The Media Today

O Talentoso Senhor Santos

January 10, 2023
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro. Photo: Sergio LIMA/AFP/Getty Images.

Last month, amid its voluminous coverage of the lies of the newly elected Republican congressman George Santos, the New York Times reported, deep into one of its articles, that Santos once told associates that he was (in the Times’ words) “a journalist at a famous news organization in Brazil,” where his parents came from. Last week, Gregory Morey-Parker, who briefly lived with Santos in New York eight or so years ago, told me that Santos claimed to have been working at the time for Globo, the Brazilian media behemoth, as a reporter covering human-interest stories out of the US. According to Morey-Parker, Santos also claimed to be an executive at Globo. When I put this to Ali Kamel, the director-general of journalism at Globo, he described it as “a crazy story” and “a lie, pure and simple.” (Santos’s office did not return a request for comment by press time; I’ll update the online version of this newsletter if they do.)

On Sunday, a Globo TV-news show—called, appropriately in this case, Fantástico—broadcast a reported segment on the wider Santos scandal, featuring interviews with people who crossed paths with him in both the US and a city near Rio de Janeiro where he once lived. The segment was overshadowed, however, by a much bigger story in Brazil: hours earlier, supporters of Jair Bolsonaro, until recently the media-bashing far-right president, stormed the presidential palace and Brazil’s Congress and Supreme Court buildings in Brasília, the capital, hopped up on lies about the legitimacy of Bolsonaro’s loss last year to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was sworn in as president last week. (According to a local journalists’ union, at least twelve reporters on the ground were assaulted by rioters.) The attack signaled the realization of fears that had stalked Brazil, and its media, since before voters went to the polls for the presidential election in November, with Bolsonaro pushing lies about election fraud ahead of time, then refusing to acknowledge his defeat to Lula or attend the latter’s inauguration, even if he did allow for the transition of power to proceed and insist that he didn’t want what he called “an adventure.” 

ICYMI: The Media Today is back

Even before Sunday’s attack, the presidential transition had, unsurprisingly, been the dominant story across Brazil’s media of late, Brazilian journalists and media-watchers told me in interviews last week, squeezing the Santos story, among others. (If the word “Santos” did make many a headline last week, it was often in reference to the port city that hosted the funeral of the soccer giant Pelé.) But the George Santos story has nonetheless attracted attention and interest in Brazil since the Times blew it up in mid-December; “My mom doesn’t follow anything about American politics,” Ana Rosa Alves, a reporter who has covered the Santos story for O Globo, a newspaper that is also a part of the wider Globo group, said, “and she knows this guy.” Given his roots in the country, some Brazilian journalists even took an interest in Santos prior to the Times story that pitched him into scandal territory, covering his first, unsuccessful run for Congress in 2020, then his successful bid in 2022. Some such stories interrogated Santos’s right-wing views; others centered his bromides on the American Dream and his lies about his biography. If, as US media critics have contended in recent weeks, the American local-to-national-media pipeline failed to amplify red flags around Santos until it was too late, it would hardly be reasonable to expect the international extension of that pipeline to have noticed them.

Since the Times published its first Santos-scandal story, its reporting has been picked up in translation in major Brazilian newspapers including O Globo and the Folha de S.Paulo. Those papers and other outlets have also contributed original coverage; Júlia Barbon, a reporter at Folha, for instance, tried to track down Santos’s old Facebook friends after editors asked for “the Brazilian side of the story.” Barbon and other reporters found and interviewed a man who worked as a clerk at a store near Rio where, in 2008, Santos used stolen checks to pay for clothes. Santos confessed to the crime but Brazilian authorities were subsequently unable to locate him, and Santos returned to the US; the authorities recently said that they will revive the case, a step that drove yet more coverage both in the US and in Brazil. On Saturday, a story about the case made the front page of the Estado de S. Paulo, another major paper. On Sunday, Fantástico, the Globo show, interviewed a Brazilian woman who claimed that Santos used her identity to go shopping in the US. Early Monday, O Globo’s homepage prominently featured a story, translated from Bloomberg, about feelings of betrayal in Santos’s district—immediately below coverage of Sunday’s attacks in Brasília.

Not everyone is convinced that the Brazilian case against Santos will continue to be a blockbuster story going forward, despite the current hype; Lúcia Guimarães, a New York–based columnist and writer for Folha, argues that judicial authorities are under-resourced and that Santos’s case is old and involves relatively little money, making it unlikely that it will be prioritized unless an ambitious prosecutor “wants to be in the New York Times every other week.” The Santos story matters to Brazilians for reasons beyond his legal plight, however. Brazilian Americans are historically underrepresented in US politics, and some news consumers regret that it had to be Santos who broke that barrier; his story “has been an embarrassment for many of us among the estimated 1.8 million Brazilians who live in the US,” Rosental Alves, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told me in an email. More than one journalist I spoke to noted a very different strain of Brazilian reaction to the Santos story: schadenfreude at the US screwing up again. “You send a man to the moon but you can’t find a con man on Long Island?” Guimarães said, summarizing that reaction. “For American media, especially in New York, it’s an existential angst: We missed it. In Brazil it’s like, Wow! Really?!

