The World

The Brazilian Media’s Bolsonaro Problem

The country’s press didn’t take him seriously until it was too late.

Jair Bolsonaro
Brazil’s right-wing presidential candidate for the Social Liberal Party, Jair Bolsonaro, gives a thumbs-up after casting his vote at Villa Militar, during general elections, in Rio de Janeiro on Oct. 7.
Fernando Souza/AFP/Getty Images

The night after the first round of Brazil’s extremely polarized presidential election on Oct. 7, the two leading candidates, who will face each other in a runoff on Sunday, appeared via conference call on a popular TV Globo news show. Jair Bolsonaro, the 63-year-old former army captain who secured almost 47 percent of the votes, and his Workers’ Party opponent, Fernando Haddad, who had come in second with 29 percent, were each allowed two minutes to address the voters. The front-runner chose to thank the evangelical leaders and the armed forces supporting his campaign while Haddad alluded to a future government plan focused on education and social inclusion. The hosts then asked both candidates, “What would you say to your critics who worry about Brazil’s democracy in case you’re elected president?”

“For me, democracy always comes first,” Haddad said.

“We’ll be slaves of the constitution,” Bolsonaro said.

The question echoed concerns expressed by the international press over the Bolnosaro’s rise. Spearheaded by the Economist and its recent cover story headlined “Latin America’s Latest Menace,” outlets including El País, the Guardian, the New York Times, Financial Times, and Clarín have raised alarm about the danger posed by his candidacy to Brazil’s young and struggling democracy. Over the years, Bolsonaro has repeatedly expressed appreciation for the military regime that ruled Brazil in the 1980s, contradicting the consensus that it was a brutal dictatorship, and even said he was in favor of torture. He claims to stand by traditional family values and proposes to loosen gun laws and reduce the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16. International accounts have frequently described Bolsonaro to foreign audiences as the “Trump of the tropics,” compared his rhetoric on crimes to Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, and desribed him as a would-be dictator.

This certainly isn’t the tenor of coverage in Brazil, however, where 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. Recently, Folha de S. Paulo, the most prominent daily newspaper in the country, with 41 million online unique visitors just last September, shared an internal guidance with the newsroom stating that none of the candidates should be described as “far right” or “far left.” The publication’s ombudsman then came forward in disagreement with the policy, writing that the newspaper and most media outlets in Brazil are wrong in not defining Bolsonaro as a far-right candidate and “don’t seem interested in the historical dimension of such understanding.”

For Carlos Eduardo Lins da Silva, a former deputy editor in chief of Folha de S. Paulo, the resistance to identifying Bolsonaro as a far-right candidate is a dangerous mistake.* “There’s a degree of condescension towards Bolsonaro from the press here,” he said. “And they made a mistake in not treating him like a winning candidate for most of the campaign.”

Even after Bolsonaro was officially announced as the presidential candidate of the conservative Social Liberal Party, known as PSL, in July, the 28-year congressman was routinely portrayed as a grotesque figure with little political capital and a member of a party too small to catapult him to the Palácio do Planalto. Now, only a few days before Brazilians vote for the second time, polls indicate that Bolsonaro has the support of 56 percent of intended votes. And what were previously dismissed or relativized as vulgar remarks by an “outsider” with quixotic pretensions—like when he said he wouldn’t rape a congresswoman because she didn’t deserve it or that he’d rather have a dead son than a gay one—now have to be reconsidered as the rhetoric of a the man most likely to be president.

The current election cycle has also featured a number of examples of politically motivated acts of violence and intimidation. In early September, Bolsonaro himself was stabbed during a rally and had to undergo surgery. The day after the first round, a capoeira master known as Moa do Katendê was stabbed to death following a political discussion in a bar. And pictures showing two Bolsonaro supporters and members of his party destroying street signs honoring Marielle Franco, a councilwoman from Rio de Janeiro who was murdered earlier this year, created an uproar on social media. Such instances and many others have led to the creation of several independent platforms to document threats, assaults, and even homicides in the context of the political campaign, including Vítimas da Intolerância and Mapa da Violência.

