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Celso Schröder on Veja: Bordering on the Criminal


Source: Viomundo | Sul21

Date: May 28, 2012

Subject: Interview with PENAJ president — reelected in 2013 –Celso Schröder

Background: Evidence that Veja magazine allowed a criminal suspect to use its cover story to attack its accusers, in exchange for political favors

Head: FENAJ Will Not Protect Criminal Journalists

Translation: C. Brayton

A CPI conducted by the National Congress that seeks to investigate the influence of numbers racketeer Carlinhos Cachoeira among public officials has awakened a debate as unexpected as it is necessary: The relation of media with the halls of power,  political  as well as  economic.

The Polícia Federal has identified nearly 200 phone calls between the director of the Veja agency in Brasilia, Policarpo Júnior, and the scheme mounted by the racketeer [Charlie Waterfall]. The publication of these wiretap transcripts show that Cachoeira [Waterfall] often had a determinative say what was covered by the Abril weekly, which allowed itself to be caught up in Cachoeira’s political intrigues with Senator Demóstenes Torres (ex-DEM).

Given these facts, some lawmakers have demanded that Policarpo be summoned to testify in the CPI, even though commission member Odair Cunha (PT-MG) had already rejected a demand for information on the incident.

In the view of Celso Schröder, president of National Federation of Journalists (Fenaj),  the magazine ought to explain what guided its coverage in this episode. “Veja must explain itself to the Brazilian reader. It has to explain how it exercises the role of journalism, given the shallowness of this coverage, its lack of commitment to and irresponsibility regarding the long-standing ethical and technical principles of the profession,” Schroder said.

In this interview with Sul21, Schröder assesses the conduct of the magazine in this and other episodes and defends the development of a regulatory framework for communications.

Sul21 – What can the CPI of do Cachoeira tell us about the Brazilian media?

Celso Schröder – The CPI is showing us that the media is an institution just like any other and must submit itself to public principles to the extent that its raw material — information — is public in nature.  The less public this institution is, the more beholden it becomes to the private interests of its leadership, the  less committed it is to the nature of good journalilsm.  Like any institution, the media is not beyond good and evil, or the precepts of the democratic rule of law and the public interest.  From a politial perspective, a Veja has confused the public with the private. From the journalistic point of view, it has committed an unforgiveable sin: It has established a promiscuous relationship between reporter and source.

It is not just the reporter, but the organization as  a whole and its leadership, who have opted to behave in a technically dubious and ethical unacceptable way.  Every journalist learns during the first week of classes that the source is a part of the story only to the extent that it is treated as a source. The source has his or her own interests, and rather than let these contaminate the information being supplied, the journalist should act as a critical filter. The source, at the same time, provides the reporting with credibility and contributes to the plurality of the story. If it is not filtered, however, it may also contaminate the content.

Sul21 – At what point did Policarpo Júnior and Cachoeira violate the boundaries between reporter and source?

Schroder – Policarpo did not treat Cachoeira as a source. The problem is when a journalist or news organization assigns someone the role of a single, exclusive source, negotiating directly with that source the content and dimensions of the article and, in the case of Veja, committing the magazine to an act driven by partisan politics [and organized crime.]

This is a sin that Veja has been committing for a long time now. The Brazilian opposition  is very fragile. Lacking a strong opposition, the press assumes this role, but in the process completely distorts its mission.  The press is not obliged to assume this role. Society does not view [the world] through partisan lenses, as Veja seems to believe.

But Veja has recently produced some of the most shameful moments in Brazilian journalism.  When an attempt was  made to sneak into the hotel room of former minister José Dirceu (PT) by a Veja reporter, I wrote an article saying that if Watergate was the high point of world journalism, Veja”s behavior was the exact opposite — an anti-Watergate.

Little did I know that we would soon see something even worse. This was not the individual act of a reporter who lacked critical judgment. It was the premeditated and systematic act of a news organization whose chief dispatched his reporter to perform an immoral act that comes dangerously close to being criminal.

Sul21 – Can the same be said of the episode involving Policarpo Júnior and Cachoeira?

Schröder – At the  moment, that story is still coming together. This is a magazine that risks losing the raw material of its existence: its credibility.  It strikes me as suicidal,  especially from the point of a view of a company in the news business — unless Veja is counting on other means of financing, or has already received subsidies from a mechanism not involving credibility and public relations.  We lack concrete facts about its financial condition, but all signs are that at this moment Veja is financially changing  course.  The moral compromise and unscrupulous alignment of the magazine with a particular worldview makes one think of Veja as a publication with its hand out in exchange for services rendered to the political establishment that finances it.

Sul21 – But the magazine has had periods of greater commitment to proper journalism. What changed?

Schroder – Veja has long given signs that it does not care about its journalistic reputation. Veja was fundamental to the redemocratization of Brazil. It was an example to emulate for journalists of various generations and was led by men like Mino Carta. After a certain time, however, the magazine began aligning itself with a particular social group. Obviously, the editors of the magazine have their own opinions and play a conservative role in society.  There was nothing wrong with that so long as it expressed its editorial policy clearly.  Now, it limits its informative journalism to a space of discussion with counterpoints.

I am wracking my brains to translate this last sentence. Perhaps the yellow pages interview provides an example: the interviews often come off as scripted and softballed …

Elementary rules of journalism have been abandoned by this magazine, which was once so important to the transition to democracy and the development of journalism. It has degenerated into a negative example whose failings need to be confronted.

Sul21 – How do you view the possibility of summoning Policarpo Júnior to testify before the CPI?

