Veja (Brazil): Behind the Scenes of an “Exemplary” Investigative Report

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“Exemplary reporting:” Veja on its relationship with Daniel Dantas, May 24, 2006. Source: Veja.abril.com.br. Click to zoom. Transcript to come. The timeline as posted seems to be incomplete.

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” –Carl Sagan

Using all legal means, VEJA tried to confirm the veracity of the material handed over by Manzano [and compiled with Frank Holder, with whom they met in Zurich.] Submitted to examination by an expert hired by the magazine, the material presented numerous inconsistencies, but none of them sufficiently strong to completely eliminate the possibility that the papers contained true information. … The magazine made it clear that it could not prove the authenticity of these papers, which could all be a fraud. Even so, it is implausible that the banker would have spent so much time and money to hire and equip international spies only to come away with a bunch of phantom documents.

The first thing to be said is that the causal relationship between the material and the harm is only alleged. No study we have found or heard of remotely establishes the claim with anything resembling even a weak scientific argument based on evidence. The causal connection may exist. It may be plausible, but mere plausibility is no basis on which to rest portions of the Criminal Code and a number of other suppressive institutions. –British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, “On Pornography and Obscenity,” 1963

“The president, the head of the federal police, and the minister and justice, among others, control illegal bank accounts abroad.”

Veja magazine published the story of a “dossier” making that claim on May 17, 2006.

See

I have been erroneously reporting all along that Veja made those charges based on anonymous sources. I will go back and correct.

In fact, Veja framed the original story, on May 17, 2006, as something like “Dantas blackmails the Brazilian government and successfully obtains advantages thereby.”

On May 24, 2006, it responded to criticisms that it had published lies by saying, basically

  • We never endorsed the truth of the accusations made by Dantas
  • Nevertheless, we find those accusations plausible

Which seems a bit like an argument with the following scheme

I want P to be true.
Therefore, P is true.

You can only successfully blackmail someone, after all, if they really do dress up like a Catholic schoolgirl and ask to be spanked firmly by an NFL tight end dressed as a nun.

And of course, provided they do not want anyone to know about it.

Blackmail is act of threatening to reveal information about a person unless the threatened party fulfills certain demands. This information is usually of an embarrassing or socially damaging nature.

You cannot blackmail me, for example, with the embarrassing information that I have been treated for clinical depression, for example, because I — like Pedro Bial of the Rede Globo here — am not embarrassed about it. Yes, it sucks to have to cope with the condition, but what are you gonna do? It apparently runs in the family.

Which is why it was astonishing to hear politicians here screaming recently about an attempt to “blackmail” them through an alleged plot to film them catching rides on corporate jets. Do these people not get competent press advice?

Veja‘s inference in this “blackmail” case being that there must be some truth to the Dantas dossier because of the subsequent behavior of the persons named in it.

To justify the inference, Veja attributes motives to that conduct that connote a sense of guilt or embarassment.

I tend to think of this as a sort of psychological ventriloquism. Very common gambit with these people. For a case in point, see

You can read excerpts from Veja’s defense of the story in the first entry cited above. It is not exactly All The President’s Men.

I tend to call this sort of thing — extensive (“behind the music”-style, autohagiographical) coverage of oneself producing coverage in which one covers one’s behind on the way one covered the story — The Commedia Dell’arte of Journalistic Diligence.

It is a common trope in Brazilian journalism of a certain kind. You see it a lot in American journalism these days, too, as when Wolf Blitzer back in Atlanta tells the field report, “excellent work, storm-battered microphone monkey No. 5!”

The reporter has just filed a live report, standing out in the middle of hurricane-force winds, whose content can be gisted as follows: “I am wet and disoriented and keep getting knocked over. I cannot see anything that is happening and do not know what is going on because, rather than getting in touch with people who are monitoring the situation, I am standing out here in the rain like a jackass.”

Which, by the way, is a dangerously stupid thing to do. Viewers ought to be told not to emulate this idiotic stunt, but instead to get in their storm cellars, boil their water, and monitor civil defense channels on their battery-powered radio.

That is to say, the reporting is not “excellent” by any stretch of the imagination, in terms of being informative. It is merely melodramatic. The spectacle of the reporter reporting is more important than the fact that the reporter reports essentially nothing.

