Brazil: The Media Is Not Beyond Suspicion

    Folha de S. PauloWith the inevitable outcome, it is safe to say that the Federal Council of Journalism served the press an extraordinary purpose. Despite sentenced to termination on the shelf, the project and its mentors set off involuntarily the most important debate over the press in the last decades. Brazilian democracy, impawned, is grateful.

    The slow and relentless process of returning the project back to the shelf is rather efficient, contrary to what it may seem. The longer the Council’s ghost roams the hallways of Congress, stronger will be the conviction that the magic potion—the panacea—to all our media ailments does not lie in the creation of a self-governed body, state-syndicated under the old subservient molds.


    In terms of democracy, there are no magic potions, wands, or summary measures. Only ongoing and persistent treatments work; most importantly, convergent ones.


    Instead of treating large and small bruises, the Council will create—overnight—an enormous and irreparable swamp, wherein not only the media and mediators will drown, but also the Nation, orphan of independent mediation.


    Innumerable are the beneficial effects of the cry wolf over the Council project; some will take time to become evident, others were noticeable immediately.


    The most visible: the first public demonstration against the project did not come from media groups, but from journalists. Just take the pulse of the reactions in newspapers during the weekend of August 7-8. 


    The whistleblowers were independent journalists—newspaper editorials came on their heels. And for independence, one should understand that the ideological spectrum spans from center-right, flows through center-left, and branches out to traditional left.


    This is a fact that cannot be ignored: Brazilian media relies on an enviable platoon of mature professionals, competent in their field of expertise, vulnerable to party politics or even personal issues, but able to articulate contentious resistance to any attempt to revive an authoritative regime.


    The Golden Years class, victims of dictatorship, now come together, aware of a number of options for the Country of the Future (as Brazilians have for long referred to their Nation), but none being non-democratic.


    The totalitarian seduction has been eliminated. There are still pockets and caves of fundamentalists, not within the press though. And this was the work of journalists; newspaper owners came behind.  There have been instances in our history where the process was the reverse.


    The Empty Talk Issue


    Which leads us to ANJ (National Newspapers Association) 5th Conference. The 25 years since its foundation and the just congratulatory mentions cannot be used to bury the episodes that set the grounds for its establishment.  It was an induced birth.


    The vector that spurred the creation of a newspaper owners association was a strike called by news professionals in São Paulo and soon after endorsed by their peers in Rio.


    The disastrous “wall”—so labeled by President Lula himself, upon recalling his past as union leader—took place in May, 1979. ANJ was founded immediately after, in August of that same year. There were no disguises; it was a chain reaction, cause and effect.  A one-two punch.


    The then so-called “radicals” (known today as xiites) wanted a confrontation and discovered, days later, that the confrontation served only to prove that newspapers can exist without journalists (when the Internet wasn’t even around).


    The idiocy from those union leaders—some of whom awarded with sinecures at ANJ—forced newspaper owners to overcome rivalries and animosities in order to finally establish a corporate organization capable of uniting the largest newspaper and magazine publishers (ANER, National Association of Magazine Editors, which today incorporates magazine editors, came afterwards).


    It’s not quite a disaster; on the contrary, public knowledge of opinions from newspaper businessmen is essential for democracy, so that the people can contrast the owners’ words to those expressed directly or indirectly through their pages.


    What was detrimental to ANJ was that set of monolithic decisions, the smooth-wheel roller type, which left a decisive mark on the political “opening” process.


    Instead of betting on journalistic quality and values that were in action even during the military regime, a “spring cleaning” of sorts was declared around editorial rooms.


    “History’s trash” (to borrow an expression used by one of the young businessmen who managed to put ANJ together)—that is, the experienced professionals and precisely those who stood up to the insane strike—were gradually removed.


    The approaching democracy would have no use for them, so believed the lords. The “rejuvenation in editorials” came with the adoration for marketing.


    A quarter of a century later, here is that same golden youth—gray-hair, disillusioned, unemployed or outsourced, embittered by the marketing bubble aftermath—of which it was both a tool and a victim.


    At that point, the nascent debate about the media initiated in the mid-70s disappeared—not solely by way of generals’ instructions, but also on a whim and to the pleasure of newspaper owners; or a significant portion of them.


    The silence curtain prevented talks over the strike or the creation of ANJ. Shortly earlier, big media groups began running large debts, which went unnoticed.


    And today, as ANJ celebrates its 25th anniversary, no one marvels at the Eighth Commandment of its decalogue of objectives:


    Build synergies, the integration among commercial, circulation, and editorial departments in order to attract new advertisers.


