Brazil’s Bolsonaro requires more than equivocation

After Brazil elected Jair Bolsonaro president on Sunday, news organizations’ topline descriptions of the new man in charge ranged from the equivocal to the specific. Bolsonaro was, variously, a “divisive populist,” a “strident populist,” a “rough-talking former army captain,” a “brash far-right congressman who has waxed nostalgic for Brazil’s old military dictatorship,” a “far-right former army captain with an unimpressive career as a congressman,” and a “retired army captain who has expressed admiration for dictatorship; repeatedly denigrated women, minorities and LGBT people; and decried ‘fake news.’”

Most outlets hit the essential point that Bolsonaro is “far-right” high up in their coverage—though that language is slight given his long history of extremist rhetoric. He has called Hitler “a great strategist,” promised to let the police kill criminals, and stated that he’d prefer his son to die in a car crash than “show up with some mustachioed guy.” A spike in hate crimes marked the run-up to Bolsonaro’s election. Earlier this month, a group of his supporters attacked a 19-year-old woman carrying an LGBT flag, using a penknife to carve a swastika into her skin.

ICYMI: As Brazil fights election misinformation, fact-checking sites work overtime

In the hours after Bolsonaro’s victory, many news organizations took a “show, don’t tell” approach to the president-elect, serving up lists of his past statements and behavior. But, again, outlets used a range of language to characterize these claims. While The Intercept referred to them as “extremist, far-right positions,” pieces in The Guardian and Reuters, for example, respectively called Bolsonaro’s views “provocative” and “controversial.” A BBC Twitter account asked whether Bolsonaro was “racist, sexist and homophobic or a refreshing break from political correctness?” (The tweet was later deleted.)

With Bolsonaro, the language of “both sides” is redundant. And, given Brazil’s specific context of corruption and democratic fragility, neither is it enough to refer to Bolsonaro as “the Trump of the tropics,” as many outlets have done. Yes, there are some similarities between Bolsonaro and Trump (not least their aggressive “fake news” rhetoric aimed at the press), and Bolsonaro’s election does fit a global trend. Nor is it wrong, per se, to point out divergent reactions to his clear victory or call him an “anti-establishment” “populist”—even though, for US readers, those terms are loaded with assumptions (for instance, around what constitutes “the establishment”) that do not readily apply to Brazil.

When dealing with a politician like Bolsonaro, it’s best to be as specific and detailed as possible about his past statements and present policies. In a short-attention-span age, it’s best to pack that detail into tweets, push notifications, headlines, and ledes, and for outlets to describe him consistently across their content. Even as a far-right shadow crosses much of the democratic world, Bolsonaro is uniquely dangerous. Leading with pat clichés does not convey the urgency of that danger.

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Below, some related stories about Brazil’s new president and the media:

  • “Fake news,” in quotes: Bolsonaro made vocal press-bashing a hallmark of his campaign, and he shows no signs that he’ll abandon it when he takes office; on Monday, he threatened to pull state advertising from “lying” publications. CJR Editor and Publisher Kyle Pope recently discussed the range of Bolsonaro’s press threats with The Economist’s Brazil correspondent Sarah Maslin on our podcast The Kicker.
  • Fake news, no quotes: Bolsonaro benefitted from an epic misinformation campaign in the run-up to his election, with WhatsApp, in particular, a hub for conspiratorial junk news targeting his opponents. Vox’s Alexia Fernández Campbell has this up-to-date explainer on the campaign. And earlier this month, CJR’s Zainab Sultan laid out fact-checkers’ efforts to fight back.
  • Internal guidance: Foreign media coverage of Bolsonaro has been meatier than domestic reporting, according to Isabela Dias in Slate. “The mainstream media is still grappling with the dilemma of where to place Bolsonaro on the political spectrum and has been reluctant to describe him as a threat to the country’s democracy in the manner of foreign outlets,” Dias wrote late last week. “Recently, Folha de S. Paulo, the most prominent daily newspaper in the country… shared internal guidance with the newsroom stating that none of the candidates should be described as ‘far right’ or ‘far left.’”
  • A culture of impunity: The Committee to Protect Journalists released its 2018 Global Impunity Index yesterday, spotlighting countries where journalists are killed and their killers aren’t prosecuted. Pre-Bolsonaro Brazil ranks 10th on the list. While that’s an improvement over last year, CPJ points to 17 still-unsolved murder cases involving the country’s press. Two-dozen journalists and media workers have been killed in the country since 2010.
  • “A referendum on the Amazon”: In the run-up to Sunday’s election, a refreshing number of outlets—including the Times, The Washington Post, and The Guardian—published reporting and commentary laying out Bolsonaro’s potentially disastrous environmental impact. The Times’s Somini Sengupta wrote two weeks ago that Bolsonaro’s election would be a “referendum on the Amazon,” and laid out the president-elect’s pledges to weaken ecological regulations.


Other notable stories:

  • As another day of anti-immigrant scaremongering unfolded at Fox News (“They’re coming in with diseases, such as smallpox and leprosy”), Todd Gitlin criticized “wild-eyed coverage of the caravan” in a piece for CJR. On Fox yesterday, one host was notably less “wild-eyed” than the rest. “The migrants, according to Fox News reporting, are more than two months away, if any of them actually come here,” Shep Smith told viewers. “There is no invasion. No one is coming to get you. There is nothing at all to worry about.”
  • Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan highlights one important story that has had far less airtime than the caravan: the worrying trend of voter suppression across the US. “Obsessed with all things Trump… and occupied with breaking news about hurricanes and mass shootings, the networks have almost ignored voter suppression,” she writes. In early October, Sarah Smarsh checked in for CJR from one base of the problem: Kansas.
  • Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders held a rare White House briefing yesterday, though Toronto Star Washington correspondent Daniel Dale described it as “more like a White House scolding,” as Sanders repeatedly upbraided the news media. Asked by CNN’s Jim Acosta to list the outlets the administration considers “the enemy of the people,” Sanders replied, “I’m not going to walk through a list but I think those individuals probably know who they are.”
  • After CNN evacuated its New York studios last week, officials intercepted another suspicious package, this time addressed to the network’s Atlanta HQ. Authorities believe it came from the same suspected sender, Cesar Sayoc, who was arrested in Florida last Friday.
  • Having already faced multi-billion euro fines on the continent, Google is bracing for more tough action from the European Union, this time to curb the way it offers local business listings to users.
  • For CJR, Adina Solomon discusses a worrying new trend: contractual prohibitions that prevent freelancers from discussing their pay. “The power to talk with other freelancers about money gives us the information and strength to negotiate for fair conditions and sustain our work,” Solomon writes. “So recently, when two organizations offered me contracts that prohibited necessary discussion of pay, it felt like a new twist in freelance survival.”
  • A fun story in a grim week: A rare, 244-year-old Philadelphia newspaper has turned up at a Goodwill collection center in Woodbury, New Jersey, PhillyVoice reports.
  • And finally, an invitation: CJR will be out today in the colder climes of midtown Manhattan with a newsstand aimed at helping voters cut through misinformation in the media. We’ll be at the corner of 42nd St. and 6th Ave. (by Bryant Park) from 7am to 2pm. We’d love it if you would stop by. You can read more about our newsstand initiative here.

ICYMI: As rhetoric becomes reality, the media grapples with America’s hate

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR's newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.