Today, several million people are taking to the streets to protest a corrupt political system and a rent-seeking, bloated state. Let’s make this clear; Dilma is a poor political leader and her governments have precipitated nothing short of an economic fallout. But she is not the problem incarnate. My wife (and son) is at the protest in Copacabana Rio de Janeiro not because of ‘Dilma’, nor because of ‘the government’ per se, but because my wife and millions of others are fed up with what they see to be corrupt, wasteful and misguided politics and statism. Unfortunately, the media is portraying the protests as anti-government and anti-Dilma. The truth is that the media does not share the same desire for systemic change as the majority of Brazilians.
People are protesting high and increasing taxes, poor public services, corruption and rent-seeking in all manifestations of the state, and a congress, opposition, and president who don’t know how to lead. There would be millions more protesting if everyone were like my wife – they ignored the pro-impeachment, anti-government messages of the news media and went to the streets in order to express disgust in the political system, a desire for change, and the belief that real political reform is within Brazil’s reach.
Unfortunately the media is more interested in an anti-leader discourse than in supporting momentum for real change. As the three headlines (March 13th, 12:30pm) from Brazil’s three largest newspapers show above, the protests have been framed as “against Dilma” or against “government”. As far as I can tell, this motivation is not in line with what most Brazilians feel – that the system must change. The media has impregnated people with the idea that leaders must change, but Brazilians rightly sense that systemic change is needed. They just don’t know how and what. This ignorance is partly formal education, but mainly the result of a media that has failed to educate people. And it has failed to do so largely because real change is not in its interest.
Please understand the interconnected incentives of much of the news media around the world: stable and predictable profits, easy regulation, and the maximization of advertising revenues. Brazil’s media has enjoyed huge revenues as a result of how the political system and state have evolved. Let me explain.
Brazil has one of the highest candidates-to-seat ratios in the world, which means that candidates collectively spend huge amounts on political advertising. The combination of enormous electoral districts (the states) and an open-list electoral system – in which party members compete against competing candidates in other parties as well as within their own parties – has resulted in more than 30 parties being represented in Congress. In 2014, an average of 12 candidates competed for each seat in the Lower House of Congress (6100 candidates for 513 seats). The absurdity of a congress where more than 30 parties are represented almost completely escapes Brazilians, thanks largely to a media that does not engage in any comparative illustrations from around the world. The fragmentation of the congress has served the media well; large economic interests conquer and divide – easy work in Brazil’s divided congress – which explains why Brazil’s broadcasting regulation has gone unreformed since 1968.
Big media also benefits from massive state spending on promoting itself and its state-owned-enterprises, of which there are over 140. Nightly newscasts of the Jornal Nacional (the most dominant newscast in Latin America) feature ads by the Banco do Brasil (Bank of Brazil), Caixa Econômica Federal (a state bank), BNDES (a development bank, larger than the World Bank), and Petrobras, among other state and government interests.
On a final note, Brazil’s news media is not unusual in engaging in an ‘agency approach’ rather than a ‘systemic approach’ in assigning blame to an economy and political system gone awry. Individuals are the color of stories, not institutions and their intricate designs. Yet if media outlets are to assume an agency approach, they should at least provide more coverage to proponents of change outside the political system (see, for example). I challenge readers to give me examples of such coverage within the last three years.