Paulo Lacerda, one of the senior officials denounced by the “dossier,” now heads the “Brazilian CIA,” ABIN. The president, similarly accused, was reelected by a wide margin.

The Los Angeles Times ran a story not long ago, coauthored by a “special correspondent” from a Brazilian “transparency” NGO, that compares the president of Brazil to John “The Teflon Don” Gotti — so-called because no one could make the (just) charges against him “stick.” Implication: The president of Brazil is a mafioso.

As a sidebar, Veja ran an autohagiography by proxy of executive editor Marcio Aith and the following infographic, in praise of its own journalistic zeal. The infographic takes the form of a timeline of contacts between Dantas and the magazine, but wraps up in October 2005.

That is, the infographic, as published to their Web site, does not narrate the magazine’s world-class due diligence on the story between October 2005 and May 2006, when it actually ran the story.

The timeline:

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An exemplary investigation: Daniel Dantas personally offered VEJA [management] a dossier on the financial life of members of the PT political party. To check the data it contained, reporters and editors traveled to three countries, hired experts and spoke at length with Dantas and his spies. This investigative effort can be reconstructed thanks to recordings, telephone records and air-travel tickets.

Was that editorial management or business-side management, by the way?

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Snippet of the Frank Holder dossier as it ran in Veja.

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August 15, 2005, The Offer: At the invitation of Daniel Dantas, executive editor Marcio Aith and reporter Marcello Carneiro talked with Dantas at the offices of Opportunity, in Rio. Dantas said that Kroll had discovered that senior officials had offshore bank accounts. And he stated: “I do not have them, but I can convince the people who do have them to turn them over to you.”

August 25, 2005, The Spy: Marcio Aith returned to Opportunity, in Rio, and asks the banker for the information promised. Dantas says he had requested them from Frank Holder, former director of Kroll. The banker handed over a phone number for Holder, who he describes as “a very competent professional in his field.”

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August 24 to August 30, 2005: “Relevant Documents.” In at least four telephone conversations with Aith, Frank Holder said he was fearful, upon turning over sensitive information to the magazine, of reviving government animosity against Kroll, [his employer]. However, he said an envelope would be arriving shortly at the magazine containing “relevant documents.”

“At least four”?

Are they missing a finger, like Django Reinhardt (or President Squid) that they cannot count accurately higher than four?

September 7, 2005: Backing from Dantas. Dantas receives Aith and editor in chief Mario Sabino at the Opportunity office in São Paulo, on Av. Faria Lima. He said he had been attacked at least once by the PT and that he would send the magazine the documents referring to the [illegal] bank accounts of Lula and Dirceu.

So far, the extent of Veja‘s investigative reporting has been to receive an offer of documents compromising senior government officials. It has impatiently asked, “Well, where are they?” This by its own account.

Basically, this is the story of a man supine in an armchair at a gentleman’s club with a whisky in hand — let’s say the Scores “gentlemen’s club” on Times Square, to keep John “The Teflon Don” Gotti in the picture — watching a slow striptease.


September 13, 2005: A Federal Express envelope arrives at the VEJA newsroom containing 18 pages: 17 detailing the Kroll investigation into the Parmalat scandal, and the last with a chart showing alleged bank accounts in financial paradises associated with “Paulo,” “Marcio” and “Romeo,” with the surnames deliberately blacked out. A fourth account has the name totally blacked out.

Holder says, by telephone, that the names on the list are those of Senator Romeo Tuma, federal police chief superintendent Paulo Lacerda, and Justice Minister Bastos. He says the fourth account belongs to Minister Luiz Gushiken of SECOM. He also says he knows of accounts that allegedly belong to Lula and former minister Dirceu, but that he will only send them with a new authorization from Dantas.


September 21, 2005, the name of Lula: Holder sends the newsroom of VEJA a list containing the account numbers of 17 supposed bank accounts of Italian citizens and Brazilian authorities — including the president. Holder says the names and account numbers came up during investigations made by Kroll, at the request of the Italian government, on the bankruptcy of Parmalat.

