Why the Media Have Made the Palocci Scandal into a Crisis

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Research shows that the news media’s issue-attention cycle tends to be short, averaging about three days for a major story. When it diverges from this norm, you can bet that the event is either truly sensational or else the media has a vested interest in it.

In the case of the first major ‘crisis’ to hit the Rousseff Administration, it appears that zealous coverage of a scandal–for more than two weeks–can be explained principally by the former.

The Scandal

The scandal concerns Antonio Palocci, the President’s Chief of Staff (akin to a prime minister in the Brazilian system), and the issue at hand began with Palocci’s personal estate, which in four years experienced fantastic multiplications. From well under half a million dollars in 2006, by 2011 Palocci’s fortune had expanded twenty-fold, effectively transforming a professional politician into a multimillionaire in less than half a decade. Even more suspicious, most of the money was made in ‘consulting fees’ during the 2010 presidential election.

To be sure, the rapid enrichment of a once-finance minister (2003-2006) deserves investigation, especially since Palocci’s wealth began to skyrocket just after he became one of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s sacrificial sheep, resigning in the heat of the 2006 Mensalão Scandal.

What is Special About the Palocci Case?

Yet by the same token, no shortage of untoward behavior, questionable enrichment, or murky contracts can be found in Brazilian politics. It just so happens that the media has arranged its soldiers along this story line and appears unwilling to let it go out with a whimper, unlike the vast majority of stories conforming to this sordid genre.

Current media attention is not unjustified. ‘Influence trafficking’ pervades Brazilian politics and ought to be addressed, particularly at the highest levels of government where examples trickle down. Palocci also deserves scrutiny. The Minister’s record is spotty at best, and Rousseff ought to have known better than to bring back a skeleton of Lula’s administration—even if the appointment was Lula’s prerogative, as opposed to her own.

Hidden Agenda: the Forestry Code?

But the dogged media focus goes far beyond ethics and bad apples. The issue is inextricably connected to one of the most important pieces of legislation that the Rousseff administration will consider—the Forestry Code (O Código Forestal) now being considered in the legislature. As a representative for the government’s hard-line stance against illegal deforestation and for conservation, Palocci is an easy target for those seeking to express their dissatisfaction with official prerogatives. Many legislators seek a more ‘relaxed’ Forestry Code—the code of agribusiness, mining, hydro, and logging interests– an inestimably powerful lobby here in Brazil.

Even the government’s major ally in Congress, the PMDB, supported weakening amendments to the Forestry Code. The PMDB’s perfidy resulted in a tense exchange between Rousseff’s Vice-President, Michel Temer (PMDB), and Palocci at the end of May, undoubtedly kindling incendiary media coverage.

Opportunities for Media Criticism

Fueling this drama is the media’s persistent and sympathetic coverage of calls for a Palocci crucification. To hit at the government right now is opportune. President Rousseff has demonstrated an unsteady command thus far; her public appearances and displays of authority have been infrequent and unimpressive. The Rousseff government supports environmental legislation that is unpopular with big businesses and industries, many of whom are the media’s top advertisers. Most media outlets also tend to lean right and, in addition to supporting business interests, claim to defend ethical behavior in government. These, in short, are a few of the reasons why the media has marched the Palocci affair into the ground.

Lessons on the Media

What can be taken from all of this? First, the media chooses its battles opportunistically and this one just happens to runs along several strategic frontiers. Second, and most regrettably, zealous coverage of the Palocci scandal demonstrates the irony of a media that performs spectacularly as a watchdog once in a while, but that constantly lacks the capacity to act as guide dog. In other words, while outlets indirectly support calls for a Palocci resignation by giving critics air-time, they are short on lending a voice to advocates trying to prevent ethical lapses from occurring in the first place. The Folha de São Paulo did provide some interesting coverage on consulting fees in light of Palocci’s millionaire earnings, but these too fall short of looking at the implications and solutions of current public policies and political configurations.

Ironically, a freedom of information law sits in the Senate awaiting passage and, despite a rich opportunity to broach themes related to transparency, the media has barely uttered a whisper about the measure over the past weeks—even though Congress was supposed to pass the law more than 20 days ago, on May 18th. Noise about what holds Brazil back must be balanced by vested coverage of how to move it forward.


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