Independent media and the war of narratives

Brian Mier’s speech at the 2019 Left Forum in Brooklyn, NY.

I would like to start by talking about how Brazilian alternative media works to build a space of counter-hegemony to the mainstream media oligarchies like Globo, which is extremely powerful. TV Globo was started by the United States during the US-backed military dictatorship [1964-1985]. It was founded as a tool of social control. For the first year it was run by a group of people from Time and one of the things they did was they copied the racial composition of American television at the time, which was 1965. And so even today, even though Brazil is 53% Afro-Brazilian, if you look at Brazilian TV you might have one Afro-Brazilian character on each show and that person might be a prostitute or a kitchen maid or a criminal or a police officer. It’s getting a little bit better now. But it was created as a means of right wing social control. They are one of the biggest open air television networks in the world, maybe 3rd or 4th. And they are very good at manipulating the narrative inside Brazil, even though they have begun losing control because of the internet.

This can be exemplified by the way Globo visually depicted the PT party on television during the lead up to the 2016 Coup and Lula’s political imprisonment, as Eliara Santana showed us in the previous presentation. For years, Globo’s Jornal Nacional news program regularly depicted the PT as a pipe in front of this red background with money pouring out of it. It’s important to remember that Lula was ruled innocent of any corruption involving Petrobras petroleum company by Sérgio Moro himself, and now with The Intercept revelations, they’ve shown the prosecutor speaking with the judge three days before his final trial, saying that they didn’t have any material evidence against him on anything and they didn’t think they could prosecute him. But for years, as Eliara pointed out, this was the visual representation of the Workers Party. And this is the kind of day to day reality that we on the left have to deal with all the time. The media is very hostile.

I would like to talk a little bit about Brazilian alternative media. At the first World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, a group of organic intellectuals – big names like Leonardo Boff from the Liberation Theology movement, João Pedro Stedile from MST – and left wing journalists created Fórum Magazine. This is no longer in print, it’s electronic now, but they have become this counter-hegemonic force with hundreds of thousands of social media followers that runs news from a progressive perspective. After they started many other independent publications began, like Brasil do Fato.

I work for a media company called Brasil 247 which started around 2010, with some legendary journalists who fought against the military dictatorship, which quickly gained around 1 million Facebook followers for its written media, and afterwards created a Youtube channel which is very simple – normally just people speaking on Google Hangouts, which is an easy way to generate live broadcasts. They always interview interesting people and in the last few years they have gained over 400,000 YouTube followers and there are around 5-6000 people who donate monthly to help cover operational costs. So they now broadcast around 10 hours of content daily, and they interview leftist intellectuals and leaders of all progressive political parties and social movements about the news of the day. An average of around 30,000 people watch each program and it is done on a shoestring budget. It has transformed into an organization which frequently produces two or three stories that enter the list of the ten most popular social media stories of the week in Brazil, in a scenario which is dominated by media savvy right wing groups, some of which are supported by the Koch brothers. This is done in a hostile media environment dominated by big right wing media oligarchies.

When Lula and Dilma talk about the the biggest mistakes of the PT years they often say, “we didn’t reform the media”. This is indeed a historic error and there are complex reasons for it, but it’s not entirely true because in 2014 Dilma Rousseff issued a decree allocating something like 20% of the federal government’s advertising budget to independent media companies. This was a big help for the independent media but at the same time it drew increasing hostility from Globo and the other media oligarchies. It’s one of the things that contributed to this massive 3 or 4 year daily campaign of character assassination against the Brazilian Workers Party that took place in the oligarchic media outlets. But I want to talk a little bit about how this spread into the Anglo media because this is where my work for a website called Brasil Wire comes in. It was established in 2014 because we noticed that there was a huge shift in the Anglo media’s portrayal of Brazil in both the hegemonic media which I believe makes up part of the US integral state, like the New York Times and Washington Post, but even in the left media. There was a wave of anti-Pt-ism. We noticed a shift in 2014, from Brazil being portrayed as a kind of winner nation to being portrayed in the English language media as a loser nation. There was a huge article by Simon Romero in the New York Times full of depressing, black and white photos of sad looking people in front of unfinished construction projects, most of which have subsequently been finished. And it was called “Grand Visions Fizzle in Brazil”. This, to me, marked the beginning of this cycle. And so we saw this for years, over and over again. The week before the 2014 presidential elections the New York Times ran several articles unethically and misleadingly connecting Dilma Rousseff to Petrobras corruption – a connection which has never been established. Also at this time David Axelrod’s PR company came down to Brazil to work with the super corrupt, neoliberal opposition candidate Aécio Neves, meaning that the US Democratic party establishment came down to try to defeat the PT.

