[VELHO CHICO SOUND EFFECTS]
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield, reporting this week from Brazil. And this is the telenovela, Velho Chico.
[SONG/UP & UNDER]
It’s a saga of avarice and family strife that pulls in 20 million viewers every night. We begin here partly because prime time soaps so vastly grip the nation’s attention and because Velho Chico particularly resonates. Though set 60 years ago, many see it as an allegory for contemporary corruption.
INTERPRETER FOR PROF. IMMACOLATA: The telenovela is the narrative of the nation.
BOB GARFIELD: Professor Maria Immacolata Vassallo de Lopes, of the Center for the Study of Telenovelas at the University of São Paulo, says that the narrative is more complicated than it seems at first glance.
INTERPRETER/PROF. IMMACOLATA: A person can start off good but go changing his or her character for the bad or to the contrary. There are characters that you need to accompany throughout the story, even through problems of the conscience. So these characters have been written with a greater and greater complexity.
BOB GARFIELD: In fact, it's useful to imagine Brazil’s converging crises as itself a telenovela. There are the immoral oligarchs, like the ruined would-be mogul, Eike Batista, there's the schemers, like former house speaker Eduardo Cunha, who, with House of Cards in mind, the locals slyly refer to as “Frank Underwood.” And there are the heroes with feet of clay, like Presidents Lula and Dilma, populists who wound up collaborating with the tycoon class.
Another featured player, the media, deeply concentrated, deeply pervasive and, in some quarters, deeply resented, most especially, the omnipresent Globo.
ISABEL: I understand what Globo does with us. I think the people are slaves of Globo.
BOB GARFIELD: That’s Isabel, one of many protesters now occupying the Ministry of Culture, who insists President Dilma’s impeachment for corruption was really a coup. One of the signs posted by occupiers urged the public to “Desligue Globo Brasil,” “Turn off Globo.” As her fellow traveler Bruno put it.
[MAN SPEAKING OVER LOUDSPEAKER IN BACKGROUND]
BRUNO: The Globo, because everyone knows that they are the, the biggest, the responsible of this coup of state. They manipulate the people. They manipulate the news.
BOB GARFIELD: Not – everyone. Polls show that a third of the public see the impeachment as a coup. But if it were, Globo has both the history and the reach to be under suspicion. Media ownership is hugely concentrated in Brazil and most of it is concentrated in Globo, which owns four newspapers, 16 magazines, three cable and satellite TV networks, terrestrial and satellite radio networks, two record labels and an ISP - and a staggering 34 percent share of the broadcast TV audience, the nation's main source of news.
[CLIPS IN PORTUGUESE]
Most of all, the evening Jornal Nacional, the news program of record, with all the power that implies and a pretty shocking history of abusing it. When the military dictatorship seized power in 1964 and held it for 21 years, Globo was its cheerleader. During the first post-dictatorship election campaign, Globo actively backed Fernando Collor de Mello, going so far as to edit the taped debate between Collor and his Workers’ Party opponent, Lula, to make Collor look as if he’d won.
[CLIP IN PORTUGUESE]
In that election, even Globo entertainment programs were deployed against Lula’s Workers’ Party.
MAURICIO SANTORO: For example, there is a telenovela called Which King and I, Que Rei Sou Eu?
BOB GARFIELD: Mauricio Santoro is a political scientist with Rio de Janeiro State University.
MAURICIO SANTORO: And it was about a kingdom destroyed by corruption, via a, a very bad political leadership, and so on. And there was this young prince that appeared and he saved the kingdom.
BOB GARFIELD: Even now, in its coverage of the Car Wash scandal, Globo is focused more on the sleazy Workers’ Party figures than the sleazy everybody else. And Globo remains the outlet of entrenched powers. It has more than a hundred lucrative affiliate licenses, which are divvied up among local politicians and business kingpins throughout Brazil. So, easy- peasy. In this melodrama, Globo is the malevolent force, the manipulative Iago, right? Well, as we heard, it’s complicated. More on that, coming up.
First, if you’ll indulge us, an odd little taxicab interlude that demonstrates the complex tangle that is the Brazilian media ecosystem. Alana, would you tell the story?
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: We were in a cab in Rio and the driver had a portable television for making the traffic jams a bit more bearable. And it was tuned to the morning news on a conservative channel owned by a Pentecostal bishop. We watched this host, Tino Junior, get increasingly worked up as he went on this off-the-cuff diatribe about the obscene costs of Olympic Stadium construction. Catherine, our fixer, translated.
