate the article (beer stein in hand, at Oktoberfest of last year, in Blumenau, state of Santa Catariana) shows a happy person, relaxed, one who has no problems being photographed with a cold one.

We need to remember that not only the marketer Duda Mendonça, but also Lula da Silva himself, the President elect, did not hide the very expensive bottle of wine that the former offered his client on the occasion of his victory in the first round of the 2002 elections. And so there is no mystery here.

The President—and not just because he was a simple metal-worker, but because he is a bon vivant—publicly admits his pleasures and habits. And perhaps erroneously, he has tried to take advantage of his friendly and "popular" image.

Acritical Reproduction

George W. Bush had problems with alcoholism in his youth, and so he was obliged to make them public in his campaign. If he were to appear with a glass in his hand, yes, that would be a political issue. The alcoholic Boris Yeltsin was, yes, a national concern. More than this, an international one, because during one of his frequent benders he could have pushed the wrong button and begun the nuclear holocaust.

If commentaries on the redness of the presidential cheeks and nose have increased recently in the political and journalistic circle of the Federal District, this does not make it especially relevant. Rohter ought to have known that gossip in Brasília does not always reflect the great questions of national concern. In fact, this is one of the great national problems.

Secondly, the sources mentioned in the article do not have the least credibility. Leonel Brizola is a political enemy of President Lula, and thus suspect. For fifty years he has been saying whatever comes into his head and we have already paid dearly for his blustering.

To compare the columnist Cláudio Humberto with the charlatan Matt Drudge disqualifies any information from the outset. And if the source is disqualified, its information is therefore compromised. To use the column by Diogo Mainardi published in Veja as a reference was another crass error, because the text, in addition to being opinion, is lacking in any intent to denounce, or even to supply facts

If the New York Times made a mistake—and it made a major mistake— Brazilian newspapers also erred in their Sunday editions (May 9). The acritical republication, without any commentary on the errors of the original article confirms everything that the Observatório da Imprensa has been saying for eight years. Especially regarding our Sunday editions.

Melancholy Episode

It is inconceivable that the most important and most prestigious edition of the week should be sent to press with such haste and by such small teams. The Estado de S. Paulo, the Folha and the Globo (which published a little article in the local edition) ought not to be content with reproducing such an important slam without the proper analytical support.

Even in the Monday editions (May 10, sent to press on Sunday when the newspaper offices were still working at half-strength), the bulk of the material offered to the reader was based on the opinions of the administration, which were obviously indignant.

What was missing was the other side, the technical support, an x-ray of a precarious and irresponsible bit of news. The expression imprensa marrom (brown press, yellow press) mentioned in the official note from the government needed to have been properly translated, particularly so that it could be understood by the international press—accustomed to the yellow press. The suspect character of the sources—above all Leonel Brizola and Cláudio Humberto—ought to have been emphasized.

What happened with the article involving the President of the Republic happens every day in a press that bureaucratized its capacity to react and its instinct to respond. This is another example of the dangerous "declaratory journalism" which permeates and clogs up our editorial offices.

On the first day (Sunday) it passively reproduced what the NYT said. On the second day, it did the same with the administration's reaction. And only on the third day (Tuesday) did "journalistically sound" articles (to use the apt expression of Eugênio Bucci), which were less factual and more analytical, begin to appear.

The problem is not one of economics and has nothing to do with the crisis afflicting media companies and the brutal cuts of personal in editorial offices. The "new journalism" practiced in Brazil is slow, liner and devitalized.

For many years the Sunday newspapers have been offering this sort of warmed-over and insipid journalism. They close the edition "no pescoção" on Friday (meaning they write it in advance for Sunday), and on Saturday, through the morning and in the afternoon, they update it just a little.

The number of pages can be ample—as was the case around Mother's Day—they can even be dense as far as the dimensions of the articles, but they cannot manage to be up to date. A capital sin, since journalistic excellence is principally measured by the quickness of its response time.

If in the Sunday issues the perversity of the NYT had been properly analyzed by the important Brazilian press, the snowball would already have diminished by Tuesday. Now, fatally robust, it can continue or even grow until the following weekend with the inevitable sensationalism contributed by the weeklies which will not overlook such a tasty dish.

The episode is doubly sad for the press. A great newspaper like the New York Times, recently recovered from a crisis in credibility, slips once again. But the newspapers, which might have contradicted it immediately, showed themselves to be floundering. One seems drunk, the others hung over.

Alberto Dines, the author, is a journalist, founder and researcher at LABJOR—Laboratório de Estudos Avançados em Jornalismo (Laboratory for Advanced Studies in Journalism) at UNICAMP (University of Campinas) and editor of the Observatório da Imprensa. He also writes a column on cultural issues for the Rio daily Jornal do Brasil. You can reach him by email at obsimp@ig.com.br.
This article was originally published in Observatório da Imprensawww.observatoriodaimprensa.com.br.
Translated from the Portuguese by Tom Moore. Moore has been fascinated by the language and culture of Brazil since 1994. He translates from Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian and German, and is also active as a musician. He is the librarian for music, modern languages and media at The College of New Jersey. Comments welcome at mooret@tcnj.edu.

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