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Brazzil - Media - May 2004

Brazil vs. NYT: The Times Misbehaved

The NYT's arrogant attitude will just harden the attitude of Brazilians
who are anti-American. Any chance of seeing the following
headline in the NYT: "Sorry We Were Hoaxed: It is now
clear that the article which the NYT published saying that
President Lula's tippling has become a national concern was false..."?

John Fitzpatrick


Picture "Power without responsibility—the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages." British Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, referring to the press in 1931.

If you are fed up with the New York Times affair I don't blame you, but I do not think we can just close it simply because President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has backed down and the NYT reporter, Larry Rohter, has issued a letter regretting any "embarrassment" the article may have caused.

No-one has come out well from this episode, certainly not the NYT, which published an unfounded article, based on dubious sources, which has given the world the impression that Brazil's President is a Latin American Boris Yeltsin.

The paper's response to the fuss was arrogant and even now it is refusing to amend its report one whit. In his letter of "apology", the reporter had the effrontery to push part of the blame onto the translator. This is from NYT's own report: ""In his lawyers' letter tonight, Mr. Rohter, a fluent Portuguese speaker, argued that the version of his article had been badly translated in the Brazilian press, "a fact that could have amplified the misunderstanding."" Oh yes?

In fact, the reference to the translation appears as the last item in a lawyer's letter appealing against the cancellation of the reporter's visa. This is what it says in Portuguese: "Por fim, o Requerente manifesta sua preocupação, por entender que a versão de seu texto para o português não é fidedigna, o que ter causado a ampliação do mal-entendido." (My free translation of this is: "Finally, the appellant expresses his concern that he understands that the Portuguese version of his text is not reliable and may have caused greater misunderstanding.")

This is not remotely convincing. It is always easy to blame a translator and one wonders if the NYT has ever complained about the previous translations of its articles which appear in the Brazilian press e.g. Paul Krugman's regular anti-Bush tirades in the Estado de S. Paulo.

Who was the translator and will he or she continue to translate NYT articles or is the translator just being made a scapegoat? It would be interesting to have the translator's version of this affair. If, by any chance, the translator reads this please get in touch with us.

Misleading Headline—Unfounded Story

If the NYT is right and the translator made mistakes this means the paper is being negligent in allowing important stories to be translated by incompetent people. Since these translators are presumably outsiders the NYT could say it has no control over them and we must accept that although presumably checks are made on the accuracy of the translations.

But what about NYT employees who are within its control? Why did the NYT not single out for criticism the sub-editor who wrote the misleading headline "Brazilian Leader's Tippling Becomes National Concern"? instead of blaming an anonymous translator?

(In case you do not know, newspaper headlines are not written by the reporters but by sub-editors although news agency reporters are often responsible for the headlines.)

How does this headline square with this sentence half way through the article "Whether or not Mr. da Silva really has a drinking problem....."? If the reporter did not know whether Lula had a drinking problem by this stage why then did the NYT devote so much space to the story and give it a page lead? Why did the news editor not say this story had little factual base and spike it?

My feeling, based on 30 years' experience as a journalist, of which 10 were spent as a newspaper reporter, is that this overlong, padded piece was a "soft" filler destined for the Times' bloated Sunday issue.

Sunday and Monday papers are always short of "hard" news and reporters are expected to prepare features in advance which will not become outdated if a big news story suddenly erupts. This, incidentally, would be my prosaic reply to those neurotic Brazilians who claimed that the article was part of a plot by the Bush administration to put Brazil in a bad light.

The NYT may have an international reputation but unfortunately the paper is not humble enough to admit it might have made some mistakes. It merely issued a brief statement when the affair blew up saying it stood by its story and merely published the Brazilian ambassador's letter of complaint without comment.

It did not allow any of its staff in Brazil to comment. In fact it behaved exactly like the kind of large organization it would normally criticize for not responding to a story it was investigating. By comparison the Brazilian authorities were open and frank even though they erred in trying to expel the reporter.

The NYT's arrogant attitude will just harden the attitude of the large number of Brazilians who are anti-American and make it more difficult for those of us here who are generally defensive of the US.

It is ironic that on the very day the NYT was still avoiding the issue, the editor of one the UK's leading tabloids, The Daily Mirror, was sacked for publishing faked photographs of British soldiers allegedly mistreating Iraqi prisoners.

The Mirror's front page was a giant headline and short text which said "Sorry We Were Hoaxed: It is now clear that the photographs the Mirror published of British soldiers abusing an Iraqi prisoner were fakes..."

Any chance of seeing the following headline in the NYT: "Sorry We Were Hoaxed: It is now clear that the article which the NYT published saying that President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's tippling has become a national concern was false..."?

John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish journalist who first visited Brazil in 1987 and has lived in São Paulo since 1995. He writes on politics and finance and runs his own company, Celtic Comunicações - www.celt.com.br - which specializes in editorial and translation services for Brazilian and foreign clients. You can reach him at jf@celt.com.br.
© John Fitzpatrick 2004

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