The press needs to make a mea-culpa about its role in electing "neo-facist" presidents like Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump, says Brazilian journalist, writer and documentary filmmaker Eliane Brum, one of the 2021 Maria Moors Cabot Prize winners.
“Yes, there is the phenomenon of post-truth, self-truth, fake news, etc. But the press has also lost credibility with the population, due to its very intransparent editorial, commercial and political choices. And because, in several countries and also in Brazil, a large part of the population did not feel represented by the press coverage nor did they recognize themselves in it. Without facing these contradictions and responsibilities, it will be difficult to move forward in a time as complex and difficult as the present," Brum said in an interview with LatAm Journalism Review (LJR).
According to Brum, "the neo-fascist forces" took advantage of this credibility crisis to weaken the press and democracy. "They could only create this industry of 'alternative facts' because the credibility and representation crisis was already there," she said.
In the interview, Brum also talks about the times she suffered sexual harassment and discrimination in Brazilian newsrooms, about the experience of being a mother at age 15 and the lack of support at work, in addition to the decision to move, in 2017, from the largest Brazilian metropolis São Paulo, to Altamira, a violent municipality in the interior of the Amazon.
The Cabot Prizes are given by the Columbia Journalism School in the United States and “honor journalists and news organizations for career excellence and coverage of the Western Hemisphere that furthers inter-American understanding.” This year, for the first time since its foundation in 1938, all winners are women journalists. They will receive gold medals and a $5,000 honorarium. The awards ceremony is on Oct. 12th.
LatAm Journalism Review: This year, all Cabot Award recipients are women. What challenges did you face as a female journalist working in Latin America and Brazil?
Eliane Brum: The environment of newsrooms used to be – and in many cases still is – very sexist. Sexual and moral harassment towards women was seen as “normal.” I suffered sexual harassment at different times, by men in management positions, in the places where I worked, but I reacted forcefully every time and did not suffer any reprisals for this, as happened with other colleagues in other contexts. I also suffered harassment in the sense of sexist jokes, misogynistic comments and “flirting” and “jokes.” I realized in recent years that, in these cases, I myself had introjected the “normality” of the abnormal and unacceptable, living with this type of harassment as if it were not absurd. In this sense, I am very grateful to the newest generation of feminists who carried forward the struggle of their mothers, grandmothers and great-grandparents, drawing a line and establishing clear boundaries, in movements such as “Primeiro Assédio,” “Ni Una a Menos” and “Me too.”
Another form of common moral harassment is, when you react to the unacceptable, being labeled “crazy” or “unrestrained,” being the target of comments such as “you must be on your period” or “é mal comida” (a vulgar way to say "you need to sleep with someone"). Or else, you are called a “whore” or a “slut.” This not only happens inside newsrooms, but also outside. In 2011, on a Saturday morning, I was talking to my husband and daughter in the living room at home when a message came through my cell phone. A friend warned me that Pastor Silas Malafaia, one of the neo-Pentecostal evangelical leaders in Brazil, now a supporter of Jair Bolsonaro, but who used to support other governments, called me a “tramp” in an interview he gave to The New York Times. Malafaia didn't like an article I wrote about evangelicals and reacted by calling me a "tramp" in one of the biggest newspapers in the world.
Regarding reporting work, I was once passed over for war coverage with the explanation that, professionally, I was the best choice, but as a woman, it would be too dangerous. So they decided to send a man. I replied that I only understood that decision if the chosen male reporter needed to write the story with his penis. I responded to discrimination, but that did not change the choice of my bosses and, therefore, I suffered discrimination, which took away an important opportunity.
Another issue is the lack of support for working women. I had a daughter at the age of 15 and I became a female head of the family, as happens with so many in Brazil and throughout Latin America. My parents supported me a lot, but they lived six hours from Porto Alegre, where I worked as a journalist for 11 years, before moving to São Paulo. I had to juggle work and taking care of my daughter after she left school, because there was no support or help. At 8 a.m. when I started at the newspaper, I had already taken four buses and had walked a lot, having started at 5 a.m. I would drop off my daughter over the school wall, where she would wait for the doorman to show up, alone and trapped inside the walls, because the newspaper's hours didn't allow for changes.
At other times, I was desperate because I had gone to cover a flood in an area three hours from the city or I was covering a prison riot and would not be able to get back in time to pick up my daughter from school. I remember a scene, waist-deep in water, glued to a pay phone, because cell phones didn't exist yet, trying to find some sympathetic friend to pick up my daughter from school, because I could only get back to town at night and still had to write the story. We knew, without needing to be told, that if we needed to be absent because a child was sick or if we refused a story because we would not be back in time to pick up a child from school or if we needed a different schedule, we would be passed over on the most interesting stories or even fired. At the same time, there were no nurseries or any kind of support. Even today, even if it is not said, some bosses are looking to investigate if there is a chance of pregnancy before hiring a woman. Discrimination finds many paths, some explicit, others more subtle, but it remains very present.
It is also essential to realize that, if women are gaining more space in newsrooms and journalism, as happens in different areas of society, this is not happening because there is a perception from the inside out. It’s actually the other way around. The press changes very slowly because of the pressure that comes from outside. And, with exceptions, in general the press used to be – and remains – quite conservative. And often sexist, misogynist, transphobic and racist, too. If there are many white women in the newsrooms of the Brazilian press, rarely in a position of command, it is imperative to realize that Black women and trans women are still rare.
