Well-received by Bolsonaro, CNN Brasil debuts, but there are expectations about its editorial line in relation to the government

After more than a year of expectation, the debut of CNN Brasil had much celebration and impact on social networks, but it also received criticism for cold content, little questioning in an interview with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, in addition to audio flaws. The cable TV channel and the website went to air on Sunday, March 15.

In the first minutes, the new channel was presented with institutional videos. Then, CNN No Ar (CNN on the Air) was shown, a news program in a more traditional format, with two presenters sitting behind a desk, which lasted for more than three hours.

On a hot news day in Brazil, the channel dealt with topics such as the coronavirus pandemic and the pro-government demonstrations that had taken place on Sunday. On the day, Bolsonaro openly contradicted medical and health minister recommendations and attended the protests, shaking hands with supporters and taking selfies. The president was on a delegation that traveled to the United States in March, attended by several ministers and officials who were diagnosed with the coronavirus.

One of the moments of the day’s programming that generated the most controversy was the interview with the president. He had an interview scheduled with one of the leading journalists on the new channel, but canceled after learning that his communications secretary had the coronavirus. On Sunday, however, the president appeared by surprise, according to CNN Brasil, at the door of the Palácio da Alvorada, where a reporter from the station was broadcasting live, and granted an interview.

"Posted on the doorstep of Alvorada to update the news live about popular mobilization, reporter Leandro Magalhães was approached at 8:54 pm by the President of the Republic, Jair Bolsonaro, with a request to respond to criticisms from Senate presidents, Davi Alcolumbre, and the Chamber of Deputies, Rodrigo Maia. Both gave exclusive interviews to William Waack [from CNN Brasil], which entered digital platforms at 6 pm and were shown on TV," Douglas Tavolaro, CEO and founder of CNN Brasil, told the Knight Center by email.

For journalist Cristina Padiglione, who has covered TV for more than 30 years and maintains the TelePadi blog, the interview was a kind of test on the editorial line of the new channel, and the result was not positive. According to her, it was necessary to make it clear to the viewer that the president's attitude was a risk to public health and to question him more sharply.

"With all the eccentricities of the president, this is a day that should be remembered until the end of his term, because he, monitored for a virus that worries the whole world, goes out on the street and greets people. Suddenly they had this character in hand –it was not expected, but he appears –he gives statements and is not confronted," she said in an interview with the Knight Center. 

The journalist said that, in this case, the reporter should not be blamed. "He will not be able to get the president against the wall, even because it is an unexpected interview. But then it goes back to the studio, the two presenters who are super experienced do not say anything,” she explained.

Tavolaro replied that "all angles on the subject were put to the viewer." He said CNN aired reports on the demonstrations, highlighting the authorities' criticism of the president's actions. And, when sought by Bolsonaro, it was necessary to give space for his defense.

"Listening to both sides and giving a right to respond are basic principles of good journalism and are part of the CNN practices manual around the world. In this live interview, then, our reporter asked the president about this posture in three minutes of conversation and he presented his defense. Moments later CNN aired the interview with Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta, condemning Bolsonaro's attitude," the CEO said.

For Padiglione, the interview with Bolsonaro was disappointing. "I may be wrong. But the first moment I had to see what their level of impartiality was, I was frustrated," she said.

The journalist would like CNN Brasil to follow CNN's example in the United States. "We need to see if they will have this carte blanche to be incisive when necessary and do a little bit of what American CNN does. Trump dislikes it because it calls his actions what they are, it doesn’t use euphemisms. It has always held public power to account, from Obama to Trump. It remains to prove that, in a critical moment, they [CNN Brasil] can be tough, critical and question what has to be questioned,” the journalist said.

She pointed out, as a positive, that the channel did an interview the next day with the governor of São Paulo, João Doria, in which the politician made harsh criticisms of the Bolsonaro government. "And CNN Brasil has a very good team, so I hope for more. In my perception Bolsonaro was super spared [in that interview] and this corroborates a little the idea that the channel 'will be different from Globo,' as the president expected," she said.

In recent months, the president and many of his supporters celebrated the channel's coming to Brazil. "A new TV is about to be inaugurated in Brazil, CNN Brasil. As far as I know, it will be a different TV network there from Globo," the president said in February, comparing CNN to TV Globo, which he constantly criticizes. At the beginning of the interview with CNN Brasil, the president congratulated the channel and added: "we hope it will be a really impartial press that will produce truth.”

