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The story of those who tell the story

Brazilian press bicentennial calls for broad reflection

Reproduction from the book A Revista no Brasil/Binóculo - no. 4 – August 27, 1881 In a paradox worthy of the saying “the cobbler’s children have no shoes”, there is  great difficulty, when the subject is Brazilian media, in finding those who tell the story of those who make history. Even the bicentennial of our press went unnoticed, as if king D. João VI, currently so celebrated in newspapers and magazines, was finally getting his own back on the diatribes voiced against his government by Hipólito da Costa, editor of the Correio Braziliense paper and the author, in early 1808, of an article that, not without some controversy, is regarded as the beginning of Brazilian journalism. “Our press was born auspiciously, inspired and carefully crafted. The pioneering writing of Hipólito da Costa was not merely journalistic text, but journalistic text on journalism. It?s an inspired genesis: it inaugurates the press at the same time as inaugurating criticism of the press”, comments Alberto Dines, editor of the Observatório da Imprensa, who criticized the alleged disregard (with few exceptions) of the media regarding this ephemeral event.

“It would be valid to contest this date and the primacy granted to Hipólito da Costa, or to choose the friar Tibúrcio José da Rocha, the first editor of the Gazeta do Rio de Janeiro paper as the patriarch of our press. So they don’t want an anticlerical mason as the forerunner of our journalism? Then invent theories: historiography is not an exact science, it’s elastic”, he noted in an article. “Let a debate be established, let the questioning begin, let the accusations against the uprightness of the editor of the Correio Braziliense be unearthed. To ignore the spectacular beginnings of the press and to hide our delay in getting to this is a crime of “lese identity”, he warns us. Is it difficult to “cut one’s own flesh”? “Writing the history of media implies, necessarily, in deconstructing its discourse, or, in other words, in refusing its self-consciousness (its “native discourse”), which implies also deconstructing the quotidianness of its production”, observes the historian Fernando Lattman-Weltman, from the Getúlio Vargas Foundation. According to the communication expert and student of the press José Marques de Melo, the historiography of the genre faces a paradox: “The volume of research about the press is growing, but the generalizations capable of elucidating its development and  discerning its future are rare.” Still, there are some exceptions.

One of them has just been launched by Editora Contexto: História da Imprensa no Brazil [The History of the Press in Brazil], organized by Ana Luiza Martins and Tânia Regina de Luca. “Most of the works on the press in Brazil have turned toward specific and fragmented analyses, devised to cover a broad spectrum, but interrupted and incomplete because of the magnitude of the undertaking”, the authors assess. Indeed, as of the 1990s, the most important event in this field was the publication of memoirs and biographies. “Positive in terms of expanding sources, these products, despite their quality, belong not to historiography, but to the cultural industry”, warns  Richard Romancini, author of História do Jornalismo no Brazil [The History of Journalism in Brazil], according to whom “the publication, in 1966, of Nelson Werneck’s História da Imprensa no Brazil [The History of the Press in Brazil] is actually rather surprising”, this  being the most influential study on the subject to date. “Sodré is highly critical of positivistic history and stands out for the coherence with which he embraces a Marxist frame of reference, which correlated the development of the press in Brazil with its productive forces, with the famous formula ‘the history of the press is the very history of the development of capitalistic society’ “. However, Romancini notes, “there is some difficulty in working with cultural themes based on orthodox Marxism without bringing them down to the dimension of a reflection of the socioeconomic infrastructure,  resulting in a certain theoretical void.” This becomes evident, he adds, in the essay that the author added in 1999 to the book’s fourth edition, in which, maintaining the same theoretical frame of reference, he reached a conclusion that is “only with  fully accepted difficulties: alienated and linked to the dominant class, the press in Brazil has lost any national trait.”

Reproduction from the book A Revista no Brasil/Gil Pinheiro, Manchete, 1959A retired army general, a brilliant intellectual and the author of more than 56 books, Werneck nursed his project of a history of the press for 30 years. “The book’s core is the relation of interdependence between the press and the State, largely one of financial dependence of the press on the government”, note Octavio Pieranti and Paulo Emílio Martins, both from the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, in their article about Sodré’s book. According to these researchers, the view espoused by this classic is that “the press, from its very inception, was an activity of the dominant class in which the helmsmen of journalism were unwilling to ally themselves with the people in the struggle for political freedom, not being the overseers of the government, but aligning themselves, to the contrary, sometimes with it, sometimes with the opposition, in a clear and unequivocal manner, and moreover encouraging revolts and acts of armed rebellion”. At the time of the Empire, according to Sodré, the way the press was managed changed, but the new media vehicles were under the command of the emperor’s friends, there being no room for the opposition. The Republic, he states, did not change this essence. The outstanding fact that resulted from the consolidation of the Republic, according to the historian, was the about face of the press in journalistic enterprises, a contradiction between their behavior and their true essence. “Idolatries and scoldings coexisted calmly with modern business structures. The government soon understood that it would be necessary to support these companies, to buy the opinion of the press, which apparently had taken on an entrepreneurial status without having prepared itself for this”, explained the researchers. Ultimately, recalls Sodré, “it is no longer necessary, in order to dominate the press, to use violent or authoritarian methods such as those embraced in the past; just financial resources sufficed for the press, forever floundering in a perennial crisis the likes of which had never been seen before, to submit itself to new interests”. Thus, the larger the company, the less free the newspaper, freedom of the press being governed by capital.