    Is this what communications businessmen dream of? And when the Tenth Commandment determines that newspaper ought to “cultivate morning readers”, the model is Folhateen, Globinho, Estadinho (references to children’s sections of Folha de S. Paulo, O Globo, O Estado de S. Paulo) and other empty talk teen trash.


    From ANJ’s party only spangles were seen. The organization should deserve an in-depth discussion over the future of the written word through the hands of those who hold no regard for the written word.


    The Ombudsman Question


    It is because of this engulfing silence around what is crucial that we ought to salute the vociferous cry wolf over the Council idea. 


    Thanks to the intense debate that flooded the specialized media and reached the public spectrum, the notion that problems with our media will never be solved by the creation of a police self-governed body became apparent.


    Nonetheless, such problems can indeed be unraveled as the issue of media concentration and cross-ownership begins to attract serious consideration by Congress and the Administration (the branch of government which awards license concessions to radio and TV).
     
    We are learning to observe the press, and this places Brazil at the vanguard of media democratization.


    The introduction of Oswaldo Martins as ombudsman for TV Cultura—through a series of ads for Monday’s (9/20/04) airing of Roda Viva (a popular current issues debate program on that network)—represented a consolidation in the process of demystifying the taboo status of communication vehicles.


    Media and mediators, newspapers and news professionals are finally bowing to the criticism of the ring circus. They lost the privilege of being above and beyond all suspicion. They are fallible.


    By launching on a state run channel a public feedback system, we are paving the way to closing the gap that separates private and state networks. Who could ever imagine?


    TV will learn to listen and speak. And through the mouth of an actor, unknown up until now: the viewer. No censorship, controls, councils.


    The Representation Issue


    All debates are welcome. As a result of the seemingly frustrated attempt to control the practice of journalism by way of a syndicate, the debate over the legitimacy of the National Federation of Journalists acting as spokesperson for news professionals has been re-ignited.


    Fundamental questions were raised; questions that had been numb due to inertia or suffocated by arrogance of professional union men, who, in the end, were at the root of all the mix-up generated by the Council proposal.


    Most relevant of these questions is the conflict caused by the existence of two distinct categories of journalists within the union: professionals who work for news organizations and those who work for companies in different fields.


    Rare are the countries where such concurrence takes place—Brazil is one of them. Such uniqueness is neither very comfortable nor auspicious whatsoever.


    The Observatório da Imprensa, has dealt with this perilous duplicity for years, including when it was announced that President Lula would meet with Fenaj to hear the presentation of the original Council project (later copydesked by the Cabinet).


    The one to render the necessary dimension to the gargantuan contradiction inside Fenaj was newsman Eugênio Bucci, Radiobrás’ president, a state media company tied to the President’s Communications Secretary and Strategic Management, in his arguments during the ANJ Conference.


    Eugênio Bucci is in favor of the Council, but he is also in favor of union separation. This is an essential and definitive safeguard, because, prior to deliberating the merits of the Council project, it questions the validity of the organization that gave birth to the plan and left undeletable marks.


    Bucci has been emphatic: impossible to conciliate under one exclusive code of conduct the interests of professionals who work for news groups (private and state) with those of professionals who work for companies in other fields.


    Public interest not always coincides with those of private commercial, industrial, or service organizations. Furthermore: in extreme situations (as in the one spawned by the Council) such interests are clearly antagonistic.


    A union of journalists or a federation of such cannot split up its agenda. Above all, it cannot share loyalty. Its commitments reside alongside the commitments of journalists.


    No matter how in sync they find themselves with government projects, Fenaj or the Journalists Union of the Federal District couldn’t watch so passively the exoneration of journalist Vera Rotta by the President’s Communications Secretary, for manipulating statements from Culture Minister Gilberto Gil at the electronic bulletin Em Questão (In Question).


    The news writer combined two speeches delivered in different days and contexts, but didn’t make up anything; and admitted the error. However, since one of the Minister’s statements had been so harsh—in regards to “fascism of media conglomerates”—big media made a big hubbub, and the administration—already scalded—opted for burying the matter. Classic scapegoat.  Hence, put to rest in silence.


    Why not discuss it publicly? How many private media groups in similar cases of adulterated information admit to erring and announce the punishment conferred to the ones responsible?


    A Council of Journalism isn’t needed, regional or federal, to discuss what has occurred.  An efficient union would suffice.


    Or, in the absence of one, a genuine disposition to keep an open eye and a vigilant spirit. Attentiveness is the best form of intervention.


    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


    Translated from the Portuguese by Eduardo Assumpção de Queiroz. He is a freelance translator, with a degree in Business and almost 20 years of experience working in the fields of economics, communications, social and political sciences, and sports. He lives in Boca Raton, FL. His email: eaqus@adelphia.net

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