Brazil: Recent Notes of a Rohter Decoder

“Did Larry Rohter do good journalism?” Brazilian Press Association, 2004. The government tried to have the Times reporter’s visa cancelled over a [sleazy hit-piece sourced to, as he described coverage of his own case to a local interviewer, “the unscrupulous part of the Brazilian media,” when sourced at all] implying the president of Brazil was a drunken lout. Sponsoring the
habeas corpus that allowed him to stay: then-Senator Sérgio Cabral, now governor of Rio de Janeiro.

The end of the Cold War has opened new horizons for the American media, but embedded in that wider perspective is the problem of making sense of a world in which change is the only constant. The old criteria for covering foreign affairs on the East-West confrontation model — and many of the old standards of newsworthiness — don’t apply in a post-Cold War model”. (VANDEN HEUVEL cited in PARKER, 1996, as cited in GOLBSPAN HERSCOVITZ, 2007).

Anyone who spends time in Brazil and comes away believing that “change is the only constant” in recent Brazilian history has spent too much time watching television.

There are still vast stretches of Brazil where lack of change is the only constant, and has been at least since the arrival of the first Bragança.

Item: Golbspan Herscovitz, “LULA VS. LARRY ROHTER: Misconceptions in International Coverage.” BRAZILIAN JOURNALISM RESEARCH, Volume 3, Number 1, Semester 1, 2007.

On which see also

Semestre is generally equivalent to English [fiscal or otherwise] quarter. Oh, no, wait, I am thinking of trimestre. Belay that.

Elliot Parker, of Central Michigan University, studied Larry Rohter’s correspondence from Haiti for the New York Times between 1994 and 1996. After analyzing a total of 196 news stories produced by the foreign correspondent, Parker concluded that the journalist offered a “condescending view of Haitian life” and “could not resist exploiting the use of voodoo by Haitians”.

See also

To both his admirers and his many enemies Mr. Magalhaes seemed a larger-than-life figure, like a character out of one of the novels of his friend Jorge Amado. On the campaign trail, he seemed equally at ease with the black voodoo priests who repeatedly delivered their congregations’ votes to him as with the white businessmen he made prosperous by steering lucrative contracts their way.

Rohter himself kind of reminds me of a character out of one of the novels of my constant traveling companion — Joseph Conrad.

I just spent part of the week, in fact, rereading Nostromo in a lansdscape that reminds you strongly of the Costanaguan coast as described in that brilliant opening chapter.

Travel tip: When traveling to areas where the energy supply is intermittent or subject to unscheduled interruption, bring printed matter and candles.

This came in handy during our recent weekend along the caiçara coastline, in fact. At one point we were actually reduced, by an astonishingly forceful and sudden squall that killed the electricity feed to the region, to sharing a room-temperature Mendoza (Argentina) shiraz and simple, idle, extended human conversation, by lantern-light. The horror! The horror!

Which reminds me: I learned a new (obscene and untranslatable) joke for future bar conversations that evening. Nabunda nada.

Brazilians do not practice voodoo.

They practice candomblé and umbanda, among a number of other things, both jointly and severally — the former having striking similarities to voudon and santería, including overlapping pantheons inherited from shared origins in the African jaspora, but are still considered distinct and sui generis by practicioners and scholars alike, as far as I know.

In Parker’s view, Rohter’s writings suggested that Haitians were a backward people with primitive beliefs. Furthermore, Parker found that Rohter’s pieces were in concert with U.S. policy in the region. Haitian men and women appear only irregularly in Rohter’s work. When they do, the Haitians make token appearances for anonymous quotes, such as “a toothless vendor” and “a middle-aged lawyer in a rumpled blue seersucker suit” (1994, August 2, 3A). In these ways, Rohter’s correspondence offered a strategy designed to degrade and demean Haiti (PARKER, 1996).

“Were in concert with U.S. policy in the region”?

The suspicion here in Brazil, in some quarters, is that the New York Times actively helps promote U.S. policy in the region — by framing the news so as to muster public support for that policy while omitting such messy details as “how the embassy coopts the local press” and the strange notions of Democracy 2.0 promoted by the National Endowment Therefor.

Which would, if true, make the New York Times a gabbling propaganda weapon that gets turned on its own readers. Who are expected to pay it for the privilege. “Thank you, Sulzberg. Now pull the other one.”

I hope that is not the case. Because I tend to think that one job of the foreign correspondent is to inform me as completely and accurately as possible of how my tax dollars are getting spent in foreign climes.

This kind of behavior, for example, on the part of a professional diplomat, was counterproductive, I thought:

Or why, for example, is Osama bin Laden still alive and Afghanistan still the heroin capital of the world?