“The book is a compulsory reference, but it was written more than 40 years ago and new interpretations are needed to explain the movement of history in its relation to the country’s press”, warns  Marialva Barbosa, a professor of communication at the Federal Fluminense University and author of the book História Cultural da Imprensa [The Cultural History of the Press]. “He proposed a committed history, based on the assumption that elements of the past can clarify contemporary issues”. The historiographic differences are underscored by the pioneering reality of the press. Sodré considers that it is “arguable” to include the Correio amongst Brazil’s press. According to him, this results “less from the fact that it is produced abroad, which has happened many times, than from the fact that it did not emerge and keep going because of domestic circumstances, but  external ones”. Thus, the true “anniversary” of the press would date back to September 1808, when Imprensa Régia [the Regal Press] was founded and the Gazeta do Rio de Janeiro paper was published. This would be the period, in the view of Lattman-Weltman (based on the periodization of Habermas for the world press), when “the press was a service tied to a pre-capitalistic rationale”. The alleged “lateness” of our journalism, still according to Sodré, is presumably due precisely to the lack of capitalism and  a bourgeoisie, because only in those countries in which both developed did the press flourish  well. “But the emphasis on the lateness or on censure as a means of explaining the absence of the press do not take into account the complexity of its characteristics. Without denying these factors, it is important to add that their appearance was not the result of a cultural void, but, rather, that it underscored and put some order into a public setting that was undergoing transformations regarding power relations, namely, the crisis of absolutism”, adds Tânia de Luca. She also reminds us that the Correio, though produced abroad, in England, “was systematically read over here”.

For this author, contrary to what Sodré assumes, this first attempt at periodicals was not only incipient: it was thanks to it that “public opinion began to be established, given that, up until 1808, debate and political divergence were not practiced publicly”. Later, during the period of the Regencies, this role grew further: “The press is a formulator of the nations’ projects and  a public arena in which the political players emerged”. Werneck is in agreement with this: “The bodies of the press, though controlled by members of the bourgeoisie, did not discard the participation of the people in revolts against power, a behavior that would not be seen in the Brazilian press at other points in its history”. With the Second Empire, a second moment of the domestic press is born: the first opposition newspapers, abolitionist and republican, arise. Their intents are clearly ideological rather than financial, as the historian observes. They were the instruments of certain people with political careers, of parties or of political groups, hence their short life, in most cases. “The segmentation of the public, however, would still take a long time, given the limited reading population”, notes Ana Luiza Martins. With the advent of the Republic, the monarchist press, with some exceptions, became republican and an agent of a civilizing and modernizing project. Politics still accounted for a share of the press, but urban growth was the main, novel focus of the news. The press experimented with technological innovation processes (such as illustrations, photographs, cartoons, etc.) and, little by little, a consumer market emerged. This caused the publications  to be increasingly transformed into companies. Room was made for advertising. However, this did not get in the way of the spurious relation with the State: Campos Salles, for instance, boasted that he had a secret government fund with which to purchase journalists’ opinions.

Reproduction from the book A Revista no Brasil /Millôr, Veja, May 8,1974 “The predisposition of the press to bring political coverage to its main pages joined the government’s desire to buy the opinion of the press. According to Sodré, it is difficult to say which came first, whether the desire of the press to cuddle up to the bed of official funding, or the government’s interest in distributing substantial sums to calm it down. It was the perfect marriage, combining greed and patronage”, note Pieranti and Martins. If for decades political struggle had been the engine driving newspapers, as these turned into businesses, their owners embraced rational distribution and management methods. “The new editions had to be  distributed quickly in order to try and keep the hurried reader informed”, explains Tânia. A distinction between supposedly neutral, informative, journalistic articles, on one hand, and opinion-oriented articles, that advocated values, on the other, was now outlined. “It is the decline of indoctrination in favor of information. Thus, in the early years of the twentieth century, the ideal that a newspaper had the noble mission of informing the reader of the “truth of the facts” was established. Newspapers became a monetary issue, rather than a matter of political belief. For the press, winning over the public was less of a victory over ideas than a simple business event, a natural defense of the sums tied up in the company. The press turned into an industry”, with companies that produced advertising space as sellable merchandise thanks, to the editorial part.

