'There is a structural affinity between media and populist communication,’ says political scientist Paula Diehl

For more than 20 years, Brazilian-German political scientist Paula Diehl has studied populism, especially its relationship with media. In her investigations, she found that populism and the mass media operate following the same logic to capture the public's attention. 

Diehl’s interest in the subject stems from her background: trained in journalism at Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo and in social sciences at the University of São Paulo, she migrated to Germany to get her PhD at the Free University of Berlin. She ended up staying there and is currently a professor at the Christian-Albrecht University of Quiel. Diehl organized the recently launched book “The Complexity of Populism New Approaches and Methods” (Routledge), in which, together with peers, she analyzes the phenomenon that we see in recent democracies around the world.

What do leaders like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Javier Milei have in common with media, and in particular, with journalism? LatAm Journalism Review (LJR) considered this question in the interview below with Diehl.

Portrait of German-Brazilian political scientist Paula Diehl

Paula Diehl, a German-Brazilian political scientist, has dedicated over two decades to studying the intricate relationship between media and populism (Photo: Courtesy)



LJR: Much has been said and written about populism over the last decade. Most of these texts address the relationship between populism and communication and the press. The recent collection that you organized proposes a so-called “complex approach” to the phenomenon. What characterizes this approach, and how does it differ from usual studies in the field?

PD: Typically, there are two ways of approaching populism, and both seek to construct a coherent object of study – something that populism is not. In the first, populism is treated as a category. This gives the impression of a certain security, but does not necessarily correspond to empirical reality. This idea of ​​the complex model of populism leaves thinking about categories, and instead thinks of it as a way of doing politics. This is not anything particularly new in the field of populism studies. [Argentine theorist] Ernesto Laclau's approach to discourse, for example, considers populism as a way of constructing politics, a way of doing politics. The difference with Laclau is that he approaches populism as a coherent process that permeates all dimensions of society in the same way. I disagree with that.

LJR: And what does that mean?

PD: I accept the hypothesis that populism really is a way of doing politics, but I think that it is not necessarily articulated in the same way in various dimensions of politics. For example, if you look at the way a political subject communicates, and the ideology conveyed by this actor, or their form of organization, you will see that they do not necessarily need to be coherent. Sometimes populism permeates all these dimensions coherently, sometimes it does not. The case of Berlusconi, in Italy, is very interesting, because he was very populist in his communication, in the techniques he used to communicate through the media, but he was not very populist in his ideology. The concept of popular sovereignty almost never appears in his speeches. And if you look over a period of time, an actor can change how they articulate populism. There may be variation in populist content across these three dimensions, and this variation may appear to different degrees.

LJR: What are the main attributes in ideological terms?

PD: I accept the three elements cited by [Dutch political scientist) Cas Mudde: that populism is based on the idea of ​​popular sovereignty, which links it to democracy. I also accept that it is centered on a fundamental opposition between elite and people, and that this fundamental opposition generates an anti-institutional and anti-middle ground attitude. But that's not enough. I also think that, in ideological terms, populism ends up valuing the people, but it does not determine who is part of the people and who is not. This leaves populism very vulnerable to other more robust ideologies, such as the far right.

LJR: And what about communication?

PD: In terms of communication, I based myself on studies on performance, types of media communication and style to define the interference of populism in this area. In this communication there is a simplification not only of the messages, but also of the content. This can generate what I called a “rhetorical short circuit”: the populist leaves aside the explanation of the policy and claims a causality that does not actually exist. There will also be continuous appeals to the people, which is something old, as for example with João Goulart (former president of Brazil, 1961-64). Furthermore, the political actor presents himself as being rude and ignoring acceptable political codes, something that many authors call bad manners. There is also a Manichaean communication, which sees the world in black and white, preventing the possibility of a more nuanced dialogue. There is also a dramatization and the creation of a narrative that the people were betrayed. This narrative of betrayal of the people is somewhere between the ideological part and communication. It promises a happy ending, which is when popular sovereignty will return to the people. Donald Trump, for example, in his inaugural address stated: “We are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the people.”

LJR: Are there affinities between this populist way of communicating and thinking about politics and journalism?

PD: My research, and that of other people, goes exactly in that direction. And then it's not just journalism, but the media as a whole, including the entertainment industry. The media presentation and selection criteria are very similar to the criteria for populist communication. I would say that there is a structural affinity between the media and the populist form of communication. In other words, regardless of the willingness of an actor in journalism or the entertainment industry to follow the populist actor, actors using populism will necessarily be privileged by the media. Why? They simplify the message, something the media also does to reach a wider group. They also dramatize the message, which is also a criterion and sometimes even a way of presenting content in the media. They produce a narrative in which conflicts increase, and conflicts are always privileged by the media. They also break taboos and produce scandals, and scandals always need to be the subject of journalism. If not, journalism will not be able to cover unprecedented facts, something essential. So there are several affinities, which creates a situation in which populist actors receive more attention from the media, regardless of whether they are right-wing or left-wing, and regardless of whether the media wants to give space to these actors or not. That's why a CNN boss said it might be really bad for the country, but it's good for business. Because it generates public attention, and the company sells more ads.

LJR: In other words, the media also benefits from populism.

PD: Yes. And, as populism generates public attention, the media ends up becoming accomplices of populist actors. Due to this structural affinity, it is very difficult, especially for journalism, to deal with populist messages. When populist actors generate scandals, this creates a dilemma, whether it is necessary to report on it or not, talk about the subject or not. And this is made worse by the media structure that has radically transformed, especially since the 90s, becoming much more commercial. Commercial dependence is enormous, and so it is very difficult not to follow certain methods to attract public attention, which are the same methods that populists use in their communication.