The media has also been a constant target. According to a recent report by the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism, or ABRAJI, there were 141 physical and digital attacks against journalists during the 2018 elections, the majority of which have been attributed to Bolsonaro’s supporters. The latest was against a Folha de S. Paulo reporter, Patrícia Campos Mello, who conducted an investigation on how businessmen were financing the dissemination of fake news targeting Haddad on WhatsApp. Campos Mello claimed to have received a series of threats and had her Whatsapp account hacked, leading the newspaper to ask the Federal Police to investigate. The PSL candidate has since denied the allegations, but following the publication of the article, the message application stated that it was removing accounts associated with spreading fake news.

Not unlike Donald Trump in the U.S., Bolsonaro’s strategy has been partially focused on discrediting the traditional media. The candidate has systematically refused to attend official debates on television, instead choosing on one occasion to give a simultaneous one-on-one interview to Rede Record—a network owned by a Universal Church leader who had declared his support for the candidate—and to address supporters directly on his Facebook page. After Bolsonaro announced that he wouldn’t be attending the TV Globo debate scheduled for this week, the network canceled it, as two other networks had done already. So by election day on Sunday, Bolsonaro and Haddad won’t have faced each other in a face-to-face debate.

“The less he [Bolsonaro] exposes himself to independent journalism and to the other candidates, the more he wins,” da Silva said. “He doesn’t have consistency or a clear ideology. And the media in Brazil has fallen for the same trick as the American press [has] with Trump: that is, focusing on his outrageous declarations instead of questioning him about his government plan.”

He also believes that most outlets haven’t been bold enough in pushing back against fallacious statements from the candidate in their daily news coverage, leaving the burden to dedicated fact-checking agencies. Despite efforts like Projeto Comprova, which brings together 24 different news outlets and is supported by Facebook and Google to verify and call out fake news, misinformation has been rampant. A recent analysis by the fact-checking agency Agência Lupa of 50 of the most-shared images on 347 different public WhatsApp political-discussion groups between August and October found only 8 percent to be fully truthful.

By tradition, the Brazilian mainstream media doesn’t openly support candidates in its editorials, a common practice in the United States and some countries in Europe. But some commentators have been using their spaces in print and time on television to criticize what they consider a false equivalence between Bolsonaro and Haddad. A recent example is Miriam Leitão, an influential economic journalist and O Globo columnist, who said on air that Haddad and the Workers’ Party have always played according to the rules of democracy while Bolsonaro built his career around the defense of the dictatorship and torture.

“The press made that equivalence and normalized Bolsonaro throughout the campaign,” José Roberto de Toledo, one of the founders of ABRAJI and a reporter for the magazine Piauí, said. “There was a flaw in the coverage to treat different things as equals.”

Angela Pimenta, president of Projor, an institute for the development of journalism, and executive coordinator of Projeto Credibilidade, the Brazilian chapter of the Trust Project, agrees that it took time for the national media to understand and respond to the phenomenon of Bolsonaro—much like the U.S. elections in 2016—attributing it to the unexpected rise in Bolsonaro’s popularity after the stabbing incident. “That virtually reset the election campaign,” Pimenta said. “He was spared from public scrutiny and went into a hospital room, where he started to use social media to bypass the press.”

Two events in the past week, however, have led not only the media but also the judiciary to take a stand. A recently released video from four months ago shows Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo, a congressman, saying that the Supreme Court could be shut down if it countered his father. And in a message broadcasted to a crowd in São Paulo, the candidate said that his “red” rivals from the Workers’ Party would be banished from the country. “It will be a cleanup the likes of which has never been seen in Brazilian history,” he said.

“We’re living under the threat of far-right phalanxes like we’ve never had here,” de Toledo said. “Bolsonaro is a surfer of a wave much bigger than him of discrediting the institutions in general, including the press. It’s a process that has been brewing in Brazil for a decade and for which Bolsonaro is a spokesman.”

He added, “The Brazilian press can’t claim surprise.”

Correction, Oct. 26, 2018: Due to an editing error, this piece originally identified Carlos Eduardo Lins da Silva as a former editor in chief of Folha de S. Paulo. He is a former deputy editor in chief.