The President Against The Press

Bolsonaro's tactic of denying reality will require balance, technique and a firm hand from Folha

Paula Cesarino Costa
São Paulo

The president-elect's first press conference barred reporters from the most important Brazilian newspapers. There were no questions from journalists who worked at Folha, O Globo, O Estado de S. Paulo, and Valor Econômico, among others.

"I have you in the highest regard. I didn't say to keep anyone out," said Bolsonaro, when asked about the block. It sounded more like provocation, though.

During the campaign, Bolsonaro attacked the media and journalists, showing a particular preference for Folha, the newspaper who published the higher number of pieces criticizing the candidate.

In a Facebook live, for instance, the then-candidate called Folha the "largest fake news factory in Brazil," and threatened to withdraw all government advertising spending from the newspaper. He did it more than one time; the last one during his first TV interview as president-elect, to newscast Jornal Nacional.

Jair Bolsonaro's behavior is a precise imitation of US president Donald Trump's relationship with the media. Trump loves to tweet calling the New York Times as a failed newspaper and CNN as a "fake news business." Trump shows on social media an obsession with both outlets.

There are so many similarities that it's possible to say that Bolsonaro is imitating Trump more as a method than a legitimate admiration.

Bolsonaro doesn't question details in Folha's reporting. He flat-out denies indisputable facts, like that he kept a "phantom aide," that he later fired after Folha revealing her existence.

When Folha reported how Bolsonaro was using the housing assistance paid to him by the Brazilian Congress, he replied crudely: "I used that money to bang women."

Those reactions are not based on bad temper. They are part of a strategy to shift the discussion to a place Bolsonaro knows well: verbal attacks with no basis in reality.

Before the runoff, I received many messages from readers accusing Folha of campaigning against Bolsonaro, and saying they would be canceling their subscription.

But his recent ravings inverted the signal. Spontaneously, social media users started to show support for Folha. Many messages arrived asking us not to be intimated, announcing that the writers would resume their subscriptions, and so on.

Clashing with a recently elected president is as exhausting as it is necessary for journalists and newspapers. An impulse reaction could make Bolsonaro an enemy to be defeated. But that is not the role of the quality journalism that Folha wants to make.

Bolsonaro is at war with Folha, but Folha is not -- and must never be - at war with him.

I think the readers' support energizes the newsroom. But it's necessary to double down on the attention to detail, fine-tune editorial practices, aim for journalistic precision and guarantee that both sides are always heard.

Bolsonaro seems to be done with creating fake news. It's much more concerning how the president-elect likes to deny reality.

Translated by NATASHA MADOV

Read the article in the original language