Imagine if the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had a flack corps whose stated mission was to “motivate and create enthusiasm among the public” for the court’s rulings.
The press office of Brazil’s federal elections tribunal is a running press relations case study of mine not only because this is something we do not do back home in Gringoland — we didn’t used to before the Bush “fake news” epidemic, that is, with government-produced VNRs run as straight news, without attribution — but also because the journalism practiced is often, to put it undiplomatically, abysmal.
In these spots, for example, which are available for download and free rebroadcast from the TSE’s Web site, none of the persons interviewed are identified. Who are they? Why are they talking?
I learned this in my 8th-grade journalism class. The first question of the famous Five W’s is “who?” Who specifically? What’s their name? But the TSE is putting this substandard product out on the Web and asking us to run it as is, as an example of its transparency.
In the press release on the seminar on press relations and elections coverage shown here — see Hacks are Flacks! Banana-Republican Business Journalism Illustrated — the press office identifies the principal speaker as a representative of the Brazilian Association of Business Journalism.
No such organization exists. The speaker — “the point here is to generate enthusiasm for the court’s rulings!” — is from the Brazilian Association of Corporate Communications — although it still uses the acronym ABERJE, suggesting it once bore that name.
If you monitor press coverage of the TSE, meanwhile, you find that overwhelming majority of coverage consists of running TSE press releases verbatim, very often without attribution to the source.
When journalists do cover the judiciary, they are liable to be subject to threats of legal sanctions if their coverage is found to have “offended the honor” of the magistrate.
See Folha in a Finer Hour: Judging Judges Judging Judges, for example, and the response, in Mendes Defended.
Sergio Bermudes took the Folha to task for daring to cover a very public dispute, during a public session, between a Supreme Court justice and top federal prosecutors over the justice’s intention to rule in a case from which he arguably should have recused himself, writing:
This hostile article puts the judge at a disadvantage because, by the nature of his office, he cannot engage in public polemics and wars of words. Only layman would be impressed by the insinuation in the March 11 report by the Folha that Gilmar Mendes committed judicial error, for legal criteria, which must be applied, often do not coincide with those of public opinion.
Cannot engage in a war of words, by the nature of his office?
One of Mendes’ colleagues on the STF , the president of the federal elections tribunal, said in a press conference last year that the “dossier” case was “worse than Watergate,” and that the president of Brazil should be impeached over it.
He later clarified that he made those remarks without having acquainted himself, officially or unofficially, with any of the facts in the case.
Mr. Bermudes also writes that covering such a controversy undermines the public’s confidence in the integrity of justice, while at the same time maintaining that the public — journalists included — is simply incapable of understanding the reasoning behind legal decision-making.
On Mendes’ putative conflict of interest in a decision on the constitutionality of a 1993 anticorruption law — the outcome of which might liberate him from administrative proceedings brought under the same law — see Mendes Forfends.
See Pertence Probed by PGR; Waxes Wroth for a similar case of judicial public relations.
Journalists not licensed to exercise the profession who ask questions that judges do not like are likely to be threatened with prosecution.