October 5, 2005, Spy in a fiscal paradise: Holder agrees to meet personally with Aith in Zurich, Switzerland. On that occasion, he insists on the version according to which the accounts were discovered during the investigations into the bankruptcy of Parmalat.

Veja is offered a dossier that could bring down the government. It keeps after the source to provide the dossier. When it gets the dossier, it sits on it for a while, then runs it.

It promises to tell us a story about “reporters and editors” who travelled to “three countries,” but only tells us about Aith going to Switzerland to meet with a former CIA employee and former Kroll executive.

It describes its due diligence on these claims as follows:

Using all legal means, VEJA tried to confirm the veracity of the material handed over by Manzano [and compiled with Frank Holder, with whom they met in Zurich.] Submitted to examination by an expert hired by the magazine, the material presented numerous inconsistencies, but none of them sufficiently strong to completely eliminate the possibility that the papers contained true information. … The magazine made it clear that it could not prove the authenticity of these papers, which could all be a fraud. Even so, it is difficult to believe that the banker would have spent so much time and money to hire and equip international spies only to come away with a bunch of phantom documents.

In this rigorous investigation, Veja could not confirm the veracity of its source material — but ran it anyway.

Because despite evidence to the contrary, it still found the story plausible.

Really, it reminds me of nothing so much as the “smoking gun” letter in the Rathergate affair.

CBS thought it had a letter proving that young Dubya had gotten special favors in order to get out of serving in Vietnam. The authenticity of that letter was questioned. CBS defended their use of it, saying that subsequent testing had not been able to rule out its possible authenticity. (The alleged author, an Air National Guard commander, as I recall, is now deceased.)

Which is weak evidence indeed upon which to rest an extraordinary claim.

That CBS report, however, did at least seek to corroborate the story underwritten by that putative “smoking gun” document by interviewing other direct witnesses. It did not rely solely on the “smoking gun” evidence. It had some fairly legitimate circumstantial evidence, but it had no “smoking gun.”

And it just had to have that smoking gun to make the segment sizzle with scandal.

So if the CBS argument for the validity of the report also seems to be based on what is known as the “relative plausibility theory,” it at least makes a stronger case for the plausibility of its report.

“Relative plausibility” is a concept that turns up a lot in debates over “narrative journalism” and the “narrative fallacy”:

creating a story post-hoc so that an event will seem to have a cause.

Veja is offered the documents. It receives the documents. It has them examined for authenticity. Or so they say. By whom? They don’t say. The examination reportedly cannot confirm their authenticity — for reasons left unstated except as a vague mention of “inconsistencies.”

It runs them anyway, on a theory of relative plausibility.

That is the extent of the “exemplary investigation” Veja wants us to believe it conducted.

It sounds an awful lot to me like leak journalism, pure and simple.

You leak it, we (eventually) run it. No questions asked.

When it turns out to be nonsense, you trot out the Judy Miller excuse: “You are only as good as your sources.”

Veja magazine: “We cannot be held responsible for the accuracy of factual claims that we print. Buy our magazine anyway.”

No, thank you anway. I do not buy Veja. Life is too short. If I want to read spy novels and fairy tales, I have a shelf full of Tom Clancy and the Brothers Grimm.

It’s like piling one brick on top of another, then stopping, dusting off your hands, and declaring, “Lo! The mighty pyramid of Giza!”

But why did Veja sit on the story from October to May?

If it were really going to be transparent about the journalistic decisions it made, it would account for internal discussions on that issue during the time period in question, I think.

About most of which, I would idly bet you, they would claim attorney-client privilege.

Imagine this line of reasoning going through the head of Washington Post managing editor Ben Bradlee: “Nixon may have known, and approved, of the Watergate break-in and the political dirty tricks campaign run out of illegal slush funds. The evidence we have to back this claim is of dubious authenticity, sure, but some of it very well could be true. So let’s stop trying to corroborate what Deep Throat says and just run the rumor. Real investigative journalism is just too much work. ”

Really, the entirety of the two articles in question deserve to be Englished and annotated.

A common criticism: The article is a case of argument by innuendo.

I am putting the puzzle together in chunks as I have time, so stay tuned.

I should also translate some of the contemporary reaction, from the government and from critics and defenders of the world-class investigative team there at the Editora Abril.

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