CATHERINE: He’s like, I’m sorry I’m so indignant but as a man and a citizen I have to say that I’m indignant with what’s happening right now.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: Without changing tone, he walked over to a tabletop stacked with pill bottles, and then it became clear – he’s doing an ad. But what kind of pills?
CATHERINE: Skin and blood pressure.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, that’s weird, combining news-induced hypertension and its cure in a single spot. But it turns out that when it comes to the unholy alliance of news and advertising, one of Brazil's biggest advertisers is the government itself.
DIEGO ESCOSTEGUY: Of course, there is a problem from a democratic standpoint.
BOB GARFIELD: Diego Escosteguy is editor of the Globo-owned newsweekly, Época.
DIEGO ESCOSTEGUY: The government, in the federal level, in the state level, in the city level, distributes so much money to media outlet.
TAI NALON: Everyone is relying on that money to exist.
BOB GARFIELD: And Tai Nalon is co-founder of the independent, crowdfunded fact-checking site Aos Fatos, "To the Facts.”
TAI NALON: There’s no way that people who receive money from the government, and only money from the government, can be independent.
BOB GARFIELD: That problem is partly taking care of itself, due to the government being too broke to maintain big de facto subsidies. The problem for Brazilian media is that in the midst of deep recession, all advertisers have cut back, overall an estimated 30 to 40 percent. One media watcher described a news operation with an entire floor of empty desks. It's a perfect storm within the perfect storm of Brazilian crisis.
We met Patricia Campos-Mello at a São Paulo café. She’s a reporter-at-large at Folha de São Paulo, Brazil’s largest daily newspaper, sharing her concerns about the industry, not speaking for Folha itself.
PATRICIA CAMPOS-MELLO: You look at the newspapers, they’re really thin. They’ve been having periodical massive layoffs. It’s the worst timing possible because at the same time that we have to cover several simultaneous crises, all the newsrooms have been laying off personnel repeatedly.
BOB GARFIELD: If times are tough for mainstream media, like Folha and Globo, for those outside the mainstream the cutbacks are a matter of life and death. But even there, Professor Immacolata’s admonition bears repeating. Nothing is black and white. Much of the supposedly independent press has been bankrolled over 13 years by Workers’ Party Presidents Lula and Dilma.
PATRICIA CAMPOS-MELLO: They created a whole left-wing media, which was left wing but was really supporting the government.
BOB GARFIELD: Because it was a left-wing government.
PATRICIA CAMPOS-MELLO: Exactly, yes. And in their understanding, it was a way to balance the media coverage in the country. But what happened is after Temer took power, one of the first things he did is he cut all the money to the left-wing blogs and media outlets. You, you couldn’t even speak to one of them.
BOB GARFIELD: Speak to one of them? Okay. We made our way back to EBC, a public TV and radio broadcaster funded mainly by the previous Workers’ Party governments. On the way, we picked up Eliane Goncalves, a reporter there. She doesn’t know which to fear more, interim President Temer’s vow to cut EBC’s budget in half, or for him to use the channel to flog his worldview instead of Dilma’s, which would be a telenovela-worthy ironic twist.
ELIANE GONCALVES: And it’s not only ironic that nowadays we are paying this price, the expensive price of being understood by this government as a government broadcast.
BOB GARFIELD: And are you afraid that the perception will become a reality and that they will turn it into a television Temer?
ELIANE GONCALVES: Ah, yes.
And this is our newsroom.
BOB GARFIELD: Where we find field chief reporter Marcelo Rafael, visibly shaken by the turn of events.
BOB GARFIELD: Were you ever TV Lula, were you ever TV Dilma?
MARCELO RAFAEL: No, we are accused to be that but we are a public TV and we work for the black people, the poor people, the Indian people, the homeless people. We work for them. We do not work for Temer, Lula or, or Dilma. They pay us, but all people pay us too with their taxes.
BOB GARFIELD: Yes, the taxpayers pay for a party organ, however rich with righteous, socially-conscious, racially-diverse programming, a party organ, nonetheless. And the all-pervasive, moneygrubbing dictatorship connected Globo, a mere apologist for the privileged class? Not so fast.
MAURICIO SANTORO: Of course, it was very, very critical of Dilma and supported the impeachment process. And nowadays, it's basically supporting the interim President Temer.
BOB GARFIELD: Political scientist, Mauricio Santoro.
