NMM(-TV)SNB(B)CNN(P)BS: The Mengele of Milk! Notes On Brazilian Moral Panic Journalism

NMM(-TV)SNB(B)CNN(P)BS on Google Video:

Moral crusades advance claims about both the gravity and incidence of a particular problem. They typically rely on horror stories and “atrocity tales” about victims in which the most shocking exemplars of victimization are described and typified. Casting the problem in highly dramatic terms by recounting the plight of highly traumatized victims is intended to alarm the public and policy makers and justify draconian solutions. At the same time, inflated claims are made about the magnitude of the problem. A key feature of many moral crusades is that the imputed scale of a problem … far exceeds what is warranted by the available evidence.

On “moral panic,” see also

TV Globo’s Fantástico sets out to inform us on a matter of personal interest: What risks are posed by UHT milk, given a federal crackdown on milk producers caught using a substandard method for balancing pH?

See also

The answer: David Sasaki-style fear and misinformation abound.

Typical of the Globo approach to “moral panic” journalism, I find — I am actually just gisting some of my recent reading on the subject from people who study Globo journalistic technique — are

  1. Put an individual face on a systemic issue: find a poster-child or scapegoat
  2. The investigative journalist as Grand Inquisitor; also known as The Commedia Dell’arte of Journalistic Diligence
  3. Ventriloquism and selective editing
  4. Infotainment terrorism (spooky mystery music)

The segment you see there for example, can be summarized as follows: There is fear, uncertainty and doubt about how many milk producers the man may have taught how to adulterate milk, because (1) the man contradicts himself, and (2) his accusers are legion.

A key moment, I think, is when the man opines that the levels of lye recommended by the irregular formula — which he insists he did not provide — do not pose a health risk.

This is actually also the official position as well: We are working to remove substandard milk from the shelves, but if you have consumed the product, do not panic: There is no immediate risk to your health.

Likewise when the man is said to “slip” and “reveal” that he “knew about the fraud.”

“This was done in the middle of the night”

“Come again?” the reporter says, arching an eyebrow.

“From the information that the police have, this was done in the middle of the night,” he says.

This seems like a likely case of ventriloquism to me: A “slip” is attributed to the man, but there is nothing conclusive in the fragment of the interview shown to justify that conclusion.

Journalism recognizable as such, meanwhile, would have reality-tested the man’s claim about the safety factor.

The federal police have documented the formula, after all.

How much lye and hydrogen peroxide — I mistranslated this as “bleach” before, sorry — was used by cheating producers? What are the toxic levels of those chemicals, generally speaking? In the short term? Cumulatively?

If it were me, I would have called up a public health expert and put those questions to them on camera.

My sense is that they would have probably told you that the regulations are there to maximize the minimization of cumulative health risks and bring Brazilian production into line with international standards in this respect — bovine products being a disputed export sector, and questions having been raised in the EU about how compliant the Brazilians really are.

The general drift of such reporting is that government officials cannot be trusted to provide justice and protect the public, but Globo (or Datena, or Wagner Montes) can.

The problem being that those actors have a history of disinforming.

Which is why it is often characterized as “lynch mob” journalism.

A characterization that I think is quite fitting. See also

Let me see what I can find out about the actual current disposition of the charges against the man, who was indiciado in the case — something like an arraignment: police recommend that prosecutors investigate the charges against him.

Naturally, the charges against the man could be true, though he claims that the milk producers are trying to throw the blame on him. It is really impossible to tell without painstaking investigation.

In the meantime, the issue for us, as milk consumers, remains: What is the risk to us? And what is being done to minimize it?

I am drinking a bit, fat café com leite right now, and slurping up corn flakes.

Will I die?

This is exactly the question that Globo “investigative journalism” fails to address.

I drank a bunch of those yesterday, and did not die. I feel pretty good. I have a physical coming up and will make sure to ask the doctor to check for milk poisoning.

The “Crack City” phenomenon has a good chance of being a “moral panic” campaign as well, I think. (It reminds of a report that Globo Minas did on crack consumption in an area near a police station, in fact, a couple of years ago.)

The city government plans to expropriate 750 properties in the Santa Ifigênia neighborhood, of which the “Crack City” district is a small subset. See also

But Datena’s “reporting” on the subject merely shows a small group of street kids smoking crack. Shows it over and over and over again.

You have seen a lot of this over the course of the year — along with hidden camera footage of the cops arriving, beating the snot out of all and sundry, and then arresting no one.

You hardly ever read any hard information on the actual dimensions of the problem — or policy proposals designed to produce a solution less drastic than burning the place down and installing Microsoft and IBM in there.

Which property owners in the area would probably refer, as an activist friend of ours insists.

As it is, they are being told to take what is being offered them or else face expropriation.

The current city administration here is visibly given to frequent moral panic — and Datena is its Messenger — as witnessed by the current bar joke:

“A plane crash kills 200 people, and who do they arrest? The guy who owns the whorehouse!”

On which see also:

For a recent argument that moral panic is used a justification for handing public security over to mobbed-up death squads in Rio de Janeiro, see also

Naturally, the most common retort to such concerns over the dimensions of the “parapolitics” phenomenon is that is itself an instance of moral panic.

Without offering any hard numbers to suggest the actual dimensions of the problem (the standard whisper number being that 100 communities are dominated by paramilitary groups).

In a similar case, you saw a Poynter “senior scholar” — who takes a surprisingly unscholarly approach to the issue — taking the same position recently with respect to Naomi Wolf’s recent book on “fascist” tendencies in our contemporary political cultural. See

Anna Politkovskaya of the Novaya Gazeta was accused of attempting to induce “moral panic” over the free reign given to ultrarightist extremism in Russia, for example.

Her reporting on the assassination of an expert witness who frequently testified in cases of racist extermination squads, however, does stand up to independent scrutiny, at least.

And her own name, as she pointed out, was published on the Internet by these same groups as “an enemy of the Russian people.”

And she herself has now been exterminated.

Is this an isolated horror story or atrocity tale?

Or is this, as she claimed to have documented, the rule of the state of exception?

These are facts that remain to be determined.

Given that one of the few journalists who was trying to collect and record them has now received the standard two in the nape of the neck.


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