"Power without responsibilitythe 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.""
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.
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
(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 firstname.lastname@example.org.