Before the launch, there was also much speculation about the founders of CNN Brasil. A Brazilian businessman, Rubens Menin, owner of a large construction company, is a partner and investor. Tavolaro is former vice president of journalism for TV Record, which is linked to Bishop Edir Macedo, leader of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. Macedo declared a vote for Bolsonaro, and Record started to give more space to the candidate during the 2018 election campaign, raising suspicions that it would become a “Fox News do Brasil,” alluding to the U.S. cable channel that supports President Trump .

In interviews in recent months, Tavolaro has reiterated that CNN Brasil will be neither right nor left and that there are opposing theories on the Internet about the station's editorial line. On launch day, there were complaints and accusations against the channel from followers on both sides of the political spectrum.

About the debut, Tavolaro said, by email, that there was extensive coverage. "We produced a political approach with ample counterpoints and different angles from our anchors, analysts and reporters during the three and a half hours of transmission of "CNN no Ar "and throughout the multiplatform programming.”

Mauricio Stycer, a journalist specializing in TV since 2009, says the channel's editorial line will only become clear over time and it is too early to judge. "I think it is rash to conclude anything for that premiere, to make a judgment like this based on three hours. The interview with Bolsonaro was highly criticized. But it was three minutes, standing, on opening day, it was not planned. Indeed the reporter did not put him against the wall, but it is a very difficult situation, and the interview ended up generating relevant content,” Stycer, who is a critic for UOL and a columnist for Folha, told the Knight Center.

He estimated that, in these few days of the channel, CNN Brasil has been doing good journalism. "There are some criticisms, but in general they are doing journalism stricto sensu, listening on all sides, with hot coverage, commenting,” he said.

For him, the biggest problem at the premiere was the amount of cold content, on an unusually hot day. He says that the material prepared for the opening Sunday was very good, but "reality swallowed their planning a little.”

"I think they were trying to adapt that cold program to the hot reality of Sunday, but that is difficult. It is ironic, it is a 24h news channel and it started cold, hampered by the news. But I consider this episode minor, because there was a lot of expectation,” he said.

Stycer considered that Sunday "was a bad day,” but the next day, for example, "was much better." "They are in the temperature and got in the mood, with a lot of live coverage, covering press conferences. They are in the game, they showed themselves to be a competitive channel in relation to others, especially GloboNews [Globo's cable TV news channel], which is the main competitor," he said.

CNN Brasil

The team at CNN Brasil (Courtesy)

At the premiere, there were complaints about audio flaws, but Stycer and Padiglione say this is part of live TV. "This is super normal. Live TV creates problems, every day there is news of a gaffe by GloboNews journalists, it is inevitable. CNN Brasil has 17h 30 of live journalism, which is a lot," Stycer said.

Tavolaro responded similarly. "Live television is like that. The most important thing is that everything was solved immediately and nothing interfered with the content of our programming." He celebrated the premiere, which he rated as excellent and highlighted the special reports and exclusive interviews. Regarding the audience, he said that there are still no consolidated figures. "But the preliminary numbers indicated that CNN was very close to the leadership among the news channels on its opening night and in prime time for the following days," he said.

As a positive point, Stycer and Padiglione cite the quality of the presenters, who present well on TV. Padiglione also emphasized the structure and power of the brand. "I found the finish very cool, the opening tracks of the news programs, the camera that runs through the studio, which looks incredible. This is impressive, the structure looks very good. And it is undeniable that the brand imposes itself very strongly," she said.

For her, another highlight was the debate between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, broadcast live. "You watch a debate that nobody had [in Brazil], with a commentator who understands everything about the subject and speaks clear Portuguese, that was perfect,” Padiglione praised.

One of the programs with the greatest repercussion on social networks in the early days was O Grande Debate, which brings together two commentators with opposing opinions. "The two extremes are arguing, I think it's very good. Of course, there must be two debaters who argue with facts, not with opinion. You can't argue that the Earth is flat, for example," said the journalist, who also praised the reports and the team of analysts.

Stycer and Padiglione also claim that competition between channels is very good for the market. During CNN's premiere, GloboNews prepared special programming. "This I think is the good side of this, it encourages improvement of quality, leads to more scoops, better stories," Stycer said.

Padiglione agreed. According to her, it is very important to have investment in journalism at a time when the market is so bad. "I don't know what CNN is going to turn into in the future, but it has already served to warm up the market, competition is something that is for good.”

According to CNN Brasil, the team was assembled with more than 450 employees, distributed across the headquarters in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Brasília – in addition to the correspondents, who are outside the country. The company does not disclose the value of the investment made.