Women are not a monolith. Black women suffer much more discrimination than white women, for example. In a country like Brazil, where racism is structural, Black women have many difficulties in accessing education and are discriminated against in the work environment not only because they are women, but also because they are Black. They also die the most in childbirth, bury their son the most due to violence, live in the most unhealthy houses and regions and without basic sanitation. And also are among the people who less often reach newsrooms. There is a long way to go towards gender and race equity in our worlds.
LJR: In recent years, the situation for journalists and the press in Brazil has become more difficult. What is your vision of journalism in the country for the coming years?
EB: I think it is important to take into account that the press, in general, is also responsible for the crisis of democracies and for the election of neo-fascists like Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump, among others. Yes, there is the phenomenon of post-truth, self-truth, fake news, etc. But the press has also lost credibility with the population, due to its very intransparent editorial, commercial and political choices. And because, in several countries and also in Brazil, a large part of the population did not feel represented by the press coverage nor did they recognize themselves in it. Without facing these contradictions and responsibilities, it will be difficult to move forward in a time as complex and difficult as the present.
The neo-fascist forces realized this credibility crisis and used it to weaken the press and, with the press, democracy. But they could only create this industry of alternative facts because the credibility and representation crisis was already there. In the fight against elected despots like Bolsonaro, part of the press is regaining its credibility. But, as the responsibilities were neither acknowledged nor properly faced, there are monumental relapses that only point out that the problem is older and more complex. On May 29, for example, hundreds of thousands of Brazilians occupied the country's streets to demand the impeachment of Bolsonaro, shouting “Fora Bolsonaro” (Bolsonaro Out) and “Bolsonaro Genocida” (Bolsonaro Genocide). The next day, the headlines of two of the biggest newspapers in Brazil ignored the event. In other words: ignored hundreds of thousands of Brazilians asking for the president's impeachment. Instead, the main headline for one of them was “GDP rebound” and for the other… “tourism.” How, then, is credibility regained with the reader?
Also in this year, with such a deep crisis, Agência Pública, an independent investigative journalism agency, made a brilliant report, with high-level investigation, on the founder of one of the main retail groups in the country. It showed that Samuel Klein, from Casas Bahia, a market icon in Brazil, allegedly raped and abused poor underage girls. The report was ignored by most of what is called the “big press” or the “traditional press." How, then, is credibility regained with the reader?
I make this long caveat because I believe very deeply in the fundamental role of the press for a democracy that deserves the name and I am passionate about reporting as a document about history in motion. The press needs to be better, more honest and more inclusive to regain its credibility and the immense challenges of our time. And each of us has a role in that journey.
Today, there is a part of the population that does not read, hear or watch anything produced by the press. There is not even conflict, because this part of the population simply ignores the press, opting to choose their own facts, as if that were possible. We know that the denial of reality faces the limits of reality itself. Thus, the only way to face the crisis of the press is to do the best possible journalism, with deep respect for facts and people, facing contradictions and being transparent about the limits of journalism.
LJR: In 2017, you moved from São Paulo, the biggest Brazilian metropolis, to a city in the interior of the Amazon, Altamira, in Pará. Now, about four years later, how has this change affected the journalism you do? How do you evaluate your decision today?
EB: I moved from São Paulo to Altamira in August 2017 to be consistent with what I believe as a journalist and as a person living in this extreme moment, exposed by the climate emergency and the sixth mass extinction of species, both caused by the action of a portion of humans. For all that I studied and investigated as a journalist and for my learning experience of more than 20 years covering the various Amazons (because they are many), it seems necessary to me to have a different understanding of what is the center and what is the periphery. It seems to me that natural life supports like the oceans and rainforests should be treated as centers of the world because they really are. Priorities today are misplaced, but we need to restore and reallocate them to be able to meet the unprecedented challenges of this era.
As a Brazilian journalist, nothing seems to me more essential than covering what happens in the world's largest rainforest, which is rapidly reaching the point of no return. Recent research has even shown that parts of the forest are already emitting more carbon than they absorb, which is terrible news for anyone concerned about stopping our own extinction. So, if I defend that the Amazon is at the center – and not because I took it out of my head, but because that's what my journalistic investigation tells me –, then how could I continue covering the Amazon from São Paulo?
I moved to Altamira, one of the most violent cities in the Amazon and one of the epicenters of destruction, in order to see the planet from the Amazon. This shift that I defend as a concept and that I made with my own body has profoundly transformed my way of understanding the forest, the planet and myself. This has improved and expanded the depth of my journalism, because I am no longer a “special envoy” to the Amazon. I can, eventually, be a special envoy to São Paulo, Brasília or Washington. But I investigate the Amazon from within and look at the world from it. This choice even changed my own language and my way of inhabiting the planet. Of course there was a great personal cost, but there was also great personal gain. This journalistic journey is told in a book that will be released later this month, in Brazil, by the publisher Companhia das Letras, and will be released in the United States in 2023, by Graywolf.
*Editor’s note: Rosental Alves, Cabot Board Chair, is founder and director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, which publishes LatAm Journalism Review.