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Brazzil - Politics - May 2004

Brazil vs. NYT: The Autopsy of a Hangover

It became obvious that Brazil's Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the
charismatic labor leader that after 25 years came to be President
of the Republic, had forgotten the valuable contribution of
the media to his biography. Or he wanted a complete and
unrestricted rerun. Impossible, at this stage of the game.

Alberto Dines


Picture "Emily, get out of the way." That was how Colin Powell spoke, while on the air, to the assistant director for communication of the State Department who was trying to interrupt the interview that he was giving via satellite to NBC.

This was exactly what Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva ought to have said to Minister So and So or adviser Thus and Such—who, more royalist than the king himself—were trying to add more wood to the fire in the case of the New York Times. He did the opposite: he went right ahead and expelled journalist Larry Rohter and gave room for doubt about his commitment to democracy.

Until Tuesday afternoon (May 11), he was the master of the situation, enveloped by federal solidarity. By that same night, because of a hasty decision, he had become a punching bag for Brazilian irritation.

Instead of paying attention to the expertise of his press secretary and his Minister for Justice—who, as good professionals were presenting him with solutions—he went instead to the firebrands who were creating more problems.

Result: relations between the administration and the press, which could already have been considered unsatisfactory, became precarious.

Excess of visiblity

This is not a question of concern only to the government and to the party in power, this is a question that concerns society as a whole. The press is only the intermediary between the governors and the governed.

In this mediating position it was able to identify the weaknesses of the aggressive text signed by the correspondent of the NYT, as well as capturing the popular sympathy for the victim of the aggression.

But one day after the decision to expel the journalist, and surprised by the change in mood on the part of the media, the President accused the press in a frontal assault of being "corporativist".

Thus it became screamingly obvious that Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the charismatic labor leader that after 25 years came to be President of the Republic, had forgotten the valuable contribution of the media to his biography. Or, if he had not forgotten it, he wanted a complete and unrestricted rerun. Impossible, at this stage of the game.

The adjective was buried in the mountains of foolishness uttered at the time. But it was off-the-cuff, and thus significant: the press is only well-behaved when it obeys the dictates of the palace, when it refuses, it is "corporativist". Or, who knows, a slave to the White House, and the American neo-cons.

It is important to remember that in the last six months, starting in December 2003 (when reality began to collide with campaign promises), there have been various bumps, elbows, fissures between the government and the press, aggravated by the incomprehensible difficulty in bringing the great communicator that Lula da Silva is within the reach of the communications media.

The worst of it is that in moments of acute crisis the government inevitably and openly turns to marketing tricks, bringing to public attention its principal architect, instead of keeping it offstage, as the manuals recommend.

Someone needs to warn President Lula da Silva that journalism and political marketing, in spite of certain convergences as far as final objectives are concerned, have opposite functions and actions.

Every marketer likes journalists, bad or good. But good journalists, in principle, generally are suspicious when the marketers (or spin doctors) are too present, appearing, like all doctors, only when there is something seriously wrong.

Still in the ABCs

The gratitude of the victors in the last presidential elections to those working in political marketing is understandable, but the excessive presence and overvaluing of these geniuses puts the eminently political work, which has in the press and in journalism its principal tool in second place.

In this week full of so many emotions and libations, the difference between journalists and "image doctors" became obvious, between those who have their feet on the ground and those who prefer the high jump.

The division is not a strict one, because along with the journalists there are jurists and politicians, and in the group of those who cultivate the image, there are other journalists, cartoonists, diplomats and generalists (like the Minister Tarso Genro, who decided to describe the American press as "one of the worst in the world").

The latter put their money on radicalization, on conspiratorial and apocalyptic theories. They saw in the wave of solidarity with the President the opportunity to loose the demons of xenophobia and provoke confrontation. They shot themselves in the foot. And the government along with them.

Now, in doing an autopsy on the hangover, it is important to look at the systemic faults that provoked it. Larry Rohter's article only became so prominent because, after 16 months of intense training, the Lula administration has still not gotten past the ABCs of making decisions and communicating them.

It thought that an upgrade in the name of the former Department of Communication to the pomp of Strategic Direction would magically open the way to popular recognition.

It ought to have done like Colin Powell, who in the middle of a satellite interview asked his advisor Emily to get out of the way. That is the way that meddlers ought to be treated.

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. Comments welcome at mooret@tcnj.edu.

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