We poured a ton of money into that project. Having watched big fucking aircraft smash into a building I used to work in on September 11, 2001, I was pretty much for it. But where are the damn results?

I know, I know: It is unrealistic to expect miracles. The problem is that these people promised us miracles. Go to the library and read for yourself: It’s all there in the newspaper of record.

That sort of thing.

Sucking up to the campaign-donor proconsuls: “The New York Times‘ South American correspondent Larry Rohter, right, with U.S. Chargé D’Affaires James Nealon during a courtesy call at the U.S. Embassy Montevideo, August 18, 2006.” Source: U.S. Dept. of State.

This is a pretty thorough scholarly treatment of the factors in play in the infamous “Lula is a communist drunk” flap, but its master narrative — “it was a tragic case of mutual incomprehension and misperceptions on both sides” — seems a little ingenous to me.

Bordering on the folkloric.

The following observation I found especially jarring, in light of my own observations.

Differently from the U.S., where a president’s private life is a public matter, in Brazil a public figure’s privacy is ultimately off limits. Such a perception has developed as a product of cultural traditions that combine a strong Catholic formation with a Colonial Hispanic-Iberian influence that separates public and private spheres.

(Our scholar does not source any of those statements.)

“Separates the public and private spheres?”

What alternative universe are we discussing here?

The dynastic and hereditary public-private synergy in the Medici tradition — risk management strategy: own the bank, own the church, own the state, own the poets and set them to singing your praises — is still the dominant form of political and economic organization in quite a few parts of the country. See, for example.

As to the notion that, for (stereotypical) cultural reasons — the obligatory reference to Latin American machismo follows — the private life of public figures tends to be off-limits: This notion is about as quaint as the myth of Brazilian racial democracy or the juvenile classics of Monteiro Lobato.

The Brazilian yellow press — which as far as I can see is in the midst of a rollicking second Golden Age (password to the online edition of Veja in a copy I bought a couple of years ago: NOVOLACERDA) — is an ebullient, never-ending carnival of ad hominem slander, whisper campaigning, disinformation, vicious, gabbling irrelevancies and other virulent pathologies afflicting public information services in republics both ancient and modern, both emerging and (in our case) declining.

These days its leading lights might arguably be Mainardi and Azevedo of Veja or Arnaldo “Pornopolitics” Jabor of O Globo and the Jornal do Globo and CBN Radio and … But its history seems to have begun with the arrival of the very first newfangled Gutenberg machine. I try to read everything I can get my hands on on the subject.

Recent case in point:

On one hand, American foreign correspondents, as most U.S. journalists studied by David Weaver (1998), appear to be more concerned with getting the news quickly rather than with offering analysis and investigating government claims. In many cases, news organizations decide the angle and tone before the facts are gathered (HERBERT 2003), which ends up limiting the reporters’ autonomy to follow the natural course of the news stories.

I was just reading an article in an old number of Superinteressante magazine (1993, cover price 690 cruzeiros) about Euclides da Cunha’s dispatches from the Canudos War for the Estado de S. Paulo — most of which his editor refused to publish at the time.

They were later published as the literary classic Os Sertôes, a (heavily abridged) translation of which you can still find in the Library of Congress as, I think it is, Revolt in the Backlands.

The soldiers of the renegade Conselheiro had their heads taken as trophies.

The women were sold to brothels.

Their children were claimed as prizes and enslaved.

Cunha himself was present with a matched set, which he donated to charity.

Os Sertões is a remarkable, magisterial anti-humanist masterpiece of Tropico-Lusitanian prose in which you will read almost nothing about that human aspect of this astonishing incident in Brazilian history.

On the other hand, the line between reporting and commentary is sometimes unclear. W. Lance Bennett (2001:7) points out that there is a tendency “to report shallow, dramatized news that often put the focus on the most personal and sensational aspects of politics and social life.” Bennett contends that such a tendency is not due to journalists’desires, and he attributes it to pressures beyond their control.

That’s our Larry. I have been collecting items from the Rohter back catalog myself and tend to find that Larry’s stock in trade is the koinoi topos, “Life imitates trash TV.”

There’s this, for example, from his 2001 series on the “monied Marxist sexologist” mayor of São Paulo at the time and her troubled love life:

The 10 million residents of Brazil’s biggest, richest city were convinced that the days of political soap operas here had finally ended when Marta Suplicy became mayor at the start of the year. Little did they suspect that they were about to plunge into a new, even more complicated drama mixing political and sexual intrigue.

In his farewell interview with the Estado de S. Paulo, Larry Rohter was, I thought, at some pains to depict himself as subject to iron discipline from the head office. “I was only following orders,” that sort of thing.

Larry Rohter is not his own man.

In which case, whose man is he?

Who does get served by Our Man in Copacaban?


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