Why does the Brazilian media normalize the extreme right?

. Oct 26, 2018

There has been no shortage of international media outlets calling Jair Bolsonaro, the frontrunner in Brazil’s presidential race, a far-right candidate. From Britain’s The Economist to the French Libération, passing by The New York Times and, yes, even Fox News. Not only have they not hesitated to point out Mr. Bolsonaro’s extreme rhetoric, but these outlets have also raised red flags about the real risk that he represents for Brazilian democracy.

The only place where the media seems to have trouble seeing Mr. Bolsonaro’s true colors is Brazil. But the problem with how the Brazilian press has covered this election goes far beyond not calling him a ‘far-right’ politician. When outlets do use the label ‘extreme’, they do it by drawing a false equivalency between Mr. Bolsonaro and his left-wing counterpart, the Workers’ Party’s Fernando Haddad – as if they were two faces of the same coin.

However, while one candidate is clearly an ultra-radical, the other is a moderate representing a social-democratic ideology.

</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Truth be told, the reference to &#8216;extremes&#8217; comes less from journalistic reports, but rather from op-eds and editorials. While some columnists do not surrender to this modern sophism and call it as it is, they are mere journalists and intellectuals with little power in defining the editorial line of the Brazilian press. </span></p> <h2>Clueless Brazilian media outlets?</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Just two weeks ago, the ombudsman at </span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">Folha de S.Paulo</span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;">, Brazil&#8217;s biggest newspaper, used her column inches to </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">criticize</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> the Brazilian press as a whole &#8211; and her employers in particular &#8211; for not calling Mr. Bolsonaro far-right. Not only did </span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">Folha</span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;"> not call him &#8216;far-right&#8217;, but also sent a memo to its newsroom saying <a href="">no candidate could be called far-right or far-left</a>, labels only applied to &#8220;factions that practice or preach violence as a political means.&#8221;</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Heck, Mr. Bolsonaro has said, verbatim, that &#8220;violence can only be fought with even greater violence.&#8221; He has defended the use of torture and the physical elimination of his political enemies. His campaign material has violence all over it. How doesn&#8217;t this fit the newspaper&#8217;s characterization of far-right?</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">But Mr. Bolsonaro does not limit his <a href="">violent speech</a> to the fight against crime. He also incites attacks on minorities, such as when he said that parents &#8220;could beat the gay out of their children,&#8221; or when he says he&#8217;d rather have a dead son than a gay son, or when he says he&#8217;d hit two homosexuals kissing in public.</span></p> <div id="attachment_10475" style="width: 1034px" class="wp-caption alignnone"><img aria-describedby="caption-attachment-10475" loading="lazy" class="size-large wp-image-10475" src="" alt="jair bolsonaro extreme right brazilian media" width="1024" height="683" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 1960w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><p id="caption-attachment-10475" class="wp-caption-text">Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s supporters celebrate his 46% of votes in the first round</p></div> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;"><a href="">Violent acts towards such minorities</a> have become more frequent &#8211; with perpetrators often associating their behavior to Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s candidacy. On the streets, gays have been warned that their behavior will not be tolerated. During soccer matches, crowds have chanted that &#8220;Bolsonaro will kill the faggots.&#8221; People have been assaulted just because of their sexual orientation. Political adversaries have come in for the same treatment, because &#8220;Bolsonaro will rid the country of these red outlaws,&#8221; or will &#8220;shoot down [Workers&#8217; Party supporters].&#8221;</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">If a candidate and his acolytes legitimize and stimulate violent behavior from their supporters, how can newspapers </span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">not </span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;">consider him an extremist?</span></p> <h2>Why normalize Jair Bolsonaro?</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Maybe this behavior can be explained by the fact that most media outlets want their coverage to seem &#8216;neutral&#8217;. Adjectives such as &#8216;extremist&#8217; or &#8216;far-right&#8217; would then be avoided &#8211; even if they are accurate… But maybe, part of the reason is the way that Workers&#8217; Party administrations were covered by the mainstream <a href="">media</a> &#8211; many of which didn&#8217;t pull any punches. Calling Mr. Bolsonaro an extreme candidate would put the vilified party under a positive light.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">If the Workers&#8217; Party is more moderate than its adversary, then the way the party was depicted for years could be called into question.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">It is true, however, that the Workers&#8217; Party has contributed a lot to this problem. First, due to its ambivalence towards authoritarian regimes in Latin American countries like Cuba, Venezuela, or Nicaragua. Secondly, for officially defending not-so-democratic positions, like the idea that its administrations should have been more overbearing in its relationship with the press, the military, or the judicial system.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">When in power, the party didn&#8217;t act in an authoritarian way, but pondering that it should have allows its critics to tag it as an authoritarian group. And if the Workers&#8217; Party is authoritarian, that contributes to whitewash its opponent.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Finally, it is necessary to recognize that some sectors of the Brazilian media don&#8217;t see Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s extremism as the bigger evil &#8211; rather seeing that in the Workers&#8217; Party contradictory moderation. For this reason, they adopt not only a benevolent posture towards the far-right candidate, but also act with extreme rigidity on the slightest mistake made by the center-left party.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">They are making their choice. Some of these outlets regretted having supported the 1964 military coup &#8211; even if it took 50 years for them to acknowledge the mistake. Maybe they are willing to make the same mistake again.

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Claudio Couto

Political scientist, head of Fundação Getulio Vargas’ Master’s program in Public Policy and Administration.

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