The Risco Cisco Affair: The Folha Takes a Leak On Its Own Shoes

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“Small pieces, loosely joined”: So loosely that the black-box bit-routing factory does not know what kind of crazy nonsense people with its logo on their business cards get up to?

The plot so far: The Folha de S. Paulo ran a story last Sunday, sourced to “the Federal Police,” according to which a defendant in the Cisco case was heard on a court-authorized wiretap promising two suppliers in the Cisco reseller network that if they made a political donation, they could lock in a contract to sell equipment and services to the Caixa Econômica Federal, a state-owned financial institution.

I am caught on a wiretap boasting that I can introduce Brad Pitt in order to impress a girl I meet at a dive bar in the East Village.

Brad Pitt has never even dreamt of my existence.

“Brad Pitt involved in sleazy East Village seduction scheme!”

The Federal Police, however, denied providing that information — noting that the investigation is under seal — and said it would punish any of its employees found to have leaked information to that effect.

See

The degree to which investigative journalism gets confused with “leak journalism” in Brazil never fails to astonish me. Take, for example,

“Secret raid on Al Capone speakeasy tonight: police sources!”

Alberto Dines of the Observatório da Imprensa (Brazil) headlines his radio commentary on the incident, “The Wages of a Disastrous Leak.”

Vazamentos costumam molhar muita gente. Tanto os vazamentos hidráulicos como os jornalísticos. Quando no domingo (18/11) a Folha de S.Paulo reproduziu as denúncias sopradas pela Polícia Federal contra empresas ligadas à multinacional Cisco – sem qualquer trabalho prévio de apuração – deveria ter pressentido os graves riscos que corria.

Leaks often get a lot of people wet. In journalism as in plumbing. When the Folha de S. Paulo repoduced the charges breathed in its ear by the Federal Police against companies with ties to the multinational Cisco Systems — without doing any fact-checking before running it — it ought to have foreseen the grave risks it ran.

Na terça-feira (20), duas edições depois, a Folha foi obrigada a reproduzir na íntegra, e com chamada na primeira página, duas contestações à sua primeira matéria nada confortáveis.

On Monday, November 20, two editions later, the Folha was obliged to reproduce, in their entirety, with a call-out on the front page, two very uncomfortable challenges to [the accuracy] of its first article.

What were those two stories? Let me have a look.

One of them was a story in which the CEF denies that changes in a procurement proposal favored one of the resellers in question.

The story now sources the information to “federal police agents,” after the Federal Police issued a statement saying it was not authorized to, and did not, release such information to the press. And would prosecute anyone found doing so.

A Folha publicou que a Caixa alterou o edital. O banco argumenta, porém, que o procedimento não pode ser chamado de alteração, e sim de “errata”. No site da Caixa aparece o termo “retificação do edital”.

The Folha had published that the Caixa had “altered” the terms of the bid solicitation. The bank argues, however, that the procedure cannot be called an “alteration,” but rather as an “erratum.” On its Web site the term, “correction of bid solicitation” is used.

A reportagem informou ontem que por critérios técnicos a Damovo venceu o item 1 do edital. Para a Damovo, houve “enorme e injustificável confusão” na reportagem porque o texto, em sua interpretação, teria dado a entender que as mudanças no edital favoreceram a sua vitória justamente no item 1, quando a errata, segundo a Caixa, ocorreu em item vencido por outra empresa.

The Folha reported on Sunday that Damovo had won the bidding on Item One of the contract based on technical criteria. Damovo said there was “an enormous and unjustifiable confusion” in this statement because the text, in its reading, suggested that the changes to the proposed contract favored its victory on Item One, even though the correction, according to the Caixa, affected another item, an item in which another company won the bid.

In other words, that the Caixa changed the rules of the game on Item One so that Damovo would win the bid for that item.

Note that the Folha attributes the issue to Damovo’s interpretation of what it wrote, but does not addresss the factual issue in question.

But is what Damovo says true?

If it is, the Folha should be running a straightforward correction. “We reported a non-existent fact.” Why is it merely attributing that claim to the Caixa, rather than verifying it independently? Surely it has the means to do so?

Hell, even I have the means to do so: I speak Portuguese and have Internet access.

The Folha de S. Paulo has, in the past, been given to bouts of extreme dishonesty.

Which is why I still make a point of not buying it (I do buy its business daily Valor, however, a joint venture with Globo. Along with the Gazeta, just to get a second opinion. But Valor actually may produce some of the highest-quality journalism on the market, that I know of.)

See

The other story from Monday referred to by Dines is apparently the note sent by the Caixa, and published in its entirety.

What does Dines mean by saying that the Folha was “obliged” to run it?

The Caixa wrote, in part:

A Folha de S.Paulo manipula a informação, confunde seus leitores entre os diferentes itens do edital de licitação e sustenta um jornalismo acusatório sem direito à contestação da outra parte, distorcendo informações que são públicas e estão à disposição de qualquer cidadão no site da CAIXA. Preferiu publicar versões sem sustentação, para dar continuidade à matéria equivocada do domingo (18/11/2007).

The Folha manipulates information, confuses its readers about the different , and practices an accusatory style of journalism without providing the right of reply, distorting information that is on the public record and can be accessed by any citizen on our Web site.

If database connectivity is not broken at the moment.

I tend to find that Brazilian government Web sites tend to suffer from this problem a lot, but to be fair, I have not test-driven the Caixa’s.

It preferred to run a version of the story with no foundation in order to continue its erroneous reporting of Sunday.

On Tuesday, meanwhile, a new contribution to the story from the Folha: It reports that “an audit commissioned by a lawyer confirms that the two companies that donated to the PT were part of the Cisco fraud scheme.”