This is the third and last stage of our journalism: the superceding of literary journalism by the entrepreneurial kind, which, according to Sodré, began back in the 1920, corresponding to a transition stage from the “handcrafted”  to the industrial. The content would be affected, of course. “The basis for building the ideal of objectivity, made sturdier thanks to the reforms that the newspapers would undergo half a century later, were already set in place at the turn of the nineteenth into the twentieth century. Strictly speaking, this myth should be understood as  symbolism construed by these firms and by journalists to gain distinction, an authorized podium from which to speak”, warns  Marialva.  According to the new definition by the journalists, a modern newspaper would be that which highlighted the informative news, putting opinions on the backburner. However, in spite of this, advertising sales continued to be weak, causing the press to depend largely on public aid. “Still, newspapers needed a new interlocutor, a uniform mass that was beginning to be described with adjectives and which became consistent in the 1930’s. To this end, papers standardized their language, highlighting in the building of their self-image the rhetoric of impartiality, thus reinforcing their image of independence”, observes the researcher. The New State of Getúlio Vargas broke down this rationale. “By coercion or political alignment, the State acquires exclusivity over the dissemination of the news and the public is pushed away from periodicals; as result of this, by the mid-1930’s, they had disappeared from publications. Their speech had been silenced and that of the State amplified by the newspapers.” The point of inflection would come about in the 1950’s.

“Up to the middle of this period, the situation was unfavorable to change; besides the institutional difficulties surrounding the consolidation of the so-called public sphere in our country, there were problems of a socioeconomic and cultural nature that rendered unfeasible any attempt to create a reasonably autonomous market of cultural goods. Industrial development and the growth of the cities changed this picture”, assesses Lattman-Weltman. Thus, the reforms of the 1950’s must be seen as a time of construction, by the journalists themselves, of journalism that was becoming modern and permeated by a neutrality that was fundamental in order to reflect the world. “The myth of objectivity is fundamental for lending the field an autonomous and acknowledged position, construing journalism as the only activity capable of deciphering the world for the reader”, states Marialva. Journalism starts to consolidate itself with a line of speech that is authorized relative to the constitution of reality and its discourse becomes clad in an aura of faithfulness to the facts, which lends it a great deal of symbolic power. Newspapers, as from this time, become emblematic places for the dissemination of information, although, as the researcher notes, “the burden of opinion has not been cast out of the publications.” In the words of Gramsci, this is when the press starts acting like a ‘party’: “The power of speech is held by the party that holds the floor; in other words, not only the discourse, but also a formalization of speech, a distinction between those to whom the role of informing is delegated and all others, who do not hold this function.”

Reproduction from the book A Revista no Brasil /A Comedia Social, February 2, 1871 “However, for Gramsci, newspapers did not merely want to act in the political field, but above all to increasingly mobilize the public. The greater their audience, the greater their power of dissemination and the rationale of conquering of their own power. Nothing better to win audience, incidentally, than to divulge, as far as possible, that they produce a discourse that reflects the world. And winning audience means gaining power”, notes Marialva. Relations with the State also change. “Journalism grants itself the role of being the sole possible intermediary between  government power and the public. Thus, it shows itself not as a counter-power, but as an instituted power. The censorship years of the military dictatorship consolidated this process and encouraged a ‘non-natural selection’ among the media. “In the face of a universe in which politics leave the scene as a dominant symbolic discourse, vis-à-vis the cultural universe of the public, separating controversy from the news, the daily papers take on a new character that fails to find a response from the public”, notes the author. “When political circumstances  leave no room for embracing positions, it is up to the group that best serves the political elite, at that point in time, in this case, O Globo, to achieve the greatest business success.” These times also changed the character of newspapers, more specifically after the 1980s.

As politics had been disappearing from the scene for several decades, financial editorials gained  unprecedented prominence, becoming the flagship of several publications. The investigative journalist genre also mushroomed: “The adoption of a journalism model that was ‘objective, impartial and neutral’ was also aided by the boundaries imposed during the military period, given that pulling away from voicing opinions became a means of survival.” When politics ceased to be a field of debate and controversy, it became necessary to find another arena for those same controversies. This formed the ideal setting for the journalism of denunciation, devoid of political content, but linked to the living conditions of workers, for instance, or to environmental issues. Unfortunately, observes the author, this denunciatory inclination was not always based on reality or on sufficient evidence; what was important was to dramatize the accusation. Another change was the force of exclusivity, as a structure for building authority. “The journalist was meant to be someone who not only could reveal hidden matters to the public, but who was also in charge of uncovering the facts, denouncing them to the public.” The Tim Lopes case, to cite just one, is an example of this new format, in which “the practice of crime reporters behaving like police investigators, acting as an intermediary, in search of collectivity, becomes natural.”

During the years that preceded this press bicentennial, however, not everything ran as the media expected. “The 2006 elections showed that the concept of opinion leaders that we were used to had  become outdated”, stated Marcos Coimbra, from the Vox Populi [research institute]. “The model of the middle class as opinion leaders that, once won over by the media, would solve an election, disappeared with the consolidation of class C, incorporated into the consumer market. From then on, this became the class that would form opinions, and this was a novel phenomenon”, evaluates sociologist Cláudia Camargo, according to whom “the great media has been experiencing an impasse ever since.” For the researcher, the chief issue is to find out how, or whether, twenty-first century journalism will survive. “The crisis into which the Brazilian media dived, after reaching the pinnacle of its glory during the episode of [president] Collor’s impeachment, seems to suggest it won’t. At least in the format in which journalism was carried out  until the mid 1990s.” The cobbler must find an alternative to his children going barefoot.