Intemperate Reactions

The media didn't stab Bolsonaro, but is it partly to blame?

Paula Cesarino Costa
São Paulo

Brazil's presidential succession, which was already unpredictable, can now also be called tragic and violent. The frontrunner was arrested and afterward considered ineligible. The second most popular candidate, turned into favorite due to the circumstances previously described, was stabbed in the abdomen while campaigning. A month from the general election's first round, almost 30% of voters say they still don't know in whom to vote.

This simple summary of facts suggests this election as the noisiest and most conflicting since the Brazilian democracy's reinstatement.

After the attack on Thursday (6), two high high-ranking military officials, close to Jair Bolsonaro (PSL), suggested opposite reactions.

On one side, retired Army general Augusto Heleno partly blamed the press for the attack. He said, in an audio recording, that this "barbaric assault is the result of a daily die-hard effort against him, coming from part of the press," in a sort of "anything-goes approach to destroying him."

On the other side, VP candidate General Hamilton Mourão said that, despite being unable to control 100% of Bolsonaro's base, there are videos being produced "telling people to cool down and think things over." According to him, the focus now is to disseminate Bolsonaro's ideas and reduce the tensions, since, he says, confrontations are in nobody's best interest.

Right after the stabbing, the same general said that PT (Worker's Party, led by imprisoned former president Lula) should be blamed for the attack, and startled everybody by stating: "If they want to use violence, we are professionals at it."

There's no foundation in the argument that the press is responsible - even if in part - by the polarized situation that culminated in the attack. The best service to the readers right now is to critically review all candidates' policy proposals.

There were few minor misconceptions here and there. One reader, for example, called "sensationalist and inflammatory" the following title on Folha's website: "Fascist Angel Deserves No Solidarity," Says Candidate About Bolsonaro".

The candidate in question is Nivaldo Orlandi (PCO), running for a Senate seat for São Paulo. In the same event, frontrunner Eduardo Suplicy (PT) said that the stabbing was a grievous act that deserved "solidarity". The newspaper should have reserved to Orlandi's sound bite the same space his candidacy has in the election. Folha overdid it.

In the present moment, the press responsibility is immense, and the devil is in the details. A sensationalist, click-baity coverage will only hinder the newspaper performance in its most essential service, which consists in dissecting policy proposals, reveal secrets, contextualize and investigate facts. All this should be done by using tried and true methods, without fear of intimidation and without being influenced by intemperate reactions.

The New York Times and the slippery slope of the anonymous op-ed writer

On Wednesday (5th), U.S. newspaper The New York Times made the rare move of publishing an anonymous op-ed. The article had more than 10 million page views in 24 hours and it has turned into a case filled with ethical questions and even possible judicial ramifications.

The task of explaining this decision to the readers was given to op-ed editor James Dao. The newspaper published a special page in its Reader Center, explaining that the decision was made at the author's request, "a senior officer from the Trump administration whose identity is known to us, and whose job would be jeopardized by its disclosure."

Immediately the race to guess or identify the author was afoot, as well as the discussion if the NYT's decision was the right one.

What led to the newspaper to allow the anonymity? Opinion editor James Bennet said that the piece was important enough for the paper to make an exception. It was a choice between publishing it anonymously and not publishing at all.

Differently from what happens at Folha, in the NYT the opinion pages work independently from the newsroom. It was a highly unusual decision, but not an unprecedented one. The newspaper had published before anonymous op-ed pieces by authors who could be reprehended or to be at risk for defending their ideas.

What would I do? It's hard to give a theoretical opinion. The details - who is the author, what's the relationship and trust between the journalist and this source, the piece's relevance, the imperious feeling imposed by anonymity, for example - are essential to substantiate a difficult decision as such.

Even in exceptional character, the op-ed brings some unease for opening a dangerous precedent. Anonymity is a comfortable way to make politics, one that the press needs to learn how to do without. The anonymous op-ed author can't become a habit. ​

Translated by NATASHA MADOV

Read the article in the original language