So we saw this coup being set up and the media was a huge ally. Brasil Wire was founded to try to counter this narrative.

As Dilma Rousseff said, it was a war of narratives. One thing that I found particularly troubling at this time, was – and I think that this is a trend that is happening around the world – there are times when this type of Anglo, vanguard left narrative doesn’t challenge capitalism. To the contrary, it often compliments the imperialist project. For example Bryan Pitts from University of Indiana, Sean Mitchell from University of Rutgers-Newark and myself, analyzed all 38 articles about Brazil that ran in Jacobin between 2014-2017. Every one of them attacked the PT party and they often attacked the labor unions that form the base of the PT. And there was this constant narrative that the PT was not really leftist because, for example as one article says, “they opened the door to neoliberalism in Brazil.”

Brazil is a big, complex country. You could make an argument that PT acted in a neoliberal fashion, but you could only make that argument if you isolate a few neoliberal macroeconomic policies from the rest of the political conjuncture. You would have to ignore the fact that one of the key tenets of neoliberalism is minimum wage suppression and when Lula took office the minimum wage was USD $49 in Brazil and when he left office it was $315. You can’t call something like that neoliberal, nor could you call Keynesian measures such as stimulus for internal manufacturing and consumption, which they spent about $200 billion on. I mention Jacobin because of this article that we wrote for Brasil Wire, but we saw it in the Nation and a lot of other left publications and we feel like, compared to the solidarity that we see for Venezuela, we did not get that much solidarity for Brazil during the coup. It seemed like of people on the US left were confused about what was going on because there were mixed messages being sent out by a lot of traditionally progressive publications.

I don’t know what is really going on in the American left, I don’t want to make some big generalization, because this is the first time I’ve been back in the US for a month in 20 years. I’ve been living in Brazil for 25 years. But what I think as an American is that if you want to call yourself a leftist you should look first at what your country is doing to other countries in the 3rd world and you should talk about how to fight the imperialist actions coming from your country and not just sit there giving out instructions on how, for example, the left in Nicaragua is not left enough, or the left in Brazil is too neoliberal. Why not express solidarity and see what you can do in your country to stop the left from screwing everybody over? Because we know it’s not just Brazil, its everywhere. You see the garbage they are doing in Venezuela, they ruined Honduras. They are now saying that just because of the public health cuts maybe 100,000 people will die in Brazil. Bolsonaro kicked out almost 10,000 Cuban doctors who were working in the poorest and most remote regions of the country and most of them have not been replaced. They’ve stopped giving out free anti-retroviral drugs in Bahia. People are dying from this stuff. And all of these American corporations made a huge amount of money. Boeing, Microsoft, Chevron, Exxon-Mobile, Monsanto… After the 2016 coup President Temer privatized 75% of the offshore oil reserves, the profits of which were allocated in a Decree by Dilma Rousseff for public health and education. So he canceled that program and sold 75% of the Petroleum and gave a R$1 trillion tax break to foreign petroleum companies working in Brazil over the course of 20 years – around $250 billion USD. So now they are saying that they don’t have any money. They have to push up the retirement age, they have to cut public health funding, they are trying to cut public education and all these US companies are making billions of dollars. So I would think that a starting point if you are a US leftist academic or journalist would be to look at where the money is going, how the US is benefiting and what Americans can do to stop or reverse some of this, instead of saying things like, “the macroeconomic policy tripod was too neoliberal during the PT years”. So that is something that bothers me. What we need is more solidarity.

This article represents an edited transcript of Brian Mier’s speech at the 2019 Left Forum, on the panel, “Confronting Fascism in Brazil: the Left Stands up and Fights Back”, which was sponsored by Defend Democracy in Brazil


By Brian Mier

Writer, geographer and former development professional who has lived in Brazil for 26 years. Former directorate member of the Fórum Nacional de Reforma Urbana (National Urban Reform Forum). Has lived in São Luis, Recife, Salvador, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Author of “Os Megaeventos Esportivos na Cidade do Rio de Janeiro e o Direito á Cidade” (CEPR: Porto Alegre. 2016). Editor of "Voices of the Brazilian Left" (Sumare: São Paulo. 2018). Editor of "Year of Lead: Washington, Wall Street and the New Imperialism in Brazil" ((Sumare: São Paulo. 2019) Irregular correspondent for the Chicago radio show This is Hell.