Opinion by Michael Royster
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – A century ago, Davos was the setting for Thomas Mann’s novel “The Magic Mountain”: it featured a cloister peopled with wealthy patients seeking a cure for tuberculosis. Today, Davos features a cloister peopled with wealthy “patients” seeking a cure for the world’s ills, or a pulpit for self-promotion.
At Davos this week, Brazil’s President Bolsonaro made a perfunctory speech, using only six minutes of his allotted half hour. He limited his talk to non-committal platitudes from his election campaign—he’s going to eliminate corruption, ideology, bureaucracy–no details were offered.
The day after his speech, Bolsonaro surprised the Davos organizers and the press by abruptly cancelling a press conference less than an hour before it was to start. His justification was to blame the mainstream media (MSM).
Bolsonaro has never taken kindly to MSM, and he particularly dislikes Globo, which rules the Brazilian media roost in print and broadcasting. While there are other important players in Brazilian media, none can match Globo for the breadth of its influence throughout the country.
International MSM had been uniformly dismissive of Bolsonaro before his election, highlighting his history of racist, sexist and homophobic remarks. After his election, they have continued to portray him as a right-wing populist with a marked tendency towards militarist illiberalism, classifying him alongside Russia’s Putin and Turkey’s Erdoğan.
Given all this, the press conference at Davos was sure to ask Bolsonaro some embarrassingly hard-edged questions about his proposed programs. After almost one month in office, Bolsonaro has systematically declined to offer any details on anything.
It was clearly not a fear of questions about details, however, that caused Bolsonaro to cancel the press conference. Rather, it was the media feeding frenzy engulfing his son Flávio, a newly elected Senator and close adviser to his father.
Globo and other MSM have unearthed evidence that Flávio (a) has long associated with notorious “militia” gangsters controlling Rio’s favelas; and (b) has been part of a kickback scheme in Rio’s corrupt state legislative assembly.
Father and son both claim that the MSM are engaged in a witch-hunt designed to discredit President Bolsonaro’s administration. Flávio denies everything. His father says he believes him, but that if Flávio did something illegal, he should suffer the legal consequences.
Bolsonaro’s unvarying response to any questions about his son is to say they are irrelevant to what he will do as President. Most pundits agree that the MSM press at the aborted conference would have focused exclusively on Flávio, rather than on issues involving his administration.
To Bolsonaro’s mind, the press conference would have been a waste of everyone’s time; hence it was better to cancel.
The Curmudgeon disagrees — his failure to face the press, hostile though it may be, has guaranteed that President Bolsonaro’s trip up the Magic Mountain received negative reviews.
[As a historical footnote to the witch-hunt claim, many Brazilian political observers believe that in 1990 an all-powerful and pervasive Globo orchestrated the Presidential election in favor of Fernando Collor; moreover, when it tired of Collor just two years later, it orchestrated his removal by impeachment. Bolsonaro supporters fear Globo is hoping for a repeat performance: they might just be right.]