MAURICIO SANTORO: But, at the same time, it is also publishing stories about corruption in his government, about the corruption of his ministers, and so on. So it, it’s not a, a simple scenario.
BOB GARFIELD: Globo declined repeated requests to speak to us. However, Diego Escosteguy’s newsweekly Época is owned by the Globo Group, and he offered some thoughts about the company he works for.
DIEGO ESCOSTEGUY: I can’t speak for all Globo, of course, but I can lay out some facts. And yes, Globo did support the military coup in Brazil in ’64. It has apologized for that and it has since then adopted some very strict standards in its journalism.
BOB GARFIELD: Furthermore, if you accept the idea that media influence goes far beyond the news, so does Globo. In the opening of this segment, we heard an excerpt from its telenovela, Velho Chico. Though nominally a love story set in the ‘60s, it is widely seen as commentary, harsh commentary, on Car Wash-style abuse of power. Thus, says Escosteguy, Globo defies generalization.
DIEGO ESCOSTEGUY: And you may see that most of its cultural productions are very, very progressive. They promote gay rights, they denounce a lot of social injustice - rights of the blacks, minorities, gays, transgender. You see that in a lot of shows. It’s not some kind of monolithical structure, to call like a Fox News of Brazil. It's simply wrong, I, I - I think.
BOB GARFIELD: To divine the character of the Brazilian media, it is, indeed, tempting to focus on Globo's political leanings and its checkered past. But to interpret the state of the media, the real Rosetta Stone, may be Car Wash itself, through which the press has been revealed to be yet one more imperiled Brazilian institution.
CELSO DE BARROS: Car Wash is just going to take everyone down. I mean, the Workers’ Party is in tatters.
BOB GARFIELD: Political columnist, Celso de Barros.
CELSO DE BARROS: But everyone knows that it’s not going to stop there. Temer is going to have a very hard time. The right-wing parties that oppose the Workers’ Party are going to have a very hard time. The whole political class is probably going to have a very bad couple of years.
BOB GARFIELD: But not – and here's the point - not because of the snarly watchdog press. Unlike Watergate, in which intrepid reporting led to official investigations, Car Wash is being driven almost entirely by an investigative judge and prosecutors.
MAURICIO SANTORO: The media didn’t discovered anything at all.
BOB GARFIELD: Mauricio Santoro.
MAURICIO SANTORO: All the revelations during the investigations, during the scandal, were discovered by the police and by the prosecutors. And it was very different from what happening in our first impeachment 25 years ago, when especially the weekly magazines played a very important role in discovering the facts about corruption in the Collor government.
BOB GARFIELD: This isn’t because Brazilian journalists are lazy or incompetent. They have honestly documented and analyzed every aspect of the scandal. But newsrooms are so depleted that others have been obliged to do the research. One such is the website Aos Fatos, which had been founded mainly to truth squad politicians along the lines of PolitiFact or FactCheck.org. Now, it turns out scoops. Recently, says cofounder Tai Nalon, Aos Fatos looked at President Dilma’s excuses for illegal borrowing, namely that it was – common practice.
TAI NALON: It was massive amount of spreadsheets and numbers, and we made the calculus, we re-adjusted by inflation, and how deep was the difference between Dilma’s practices and Lula’s practices and Henrique’s practices. And yes, she’s right to say that the other ones did the same thing. But she did it more.
BOB GARFIELD: Thirty-five times more.
TAI NALON: And in a year, she lost control of everything. This data was there but people weren’t paying attention to that.
BOB GARFIELD: Such lapses make Época’s Diego Escosteguy shake his head. He says he's constantly forced to skip coverage on significant news in order to fund the original journalism he values more. I asked him if he feels like he's fighting eight fires with only one bucket of water. And then – ugh, he gives me exactly the weary look that I, parachuting foreign journalist, have feared the most.
DIEGO ESCOSTEGUY: Let’s be clear, Brazil is depressive. It’s very easy to run out of metaphors and comparisons and analogies to try to describe how dire the situation is in Brazil.
BOB GARFIELD: Fair enough, but permit us to cling to our comparison to primetime soaps, which are heavy on conflict, greed and betrayal, yes, but also very much on redemption. And you really don't have to squint much to see a silver lining in Car Wash and even the impeachment itself. In the past, Byzantine machinations enabled corrupt parties to operate with near impunity. But now, with the press gleefully spreading the word, impunity has taken a holiday.
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BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, Rio’s favelas, a media staple, but – don’t believe everything you read. This is On the Media.