How the Media Fragments Brazil

Today the Jornal Globo newspaper reported that 40 percent of Governors have their mandate threatened by legal proceedings against them. Most of these suits allege vote-buying or manipulation of the media during 2010 elections. Eight out of ten cases were initiated by political rivals, and two out of ten by the federal government. Oddly, no local civic organizations or news media outlets introduced legal proceedings against governors.

Here, I explore some fragments of a media rationale for why local politics continues to look like the wild-west in Brazil despite a federal government that is exceptionally strong on paper. The larger point is that the quality of Brazil’s news media contributes to the poor quality of local politics, and the unevenness of political institutions across Brazil.

Take a country that 60 years ago shared a lot in common with today’s Brazil: the United States. The U.S. was a fragmented country at the dawn of the Twentieth Century: the South was a different country from the Northeast, as was the Midwest, and the Southwest. Then something amazing happened: radio, and television penetration grew, wire news services were created, local newspapers became regional newspapers, which became influenced by national news sources. A competitive media went national.

Partly as a result, the U.S. became more integrated. Local news, such as black civil rights resistance in the South, began to receive national attention through the media, prompting national outrage and political responses. President Eisenhower deployed a battalion of soldiers to Arkansas in 1954, for example, to enforce a ruling against racial segregation in the case of the Little Rock Nine. The national reach of the news media helped enforce the law of the land, moving political institutions across the country to harmonize and homogenize. In short, the media helped state and local politics become more federal.

A competitive, independent national media had much to do with the political integration of the U.S., and the lack thereof has had much to do with the political and federal fragmentation of Brazil. This is not a simple issue or explanation.

Brazil might have one of the most concentrated and monolithic broadcast news media systems in the World, and at first glance we might even be led to believe that one dominant voice (Globo) might help the cause of political integration. But in the 35 minutes Jornal Nacional (TV news) airs every night, the emphasis falls on federal, international, sports, weather, and heart-warming stories. This might help imbue Brazil with a national identity, but it does little to ensure the pieces of the federal machine are working to harmonize common standards.

News exercises influence in many ways, and one way is by traveling from local to national or international, causing a response that ultimately transforms local politics. But local news outlets in Brazil are often captured by local political bosses. Globo‘s local affiliates–in every state–are frequently owned by local coronels (political chieftains) or their allies, who Globo naturally tries to retain as clients. The result is that reporting on elections, policy formulation, policy compliance, and local political challengers tends to be weak locally and nationally, especially in the absence of a very competitive broadcast news media.

But how about newspapers? Newspapers often ‘set the agenda’ for TV coverage and certainly exert influence in the political arena as a form of inter-elite communication. As much as people say the newspaper is dying, circulation continues to grow in Brazil. Here are some telling facts from the World Association of Newspapers 2011 report:

Brazil is the #8 largest newspaper circulation in the world.

Brazil ranks #4 in terms of the number of newspaper titles, with 672 paid titles.

Brazil’s circulation per capita is extremely low, at 57.3/1000.

Brazil’s most widely circulated newspaper, the Folha de São Paulo, does not even appear in the 200 most widely circulated newspapers in the world. It prints about the same number of copies as the Toronto Star.

What do these numbers say about how newspapers might influence politics? The sheer number of titles, combined with the relatively tiny circulation of Brazil’s largest newspaper, the Folha de Sao Paulo, suggest that newspapers are localized. The bigger papers, which are better able to ‘stand up’ for themselves in the face of political hostility, have relatively low penetration. Many of the smaller or medium size papers, meanwhile, are employed as political vehicles by local political bosses. Minas Gerais largest newspaper, Estado de Minas, was well known to be a vehicle for the governor of Aecio Neves, for example.

As a result, the flow of news from local to national suffers asymmetries–omissions and bias–and what does get to the national level is unlikely to reach much of an audience through a relatively small, fragmented national newspaper market. A highly concentrated TV news sector is also unlikely to air quality local news– for lack of space, or lack of will. How to get quality local news to the national public is a key question for the federal cause. Only public pressure will provoke the sorts of governmental and social responses needed to ensure compliance with political norms and create strong political institutions across the country.

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