Schroder – I have seen proposals in that vein from some politicians, such as Senator Ana Amélia Lemos (PP-RS), who says investigating the role played by Policarpo in this incident represents an attack on the press. But journalists are not above the law and cannot be held to be above and beyond republican values.  If he is summoned by the CPI, he has the right not to attend. If he attends, he has the right to claim reporter-source confidentiality.  But the summons in iitself represents no threat.

Veja owes Brazil an explanation. It must explain how it goes about doing journalistic work based on these mere ideological inclinations, this lack of commitment  and irresponsibility with regard to longstanding technical and ethical rules of journalism.   It is essential that we ask these questions. Journalists and academics have an obligation to question these practices.

Sul21 – In this light, would  it not seem valid to summon the president of Abril, Roberto Civita?

Schroder – That seems to me to be a loss of focus … In the CPI, Veja is [only] one of the topics to be covered. The main problem is the corruption that ties Cachoeira to the Brazilian parliament. A statement by Civita would generate a debate that would shift the focus of the CPI awat from its essential tasks.  There is no doubt that Veja praticed poor journalism and should be made to explain itself. The CPI has wiretaps of magazine employees talking with the numbers racketeer.  So let them be summoned. But bringing the chief of Veja’s Brasilia branch in to answer questions is no trivial matter.

Sul21 – Criticisms of Veja tend to be answered with arguments that praise its own, supposedly investigative, journalism while firing back with various charges of corruption [against critics]. The Policarpo-Cachoeira tapes, however, reveal the workings of the machinery behind some of these [character assassination ] attacks.

Schroder – There is a certain sensation in the air that we are living through the most corrupt period in our history.  This is far from being true. Consider our history and see whether or not we have functioning democratic institutions.  The press plays a democratic role by providing oversight of corruption scandals. The problem is that in certain sectors, where these charges are formulated, an absolute value is attributed to the concept of corruption.  In the Veja case, the worst of all was that magazine itself was directly involved.  This was not just bad journalism.  There were dangerous signs of self-enrichment – which need not necessarily be financial in nature. It may come in the form of an exchange of favors, in which Veja furnished Cachoeira, not with a journalistic report, but rather the script of a political campaign.

[It acts as  though] it were the political party that its opposition cannot be. If the press engages in such practices, it returns to standards not seen since the XVIII Century. If this is so, let the magazine change its name and openly assume its political alignment and partisan coverage. These days, as it presents itself as a space for the sharing information, Veja should reflect on the complexity and diversity of the Brazilian public sector and civil society. If it refuses, it is undermining journalism and bordering on a illegality which will have to be investigated.  Fenaj will not protect criminal journalists.

Sul21  – The revelation of this modus operandi practiced at Veja is generating an almost unprecedented debate: More and more, the  media is debating the media. Carta Capital magazine has dedicate several front pages on the topic and Record has broadcast a report. This is common in other countries, but to date has not caught on in Brazil.

Schroder – In the 1980s, when Fenaj proposed a programmatic support for the democratization of communication, we began with the awareness that the democratization of Brazil had yet to catch up with the media.  The Brazilian media system, unlike other institutions, had not undergone democratization.  We have five articles in the Constitution on this topic that have never been implemented. For 30 years we have mounted various initiatives to attempt to structure this debate. The basic logic of regulation exists in every nation in the world.

In Brazil, however, we face resistance from a powerful media that succeeded in electing the first two post-democratization presidents.  Sarney and Collor are among the politicians who owe the Globo network so very much.  Globo allies, advocates and concessionaires have been elected to our congress, such as Antonio Carlos Magalhães, who doubled as Minister of Communications. The media is not just concentrated, in the sense of suffering from monopolies. It is completely bereft of public control.  It is completely convinced that freedom of expression is a right exclusive to media owners. If the Constitution says that freedom of expression belongs to the people, the role of the media is to ensure this right.

Sul21 – How mch progress have you made in this direction since then?

Schroder – We had spent 30 years debating this theme by the time Confecom (National Conference on Communication, December 2009) took place.  Fenaj has successfully implanted the idea that the debate needs to be a public one. The media refuses to report on the debate, however, calling it an attempt to impose censorship.  At first, Confecom had the support of the media companies. I went with representatives of RBS and Globo to speak with federal ministers Helio Costa (Communications),  Tarso Genro (Justice) and Luiz Dulci (presidencial secretary-general) with our proposal for the event.

The companies believed at the time that telephony was threatening their business models.  During Confecom, however, Globo and its many allies attempted once again to sabotage the debate.  Conservatism is in the DNA of Globo. Globo is accustomed to believe that there should be no rules regulating its business. It is accustomed to autocratically  imposing its views and is therefore existentially opposed to any regulation.

At that moment, when Globo walked out on Confecom, it was clear that it is impossible to count on these media owners to support any attempt to construct a public, humanistic, national  communications policy, guided by cultural, democratic and educational principles. All that interests them is the rapid growth of revenues.

Sul21 – The editorial in O Globo defending Veja: is this a sign of collusion among traditional media owners?

Schroder – The principle uniting the two publications is the same adopted by SIP — the Interamerican Press Association: “The best media law is no media law at all.”

Media companies aligned with the idea that they cannot be held legally accountable  do so to protect themselves. Dressed up in the mantle of a freedom of expression convenient to their interests and businesses, they band together to shut the public out.

But journalism is the fruit of a professional activity, not of a business. Journalism is not ad sales. Essentially, journalism is the work of journalists. For this reason, it is the journalist’s obligation to speak out every time the profession is marred by misconduct, as occurred with Veja. It should also be the obligation of media companies, to the extent that they themselves are not involved in this type of conduct.  When the media owner or his agent becomes the accomplice of their source and covers up these practices, they align themselves with criminality.  These companies compete for market share, but mutually protect  “what is considered essential” in their attempt to refute the idea that their work is subject to the public interest, like any other.