There is no such thing as public opinion. There is only published opinion. (Winston Churchill)
I’ve mentioned on my earlier post that the Brazilian mainstream media is looking for a “proper” explanation for the current state of affairs, keyword here being “proper”. As someone who has worked in newsrooms for a decade (before quitting for the sake of my mental health), I think I can tell you why this confusion is going on.
The idea of “free press”in Brazil is new. We only got rid of official censure in the early 1990s. During the military coup years (1964-1985), it was not uncommon to have whole editions of newspapers or magazines hacked off, or cake recipes published on where the news should be. As in all regimes, there are heroes and villains on both sides of the wired fence, but the main point was that, if you knew what was good for you, you put up and shut up and you didn’t question what was going on.
But, as I said, the censure is over. In theory, Publish and Be Damned should be over, right?
Not so much. And here I have to explain another Brazilian particular thing: the TV stations.
My father, a doctor who came from a dirt poor family, told me once that, in his youth, whoever had a radio in the street was the king. In his back of woods, newspapers could take at least a week to arrive, so people had to rely on the wireless to get to know what was happening beyond the city walls.
Newspapers were family affairs, openly biased when it came to politics; to a certain extent, they are still so, only the idea of “openly biased” is disguised because, really, who wants to lose readership by admitting they pick up sides?
Radio gave way to TV, and in a country where the literacy levels were low and the printed word was not well distributed, people “knew” what was happening because they saw it on the evening news. The biggest TV station in Brazil is TV Globo, and it has a long back history of shaping facts to fit their views – I am not going to approach the subject, which deserves a post of its own, but you can read more about it over here. Anyroad, the point is, if you have only one big TV station and half a dozen big newspapers, all family owned, all politically biased, does it really matter that there is no longer an official censorship?
Well, it didn’t. Until the Internet came along.
On the first two demonstrations in São Paulo, the mainstream press took its usual stance of calling the movement “vandalism”, “hooliganism”, even “terrorism”. Nothing new, nothing shocking if you know how the system works.
However, the police was shooting rubber bullets on photographers and reporters. And the people who had been in the marches uploaded their version of the facts. They had videos, they had pictures – and, most important, they had a platform to show them that did not depend on the mainstream media to be heard. They knew the mainstream press would not hear them, would not see them, would pretend they did not exist. So they did it their way. Instead of using Facebook to upload funny videos or the pictures from the last night out, you had people telling how they were tear-gassed, beaten up, abused.
The police behaves awfully when they want to. Anyone who’s lived or known someone who’s lived in the outskirts of São Paulo can tell you that – if you are a young, black male, you are better off dead nine times out of ten. The difference was, this time around they were messing with people that knew how to play in this new arena that is the Internet. It’s no longer Publish and Be Damned, it’s more like Damn You We’ll Publish It Anwyay.
The position of the press barons changed literally from one day to the next. When their own employees were getting the stick, and when people simply didn’t give two hoots for their version of the facts, what do you do? A good example would be Mr Arnaldo Jabor, a once film director who now has a radio spot. In his column, he said the protesters were “not worth 20 cents”. Public shaming made him go back on his word and say he had been wrong, that the protests were legit.
To make things worse, there are no political affiliations in the protests. São Paulo’s Mayor is from Partido dos Trabalhadores, a left-wing party. The Governor of São Paulo State belongs to right-wing PSDB. They both got burned. The media doesn’t know what to say – if there isn’t a clear cause, there isn’t a clear leader, there isn’t anything you can touch, on whose shoulders do you place the blame? Where’s the easy explanation you can fit on the top of the news dispatches?
Newspaper readership is falling all over the world, and in Brazil as well. And the audience ratings are also diminishing. When I was a child, a TV Globo soap opera could quite easily stop the country – ratings of 70% minimum were not uncommon. Nowadays, I am pressed to find anyone who actually watches something from start to finish. Ratings of 30% for the top-shelf productions are the norm. At the same time, cable TV and the internet downloads are on the rise. People don’t watch the soap opera, but they do watch “Mad Men”, “Game of Thrones” or “Doctor Who”. And of course they have seen the uprisings in the Arab world, in Spain, in the United States.
There is no such thing as “published opinion” anymore, not in the sense of printed words or broadcast words being the one-and-only opinion out there. And these marches are the most vivid sign of it.
Of course, there is a part of me begging for some skepticism, and I’ll duly take some. The press barons are quick to change sides. Will they be quick to adapt to what appears to be a new order? Or will they just wait for things to return to normality – the political and social apathy for which the Brazilians were so known for?
As with all other things, we’ll have to wait and see.