Bolsonaro Lied and Folha Got Scared

Newspaper can't give up on calling it how it is - lying

Whoever decided to check Folha's front page on Wednesday (23) to get a sense of Jair Bolsonaro's speech at the United Nations General Assembly was like, did not understand what happened.

In Jair Bolsonaro's UN speech, he talked about how hospitals have full supplies to care for Covid patients, that there was a rise in foreign investment in Brazil in the first half and that Brazil maintains a zero-tolerance policy towards environmental crime. All of this is a lie. But Folha decided used the following headline: "Bolsonaro defends himself at the UN on pandemic and fires."

According to the Aurélio dictionary, one of the meanings of the verb to defend is 'to repel attack or aggression against oneself', which fits the Bolsonarist rhetoric that the government suffers from enemies to be fought. Thus, the verb used by the newspaper provides an enormous service to the diversionist and negationist strategy of the president but does little to understand what happened.

It must be said that the news content was well contextualized, with the speech in full accompanied by the inconsistencies said by the president teased out point by point.

But as one reader said, "we all know that, most of the time, what people read is just the headline and, according to her, the impression left is that Bolsonaro spoke about politics at an acceptable level. He has to name names. Lie is the name."

The word lies rarely appears in newspaper headlines, and, when that happens, it is always straight from someone's mouth, as in "Maia rebates Guedes on aid of R $ 600 and accuses the government of lying to the Supreme Court".

In the past 12 months, I found the newspaper's direct use of the verb only in a few titles attributed to the testimony of a former mass shooting agency employee, Hans River do Nascimento ("Former mass shooting company employee CPI and insults Folha reporter").

Newspapers have a hard time calling some things by name — lying is one of them. And, in fact, there are quite reasonable explanations for justifying the use of "making mistakes" instead of "lying". According to fact-checking agencies—companies whose job it is to track the fallacies found in the news—the lie presupposes intentionality, something difficult to be evaluated. Therefore, in dubio pro reo.

However, if newspapers do not have the objective conditions to brand someone as a liar, they must find a way to expose the contradictions of the speech in the title, avoiding the naturalization of the speech. It never hurts to remember that Bolsonaro uses lying as a strategy, and the Brazilian press is still not sure what to do with it.

To take just the UN's example, some of the statements made at this year's assembly are very similar to statements made in 2019, when he said, for example, that his government was committed to environmental preservation.

The curious thing is that, last year, the headline chosen by the printed Folha followed the same path when presenting the president's position without counterpoint ("Bolsonaro attacks critics in the UN and sees environmental fallacies").

Last year, he attacked. In this, he defended himself. When it comes to coverage of the speech at the UN Assemblies, Bolsonaro makes headlines that not even his Communications Secretariat would do better.

Out there, among the most emblematic efforts to point out inconsistencies in the speech of an official is that of the newspaper The Washington Post, which uses a kind of 'lying meter.' According to this, President Donald Trump has already made more than 20,000 false or misleading claims.

Still, it is unknown whether initiatives like this help establish a consensus on what is true and what is a lie, from which dialogue becomes possible. What is certain is that talking about "Bolsonaro controversies" or even saying creatively that the president "avoided reality" does not contribute anything.

It has always been important to think about the choice and meaning of the words used in the reader's first contacts with the news (titles, subtitles, and photo captions). Still, the relevance grows at times when misinformation is common currency on social networks or comes from exactly in the place where responsible words and deeds were expected.

Among ironies made to Folha's call on social networks, an internet user said that he is afraid that one day he will open newspapers and find headlines like "President defends himself to the Supreme Court by getting rid of three ministers". The reader made a provocation, obviously, but the underlying concern makes sense: in the name of an alleged balance of coverage, the newspaper cannot be relieved of the task of giving weight - and the name - due to the facts.

Flavia Lima
Reporter specializing in economics, she graduated in social sciences from USP and in law from Mackenzie. She has been the ombudsman for Folha since May 2019.

Translated by Kiratiana Freelon