Media coverage of foreign countries is one of the last bastions of fake news. As an American living in Sao Paulo, Brazil, I’ve witnessed this first-hand. The way Brazil and particularly its president, Jair Bolsonaro, are covered back in America is often wildly inaccurate.
Ever since Bolsonaro took office, they’ve portrayed his presidency as stumbling through one disaster to another.
When it comes to reporting on America’s domestic affairs, the American mainstream media is under constant scrutiny. These days, fake news—mainstream or otherwise—gets called out on social media and a wide array of websites. But their coverage of foreign countries doesn’t get fact-checked nearly as much; journalists can (and do) exploit the barriers of language and geography to get away with actively spreading fake news.
Bolsonaro is nicknamed the “Brazilian Trump” or “Trump of the Tropics.” Though often intended as a slight, the phrase has some truth to it. Like President Donald Trump, Bolsonaro is a right-wing outsider to establishment politics. And, as with President Trump, the mainstream media had a meltdown when he was elected. Ever since Bolsonaro took office, they’ve portrayed his presidency as stumbling through one disaster to another.
If journalists are to be believed, Bolsonaro’s impeachment is always just around the corner.
BLAME BOLSONARO: FROM RAIN CLOUDS TO COVID-19
Of course, I always assumed media coverage of Bolsonaro was biased. But it didn’t really hit home for me until last fall, when the whole world suddenly lost its mind over fires in the Amazon rainforest.
Huge swathes of the Amazon rainforest effectively belong to no one, a situation which pretty much begs for exploitation by illegal loggers. But that, of course, didn’t fit the media’s narrative.
I was in my apartment in the Sao Paulo city center on August 19, 2019, when I noticed it was a bit darker than usual outside. Rain clouds and smog are common in Sao Paulo, so I didn’t give it a second thought. The sky quickly cleared up again.
The next day, however, the “rain clouds” were being covered as a major international news story. Friends in America were texting in a panic, asking me if I was alright. The media had given them the impression I was living through something like the ten plagues of Egypt. Maybe it was naïve of me, but I was truly shocked that an event I witnessed first-hand—one that I barely noticed—could be so terribly misrepresented.
The Latin America correspondents of major media outlets are usually based in Sao Paulo. I’ve met some of them, and their lives aren’t all that different from mine. But they have biases and they report Brazilian news to fit a certain narrative. It didn’t take long for that narrative to become clear.
The darkening of the sky in Sao Paulo was caused by the collision of a cold front, some clouds, and smoke from fires in the Bolivian parts of the Amazon rainforest. The media, however, quickly stopped mentioning Bolivia. To them, this was all Bolsonaro’s fault. He was fiddling while the Amazon rainforest (which is widely and inaccurately called “the lungs of the Earth” in popular media) burned. The story was a perfect combination of climate-change hysteria with a right-wing villain.
Illegal loggers do often set fires in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. But there is no basis for claiming (as the media did) that this has increased during Bolsonaro’s presidency, because records about such fires are incomplete and don’t go back very far. The root of the problem is the classic “tragedy of the commons.” Huge swathes of the Amazon rainforest effectively belong to no one, a situation which pretty much begs for exploitation by illegal loggers. But that, of course, didn’t fit the media’s narrative.
It’s not just the rainforest—it’s every single catastrophe imaginable. At the moment, Brazil is experiencing a bad run with COVID-19. While most countries are past their peak, things are as bad as ever here. We have the second highest number of confirmed cases in the world, after the United States. On May 24th, President Trump announced a travel ban on Brazil.
According to the media, of course, this is all Bolsonaro’s fault.
In late March, Bolsonaro gave a speech in which he talked at length about the measures his government was taking to combat the virus. He is against shutdowns, and he is particularly opposed to school closures, since children are among the least affected by the virus. Basically, he was an advocate of the Swedish approach. (Sweden has not shut down business or forced its citizens to stay home but instead issued guidelines for people to follow on their own).
But since he’s Bolsonaro, the media of course won’t say that. Instead, his opposition to shutdowns makes him a science denier with blood on his hands. In fact, The Atlantic has gone as far as to crown him “the leader” of the “Coronavirus-denial movement.”
In that same speech, Bolsonaro talked about the need to protect people over the age of 60 who are most vulnerable. He is 65 himself, so he added a quick qualification: “In my particular case, because of my athletic background, if I were to catch the virus I would not need to worry. I would not feel anything more than at most a little flu or cold.” That statement got twisted into the story “Bolsonaro calls Coronavirus ‘little flu.’”
[H]is opposition to shutdowns makes him a science denier with blood on his hands.
Unlike Bolsonaro, other Brazilian leaders are getting a pass for their terrible decisions. For example, in mid-May the Mayor of Sao Paulo tried to force people to stay home by banning certain cars from the roads on certain days based on the final number of their license plate. But people didn’t stay home. They used public transport instead. Brazilians flooded social media with photos of overcrowded metro trains, and the mayor quickly reversed course. His decision may well have caused a spike in infections—but Americans won’t hear about that because it doesn’t fit the anti-Bolsonaro narrative.
According to the media, Bolsonaro’s administration was already on the brink of collapse when his Minister of Justice, Sergio Moro, resigned in April. But that scandal has already largely fizzled. Moro had claimed a video recording of a cabinet meeting in April showed Bolsonaro engaging in corruption. The video was released to the public May 22nd. In it, the President makes various crude comments and uses loads of profanity, but that isn’t very different from the way he talks in public. More significantly, the video provides no solid ground for impeachment. Though—as with President Trump’s baseless impeachment—that doesn’t mean Bolsonaro’s opponents won’t try. (One Brazilian I know joked that the real scandal in the video is how much time gets wasted during cabinet meetings).
Living in Sao Paulo has opened my eyes to the fake news spread about Brazil and President Bolsonaro by the media. I have no doubt that the same thing applies to coverage of other countries.
For most Americans, it will be hard if not impossible to fact check foreign news stories. But this much is certain, if you wouldn’t trust a media outlet’s reporting on President Trump, then you also shouldn’t trust their reporting about other countries’ right-wing leaders. Ultimately, the bias is the same.