LJR: Also during this period, this is when far-right political actors begin to gain strength.

PD: At the turn of the 90s, many far-right actors, mainly parties, began to adopt populism, using this affinity with the media, in order to enter the democratic sphere. Until that point, racist, sexist and chauvinist ideas did not enter the media sphere. But then, populism becomes a vehicle for transmitting far-right ideology in the public sphere. The media have great importance in this situation, in the sense of normalizing extremist ideas. A paradigmatic case is that of the National Front, in France, which conveys extreme right-wing ideology and mixes it with populism, creating a hybrid, right-wing populism. Far-right ideology can increase or decrease in intensity, and some codes change: instead of talking about race, they talk about culture. With this, they pass the media filtering criteria, and enter the public sphere. In other words, there is a normalization effect on far-right ideas, which seem milder. Then, with normalization, radicalization may return. An example of this is the idea of ​​“the great replacement,” an idea from the extreme right that increasingly appears in statements by politicians who have a lot of votes

LJR: How does coverage change in this case?

PD: As the far right uses populism on a large scale – in some places, like Austria, for 20 or 30 years – the media ends up excessively covering the actors of right-wing populism. As a result, the media not only stops taking a critical look at right-wing populism, but ends up repeating, whether they want to or not, the messages of these actors. And, through repetition, the possibility of comparing with other ways of doing politics is lost – media reality becomes self-referential, repeating the way of communication of populist actors. If we follow what [German sociologist] Niklas Luhmann said about the media system – that is, that everything we know about politics and social reality, we know through the media –, this ends up very strongly influencing the way we see politics and society . And the other authors are also starting to chase populism, to be able to enter this competition for media attention. So the other actors adopt populism to win in this competition. In other words, the political environment itself becomes populist, and the way journalists cover the news also becomes more populist.

LJR: And how can you break this circuit and practice good journalism?

PD: The task of journalists has become much more complex. Fact checking alone is not enough, it is not enough to confront politicians with the contradictions they themselves generate. It is necessary to have knowledge of the performative way in which actors communicate politically. In other words, you have two tasks. The first is to talk about the content and analyze the content, and the second is to analyze the way in which this content is being conveyed by the politician. So, it becomes much more complicated, it becomes much more difficult; But it's not impossible. In other words, all media coverage of an event and an actor must necessarily include the deconstruction of the performative way in which that actor is presenting himself.

LJR: How can we deal with the use of hyperbole by populist actors?

PD: In this dynamic, the affinity between the media and populism is at stake, where the production of scandals needs to be covered and cannot be left aside, and also a media that is becoming increasingly sensationalist. Even televisions that try to produce analysis are being affected, even good newspapers are being affected. This ends up creating hyperbole in the way the news is presented. Of course you have to talk about some scandal, it's logical that you have to criticize when the head of state makes a statement that is racist, sexist or against the democratic principles of equality. But the question is whether you will talk about it for a whole week or talk about it for two days and then change the topic. The media ends up increasing the importance of these statements.

LJR: How does this sensationalism operate?

PD: I will give an example of CNN at the time when I was living in the United States; It's very interesting, because it shows sensationalism and at the same time this criterion of having everything immediate, that is, showing immediately what is happening. When there was the terrorist attack at the Bataclan in Paris in 2015, they sent [Anderson] Cooper out onto the streets in Paris, and everything was over. And he spent the whole night in front of the street with nothing happening, saying he was covering it in case it happened again. It's a completely absurd situation that generates the expectation that something is going to happen, and the person ends up continuing to watch television because something might happen. This is a technique, just like when you use a scandal to generate other controversies, and with each controversy you create this feeling that something new is going to happen. The more commercial the media becomes, the more sensationalist it will be. This increased after what is called the “media system change” in the 1990s.

LJR: Why do you take this back to the 1990s?

PD: A technological and legal change occurred at that time. In the technological sphere, the media started to be used in a way that was disconnected from what was called the “global village,” which was everyone in front of the television at the same time. A nomadic public emerges in terms of time and space (this now seems Jurassic, talking about video cassettes or specialized magazines). And, at the same time, at that time there was a cartelization of media companies, which emerged from new laws approved in several countries, dominating the media form globally. With these laws, a holding company can own several different media outlets. And what happens? Content circulates in all media in several different forms to generate advertising.

Furthermore, there is a formation of more hybrid genres. The difference between information and entertainment becomes increasingly fluid. As a result, information ends up becoming a source of entertainment, and sensationalism is one of these sources.

LJR: What changes with networks and large technology platforms?

PD: There is another dynamic, one-to-one. In other words, there is a situation in which there is indirect competition between information on social networks that is not checked and journalism.

And journalism always loses, because it is slower, it needs to check the information. Whereas, if I send a text that I generated myself, it doesn't have to be checked. I have no commitment, I can say whatever I want, because it is not journalism, but my opinion as a citizen. As a result, more and more people are not getting information through journalism, but through social networks, which do not necessarily check the information. This leads journalists to become faster and faster, and to check their information less and less. They have less information to formulate news; Not having so much information for the news, they compensate by making more emotional appeals, and this ends up increasing sensationalism.

LJR: You left Brazil for Germany in the 1990s. Do you follow what happens in Latin America?

PD: I think a very interesting case is that of Javier Milei in Argentina. He has a form of communication very linked to entertainment, he says absurd things, like the dog that died and was reincarnated in its clone. It has a very important carnival part, which was not explored much by research yet. This part is also present in Trump and Bolsonaro. Everyone knows how to use the media, manipulating the rules of entertainment. Milei is interesting and very dangerous.


Translated by Teresa Mioli
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