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While they haven’t always been drawn explicitly in media coverage, meanwhile, there are parallels and connections between the world inhabited by George Santos and Brazilian politics. In recent years, at least two prominent allies of Bolsonaro have been caught up in scandals relating to claims about their academic backgrounds. And the political right in the US and Brazil are increasingly intertwined, from Trump and Bolsonaro on down. Bolsonaro is currently hunkered down in Florida—where he’s been spotted at a KFC and a Publix and, according to O Globo, is now in the hospital with “abdominal pain”—while he waits to see if he’ll face various investigations in Brazil; some right-wing Brazilian pundits have gone to Florida, too, as did Carla Zambelli, a Bolsonaro-allied lawmaker, after she was filmed brandishing a gun at a member of the public shortly before the November election. Shortly afterward, Santos—a long-standing supporter of both Trump and Bolsonaro—posted a photo of himself and Zambelli to Instagram with the caption “USA & Brasil!!! Friends fighting for free speech and freedom!”

Sunday’s attacks in Brasília, of course, immediately invited media comparisons to January 6 in the US two years ago, and there are concrete links there, too; as the Brasília attacks unfolded, for instance, Steve Bannon called the rioters “freedom fighters.” In the past, Santos has amplified Trump’s election lies, though he has since deleted such posts; on Sunday, Santos tweeted (for only the third time this year) in order to “vehemently condemn” the Brasília attacks. Not everyone I spoke to was convinced that Santos sits all that neatly at the nexus of US and Brazilian right-wing politics and media; it’s certainly not the primary reason he’s in the news in both countries right now. But others see a clear link. Watching Santos’s interviews with right-wing US media in recent weeks, Guimarães noted his similarities to right-wingers who came to the fore in Brazil under Bolsonaro. A reader emailed Barbon, the Folha reporter, to ask whether Santos would be getting the same coverage if he were a Democrat. “We have the same kind of context in Brazil: right and left, Lula and Bolsonaro,” Barbon said. “We are very polarized.”

For all the international-media comparisons to January 6, the Brasília attacks are primarily a Brazilian, not American, story, underpinned by their own dynamics and contextual differences that some Brazilian journalists, including at Globo, have worked to emphasize. Still, Brazilian journalists have been among those to prominently draw the January 6 link. I learned that Brasília was under assault from Carlos Eduardo Lins da Silva, a longtime Brazilian journalist and academic (and former editor of the Brazilian edition of CJR), who kept a prior appointment to talk to me about coverage of Santos even as he was trying to monitor coverage of the violence that had just begun. Already, “many reporters and commentators are saying that this is January 6 in Brazil,” da Silva told me. He added that comparisons with the US are common in Brazilian media. Even if Santos never covered them.

Other notable stories:

  • Last week, ABC15, a TV station in Phoenix, reported that Dion Rabouin, a finance reporter for the Wall Street Journal, who is Black, was arrested, handcuffed, and made to sit inside a police vehicle after trying to interview people outside a Chase Bank in the city in November. Over the weekend, the Times reported that the Phoenix Police Department has opened an “administrative investigation” into the incident after Matt Murray, the Journal’s editor in chief, wrote to the department calling its conduct “offensive to civil liberties.” Yesterday, Rabouin wrote on Twitter that the incident “wasn’t the first time I’ve been harassed and/or detained by the police for seemingly no reason. It’s just the first time anyone has taken notice.” You can read his full thread here.
  • The Texas Observer’s Gus Bova examined the state of unionization efforts at three newspapers in the state after staffers at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, which is owned by McClatchy, ratified what is currently the only union contract at a Texas paper. Unionized staffers at the Dallas Morning News and the Austin American-Statesman are still negotiating with management, with talks at the former paper more advanced than at the latter, per Bova. Unionized journalists at the Star-Telegram won their contract after staging a twenty-four-day strike late last year. “It appears that the longer we were on strike, the more pressure they did feel to compromise with us,” a union leader told Bova.
  • According to Sara Fischer, of Axios, First Look Media, which until now has housed The Intercept, among other media properties, will soon spin the site off as an independent nonprofit. “The company had been planning to spin off the organization for some time,” believing that such a step “will help the outlet more easily secure outside funding to build a more sustainable long-term business model,” Fischer writes. First Look’s nonprofit arm will provide The Intercept with “a significant, multiyear financial grant to help ensure a smooth transition.” (Per Fischer, First Look also plans to let go of a number of staffers.)
  • For CJR, Ralph Jones argues that journalists who write about celebrities should end the trope of emphasizing their subjects’ busyness. “You don’t need to wait long before you see it: Lurking in almost every profile of a celebrity or a public figure will be one sentiment: Wow, aren’t they busy?” Jones writes. “But are these actors and musicians any busier than the rest of us? Isn’t it less impressive to be ‘busy’ when you have a phalanx of staff to take care of the little jobs that truly take up our time and energy?”
  • And Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, sat down with interviewers who are on the autism spectrum and fielded questions “that professional journalists mostly don’t dare ask” of Macron, the AP’s John Leicester writes—not least around his teenage relationship with his teacher (now his wife, Brigitte). The interviewers “winkled out some remarkably intimate details and gave Macron a platform to show a more personal side.”

ICYMI: Let’s stop calling celebrities ‘busy’

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.