Background Research: Does Sonia Racy of the Estadão Really Practice Charlie McCarthyism?

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UNESCO Courier, February 2002. Whether you oppose it, evangelize it or — like Lawrence Summers of Harvard a decade ago — are guardedly receptive, with caveats, trying to understand the issue of the Brazilian financial transaction tax without understanding the history of the debate on the “Tobin tax” is a bit like the legendary “headless mule” who “shoots fire from his nostrils.” Get it? How can the fearsome ghost mule shoot fire from his nostrils if it has no head? As Ricardo Kaufmann notes, the Brazilian pundit corps tends to present opinion that is divorced from fact.

It is more of a job to interpret the interpretations than to interpret the things, and there are more books about books than about any other subject: we do nothing but write glosses about each other. —Michel de Montaigne “Of Experience,” Essais, bk. III, ch. 13,

Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect … upon the world. –Susan Sontag

They pay little attention to what we say and prefer to read tea leaves. — Nikita Kruschev, “on interpretation of Soviet attitudes by members of the press,” 5 Jul 55

I have been looking at some of the back catalog of business and economics journalist Sonia Racy of the Estado de S. Paulo.

The Treasury minister, Mr. Mantega, has just accused the Estado de S. Paulo of attributing statements to him that he did not make:

Which is an awfully serious charge.

But I think there is some substance to what he is saying.

We might call this tactic “Charlie McCarthyism,” after the famous ventriloquist’s dummy of Edgar Bergen.

Attributing attitudes, emotions, or opinions to others that they do not actually hold, or clearly express, is what I tend to think of as ventriloquism.

As far as I can tell, from reading the remarks in question, the gambit here was to interpret and amplify an ambiguous statement by the minister in an extremely creative and sensationalist manner, rather than asking follow-up questions in an effort to disambiguate the statement.

Which a competent interviewer would have done.

Claiming the right to interpret the words of others as we wish, without regard for what those persons claim they meant by them, is Humpty-Dumptyism.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that’s all.’

I have broken out my dusty old copy of E.D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation. Seems like it might come in handy in a situation like this.

At any rate: I have been assembling a florilegium of Ms. Racy’s — an appropriate moniker for a gossip columnist — distinguished body of work, in order to try to assess her past propensity for the Charlie McCarthyism attributed to her by the Minister, if any.

Clipping Express notes this recent Racy column, for example, the day after the Brazilian Senate vote on renewal of the provision financial transactions tax (CPMF).

Racy makes an extraordinary claim in that column.

O mercado financeiro entrou em estado de choque ao saber que o presidente do IPEA, Márcio Pochmann, propôs em Curitiba, na quarta-feira, a redução da jornada de trabalho no Brasil de 40 para 12 horas. O que significa, na prática, três dias por semana, quatro horas por dia. Sugestão unânime: que ele, Pochmann, não “trabalhe” mais.

The financial markets entered into a state of shock upon learning that the president of the IPEA, Márcio Pochmann, proposed, in Curitiba on Wednesday, that the work week be reduced from 40 to 12 hours. Which would mean, in practice, three days a week, four hours a day. Unanimous suggestion: That he, Pochmann, stop “working” altogether.

Pochmann is the director of a government policy institute, the IPEA, that has been subject to a moral panic campaign over the dismissal of four staff economists.

Political columnists of a certain stripe have screamed “Stalinist ideological purge!” In verbatim unison. In an unbearably loud and sustained fashion. See, for example,

A similar moral panic campaign was mounted over a textbook which Globo Journalism Central director Ali Kamel claims was forcing communist indoctrination on impressionable young minds, apologizing for totalitarian leaders like Mao and Stalin.

A claim that turned out to be utter nonsense:

Ali Kamel may well be the most intellectually dishonest man in the Western Hemisphere, next to the anonymous White House source who delivered the infamous “reality-based community” tirade to journalist Ron Suskind of the New York Time Magazine. (Is that anonymous source now a columnist for Newsweek? If so, why?)

Why does Ali Kamel still have a job? After all, Howell Raines of the Times lost his job when it was found that one of the reports he supervised, Jayson Blair, was a serial fabricator.

One of the reporters Mr. Kamel supervises was indicted for getting paid off to spy for the mafia, using his status as a journalist as cover.

See also

At any rate, there is a simple question to examine here: did Dr. Pochmann make the “proposal” attributed to him?

Given that the journalist has been accused of attributing statements to persons that those persons say they never made, it seems like a relevant question.

Dimitri do Valle of the Folha de S. Paulo made the same claim in a news report on December 12:

O presidente do Ipea (Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada), Marcio Pochmann, defendeu a adoção de jornada semanal de trabalho de três dias com expediente de quatro horas. Disse ainda que o Brasil deveria preparar seus cidadãos para começar a trabalhar depois dos 25 anos de idade.

Translation: Same thing Racy reported. Practically verbatim.

Let me see if I can find a copy of the speech in question.

There are two propositions to fact-check here: (1) that the financial markets entered into a state of shock over Pochmann’s remarks; and (2) that Pochmann actually made the “proposal” attributed to him.

Meanwhile, compare another case of a “heroic resistance to a phantom menace” narrative:

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