Public Dialogue and the Role of Media: Examples from Brazil and the USA
Alexandre A. Martins, MI
Approximately 2 months ago, I was invited by a professor in Brazil to write an article about democracy and submit it to a thematic issue of a journal that he was editing. Although my area of expertise includes social political issues focusing on public healthcare, including issues of just health and bioethics, I never had to write specifically about democracy. However, this invitation was a temptation that my vanity couldn’t resist, but fall into this ‘sin,’ ironically enough in the middle of my Lenten exercises. The current contexts in Brazil and in the USA were responsible for this ‘sin’ when the democratic institutions have been spotlighted before the rise of nationalism and far right policies. As you can see, I blame these contexts for my weakness; hopefully for forgiveness from my readers, if this article is accepted for publication.
This invitation has given me a great opportunity to reflect on democracy having the background of the current sociopolitical situation in Brazil and the USA, countries that have been my home in the last four years. I do not want to anticipate some ideas from this ongoing work, but I do want to emphasize the role of media in public dialogue, an essential element for a democratic government. In my research for that article, I came across Amartya Sen’s, 1998 Noble Prize in Economics. He stresses the idea that a democracy is a ‘government by discussion’ in which public reasoning has a central role for leadership and the understanding of justice (Sen, The Idea of Justice, 324). He adds that a functioning democracy must have “regular elections, opposition parties, basic freedom of speech and a relatively free media” (Ibid., 342). This is a complex debate, but I want to call your attention to the role of free media for democracy as a government by discussion. In his book, Sen provides an example to illustrate the importance of media in a democratic government. In 1943, in India under UK’s rules, a terrible famine killed thousands of people in Bengal. The British-owned media imposed silence about this issue that prevented a public discussion on the famine in London and even in New Delhi colonial administration. People outside of Bengal did not know what was going on. Public debate did not occur. Consequently, the government did not feel pressured to act immediately and effectively to address the famine. Sen’s conclusion is that a democratic government with critical discussion and parliamentary pressure would not allow the government officials to forget the poor people of Bengal (Ibid., 338-40).
It is media’s essential role to create awareness of what is going on and to raise a critical public debate that pressures the government officials and policymakers to act. Media control is the first step of a dictatorial government and the silencing of minority voices of oppressed groups. Throughout history, we have had several examples of this control. For Brazilians, military regime’s actions against free press are still fresh in memory. Today, something really interesting is happening in democratic governments and their relationships with the media. Curiously enough is the case of Brazil and the USA, in which media has taken different approaches.
It seems to me that both cases are very complex, but it is very curious that the mainstream media in Brazil and the USA have taken different sides. Briefly, I will describe what I mean.
Historically, the Brazilian mainstream media has always been under the control of political and businesses elites. Consequently, it has always supported neoliberal policies that might have kept its hegemonic power (of course, with few exceptions, especially during the dictatorship period). In the recent parliamentary coup against the first Brazilian female president and member of the Workers’ Party, the mainstream media had a fundamental role in leading people against the government, especially focusing on the corruption of some members of the Workers’ Party in the federal government. At the same time, this media ignored the corruption with evidence, sometimes well proven, of members of the right wing opposition parties. This created a huge polarization that made the “Brazilian mass” think that the Workers’ Party was the reason for all problems in the country. After impeaching the president, things did not get better and scandal after scandal involving members of the new administration (a coalition of rightist parties) did not stop appearing. But now, the mainstream media stopped talking about the issues. Moreover, neoliberal policies, some of them even against constitutional rights of the Brazilian people, had been passed by the congress without a public debate, with a choking silence from the media. Today social media, such as Facebook, has filled this gap. But in a country like Brazil, this is not enough because TV, especially the largest broadcasting network Globo, is still the main vehicle of information. It is clearly media manipulation. The impact on this in the administration of the country is tremendous because it keeps people in ignorance and far from public debate. An example of this manipulation is the coverage of protests. During a period of Workers’ Party administration (2015-16), the Globo made commercials and many of its celebrities to invite people to march in the streets against the government. In the days of protests, Globo broadcast live everything that was going around the country against the president. On March 15, 2017, millions of Brazilians, led by school teachers and public transportation workers, using social media, promoted a national day of strike and marches against the (already in final phase) neoliberal bill to reform the social security program. Not Globo nor any other mainstream broadcasting network said a single word about these protests, creating an impression that nothing was occurring in the country.
In the USA, it seems to me that the relationship between the political interests of the current federal administration and the mainstream media has acquired a different form. In this country, mainstream media (with few exceptions) has clearly criticized the new administration. President Trump, himself a self-declared media star (and experts said he was a beneficiary of the use of media in his own favor during the election), has promoted a true fight against the media, stamping in the country’s main news network as fake news. It seems like a joke, but it is true that Trump has affirmed, any news that does not say something positive about him is fake news. He has also forbidden some mainstream media networks to be in some press conference spaces in the White House, such as CNN and the New York Times. Like Brazil, the USA has lived in a context of intense political and ideological polarization. However, mainstream media has played a different role in both countries. Trump’s fight against media put at risk one the pillars of modern democracy, that is, the public debate that media can help promote. But for doing that, media must be free from neoliberal economic interests (like those in Brazil) and from attempts to destroy credibility promoted by public administrators. These attempts can be the first steps towards state controlled media that US democratic leaders have always been a voice against such control.
This topic – public debate, the role of media, and democracy – is complex and impossible to properly address in a short paper. The cases in Brazil and the USA also deserve much more attention and studies. My intention here was only to share some ideas and insights in order to begin a dialogue. But I also intend to raise a question, considering that the main readers of this short article are Catholic theological ethicists. Does our Catholic social tradition have something to enrich this debate and contribute to the promotion of a public dialogue in order to promote a ‘government by discussion’ centered in justice?
Please, any insights are welcome. Perhaps I will write part two of this article in dialogue with the Catholic social perspective and your comments.