RIO DE JANEIRO -- This is what it is all about. This is why we need to find answers. In a nation beset with a breathtaking convergence of crises -- of which even the glory of hosting the Olympics turns out to be a major one -- the media are struggling to do their basic jobs.
There are a few pretty good stories. Let’s see -- the president is being impeached for gross economic mismanagement capped off by illegal transfers from state banks to paper over budget deficits -- but that’s more or less business as usual here, so some allege a legislative coup d’etat. Plummeting oil prices have left the economy buried in the worst recession since 1929 and inflation is at 10.5%.
The state of Rio de Janeiro, where the Olympics begin in a few weeks, is bankrupt and has declared a “state of calamity” -- delaying wages for teachers, police and bureaucrats with 500,000 Olympic visitors en route. Narco-violence in the teeming favelas is spilling out into the cities proper, and much more violence is being imported to the favelas by the so-called “pacification police,” who tend to shoot first and invent crimes later.
Then there’s Car Wash, a massive corruption investigation that has already put three dozen legislators and oligarchs in jail and implicated many others in bribery, graft and conspiracy as a culture of self-dealing and impunity is laid bare. And in a metastasizing scandal that makes Watergate look like an episode of Judge Judy, links are emerging to at least the last two presidents. The interim president, understanding that chaos is a terrible thing to waste, is busily rolling back a decade of social reforms.
Oh... Zika. Oh, the metro to the Olympic Park isn’t finished. Oh, at a torch-relay event last week, the cops shot a jaguar, the national animal. Symbolism much?
Can we agree that this is an inconvenient time to have a crippled media? But here, in the crucible for a society only 31 years beyond a military dictatorship, crippled is what the media are. The recession has all but halted ad spending in the highly concentrated mainstream media. Most conspicuously absent in the ad market are the hitherto profligate construction and real estate sectors, which are depressed economically and psychically, as many of their owners have been led from their offices in handcuffs. The biggest advertiser in Brazil, the government itself, is broke.
Advertising revenues have fallen more than 30 and 40 percent at major papers. "You look at the newspapers, and they're really thin," says Patricia Campos Mello, editor at large with Folha de Sao Paulo. "So all of the newspapers have been laying off employees. They've been having periodical massive layoffs."
“It's the worst timing possible. Because at the same time that we have to cover several simultaneous crises, all the newsrooms have been laying off personnel repeatedly. It's really a challenge.... There's never been a greater need or demand for news because of the crisis. The Folha Web site has been hitting records of online audience time and time again with the Car Wash, with the recession, with everything -- there's a huge demand for news, and online news. And we're just being -- I guess we're working more. There's fewer of us.”
Complicating the problem, in a country where the media concentration is utterly dominated by oligarchs historically sympathetic to the political right, the impeachment of leftist Workers Party president Dilma Rousseff has left a large segment of the public suspicious of what they hear from -- for instance, Globo TV. (Very suspicious. At leftist demonstrations against the supposed “golpe,” coup, Globo reporters were roughed up.)
But, of course, the desire for less conservative media channels is stymied by economic distress. The public broadcasting network EBC -- created by the Workers Party explicitly to echo its progressive priorities -- is facing a 50% budget cut at the hands of interim President Michel Temer. And there is little succor to be found online. The global shrinking of online CPMs has stifled development of Web alternatives.
"It's a very bad moment," says Celso de Barros, analyst at the Central Bank Brazil and columnist for Folha."It should be said that these days the whole media is in crisis. Newspapers are firing people every day. So let's say the left wanted to start a media outlet, what should they do? Start a blog? Start something on YouTube? Who creates a newspaper these days? Creating a TV channel is very expensive, so who has the money to do that?”
It’s no picnic on the right, either. Diego Escosteguy is editor in chief of the Globo-owned newsweekly Epoca, which has been aggressive in reporting on Car Wash and perhaps particularly aggressive toward Dilma. Apart from his own problems of divvying up shrinking resources, which has meant leaving some significant stories uncovered, he is concerned for Brazil’s young democracy and the media sector as a whole, which need watchdogs of every breed.
“I think it would be really important to our democracy if different kinds of outlets arise. Most outlets are very consistent in their worldview, but of course there are a lot of nuances and a lot of legitimate viewpoints that aren’t getting the attention they should…. It’s kind of tragic we are facing this gigantic crisis at the very moment Brazil most needs journalism.
“It’s as bad as it can get,” Escosteguy says. “We are trying to manage with every resource available to us. But it’s very crippling.” Considering for a moment the analogy of a fire brigade facing 7 blazes but possessing only one truck, he muses, “it’s very easy to run out of metaphors for how dire the situation is.”
True dat. Let’s just hope the watchdogs fare better than the jaguar.