Commissioned by a lawyer for a defendant in the case. Which the Folha gets around to mentioning in about the ninth paragraph.

Dines draws the moral of the story.

Nenhuma fonte está acima de suspeitas, a não ser quando o jornal e os jornalistas verificam antes a veracidade das informações que oferece. A Folha confiou cegamente na PF e agora paga uma multa por sua ingenuidade.

No source is above suspicion, except when the newspaper and its reporters verify the information the source is offering. The Folha trusted blindly in the Federal Police and is now paying the price of its credulity.

Dines prejudges a fact not in evidence in the same way the Folha did here: Asserting that the source was “the Federal Police,” as an institution.

The (anonymous) source was (allegedly) some federal policeman (or woman) or other, whom the institution now at least says it wants to prosecute for Scooter Libbyism.

Qualquer que seja o desfecho final do caso Cisco, o desastrado vazamento teve uma função didática: mostrou aos jornalistas que não existe jornalismo investigativo sem investigações.

Whatever the final outcome of the Cisco case, the disastrous leak at least serves an educational purpose: It teaches journalists that there is no such thing as investigative journalism without investigations.

Amen to that, anyway.

For his part, on November 19, Folha de S. Paulo‘s ombudsman, in The Cisco-PT Connection, noted “some problems with the newspaper’s good journalistic work.”

Em domingo de feriadão, a Folha logrou uma manchete forte: “Cisco usou laranja para doar R$ 500 mil ao PT, afirma PF”.

On Sunday, the Folha came up with a strong headline: “Cisco used a front to donate $500,000 to the PT, the Federal Police says.”

The Federal Police now say they said no such thing.

É mais uma novidade sobre a relação, tornada pública pela Folha, da Cisco com o Partido dos Trabalhadores.

It is one more piece of news about the relationship, which the Folha first revealed, between Cisco and the PT political party.

Os indícios apurados no inquérito policial e resumidos pelo jornal têm interesse público e merecem ser conhecidos.

The evidence gathered in the police inquiry and summarized by the newspaper are a matter of public interest and deserve to be known.

Os fatos contradizem versões oficiais, como mostrou hoje a reportagem “Caixa alterou edital de concorrência que diz não ter mudado” (pág. A13).

These facts contradict the official stories, as shown today by the story, “Caixa altered the terms of a competitive bidding process that it said it had not altered.”

O PT reconheceu ter recebido as doações –aparentemente legais– de duas firmas.

The PT admits receiving the donations — apparently legal donations — from the two firms.

A Cisco afastou funcionários.

Cisco fired employees.

O bom trabalho jornalístico tem, contudo, problemas.

This good journalistic work, however, has problems.

Ao contrário do que informou a manchete de domingo, a Polícia Federal não fez afirmação alguma. O que há é “interpretação de policiais”, como se leu na pág. A4 de ontem (“Cisco utilizou laranjas para doar R$ 500 mil ao PT, diz PF”; “dizer” a PF não disse).

Unlike the headline on Sunday, the Federal Police made no statement whatsoever on the case. What there was was “interpretation by police agents,” as we read on page A4 yesterday, “Cisco used fronts to donate R$500,000 to the PT, says PF.” The “PF” said nothing of the kind.

If you ask me, when a piece of journalism has the defect of reporting nonexistent facts, it can no longer be called a “good” piece of journalism.”

Se a Folha está segura de que a Caixa alterou o edital, não deveria ter veiculado a reportagem de hoje só na pág. A13, e sim na A4, a mais nobre da editoria Brasil. A capa do jornal deveria dar mais destaque à informação.

If the Folha was certain that the Caixa altered the terms of the competition, it should not have published the report on page A13, but rather on A4, the most important page in Brazilian newspaperdom. The front page should have given more play to the story.

Também hoje, é estranho o relato de que “a reportagem telefonou ao menos três vezes ontem para a assessoria de imprensa da Caixa”. Por que “ao menos”? Como comentou um leitor, o jornal não sabe fazer conta tão simples?

Likewise today, it is strange to read that “the newsroom telephone the Caixa’s press office at least three times yesterday.” What do you mean, “at least.” As one reader commented, does the newspaper have trouble counting that high?

O quadro “Como funcionava o esquema” (pág. A8 de domingo) segue incompreensível. Pelo menos para mim, conforme afirmei dias atrás.

The graphic, “How the scheme functioned” (p. 8 on Sunday) remains incomprehensible, or at least to me it does, as I remarked some days ago.

The next day, it turns out that the scheme as the Folha described did not exist. The auction allegedly thrown the way of the campaign contributor? The campaign contributor lost that auction.

Há muitas informações ignoradas. Uma delas é sobre como a mudança no edital poderia favorecer um concorrente. Outra é a identidade do suposto petista que teria oferecido facilidades na Caixa em troca de agrados ao partido.

There is much information omitted. One of them is how the change in the terms of the competition might favor a competitor. The other is the identify of the supposed PT official who allegedly offered favors to the Caixa in exchange for favors to the party.

It really seems to me like Mr. Magalhães — who, unlike the Public Editor of the New York Times, (who was brought it from outside the Times family and, one hopes for his sake, paid the big bucks) is not a senior, but a mid-career, editor — has standing orders to “be true to the school” and defend Folha journalism from criticism.

Even if it means using the adjective “good” to describe reporting, which, if you believe what it says, means you believe in something that is simply not the case.

To perform the same sort of utterly distateful “chewing crap and calling it chocolate” visible in the following case:

Mr. Magalhães is obviously a fine, talented journalist and journalism critic.

His talents are not exactly being wasted — even if the link to his column on the Folha Web site is harder to find than Waldo — but you sometimes get the idea that his bosses have an ombudsman on staff just to be able to say that they have one, pra inglês ver — and not to actually let the man do his job.

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