Is our press holding us back?
I was in Bangkok earlier this week (no connection to the President’s visit there), and the headline story of a local English daily was on a large double track railway system the Thai government plans to build. It saddened me for two reasons. First, it showed how fast the Thais are moving to further upgrade their infrastructure, already far ahead of ours as it is. Meanwhile, our own PPP program had in recent years often been said, tongue-in-cheek, to stand more appropriately for “PowerPoint presentations” rather than public-private partnerships in infrastructure development, which is what it really refers to. But more importantly, I was struck at how this item was front-page news, the banner story at that, when something similar would most likely be relegated to the inside business section of our own papers, which, sadly, the average Filipino reader probably sets aside.
Two weeks ago, economic ministers of Asean’s 10 member-states were in town for one of two meetings they hold every year, yet we hardly saw anything about it in our print and broadcast media. If it were anywhere else in Asean, it would have made the banner headlines, which I’ve seen many times in the past when I found myself in another Asean capital, and an ongoing Asean meeting even of lesser magnitude would be front-page news. And it would not be mere coverage of the who, what and where of the event, but more of the ideas discussed therein—the why and how, which are always the questions of greater significance. “Sandra Cam and Cesar Montano got more coverage,” a colleague of mine observed, and indeed it was true.
I couldn’t help thinking of the saying: “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, and small minds discuss people.” Is our press catering primarily to, and in the process perpetuating, small minds among our people? With the great power of the media in shaping the public’s minds, isn’t this getting in the way of our achieving greater collective maturity and greatness as a society and as a nation? Why is it that the year-round series of meetings happening in our country, as chair and host of the Asean on this, its 50th-anniversary year, has hardly merited media attention—and yet these certainly have far more implications on our people’s future than Cam’s tantrum at the airport or Montano’s alleged irregularities at the Tourism Promotion Bureau? Why is it that personalities, politics, conflicts and crime hog our news at the expense of information and knowledge associated with events that have profound implications for our people?
We often pride ourselves in having a freer press than elsewhere around us, hence media that lack the docility of the more controlled press some of our neighbors have. But is there lack of maturity in our media as well? Is our media industry too commercially driven, more prone to spout news that sells rather than news that helps? Can a country assert press freedom while ensuring that this so-called Fourth Estate becomes an instrument for building the nation rather than one that abets divisions and thereby helps wreck it? These are hard questions in a country where the media industry mirrors government and society at large, in terms of impediments and constraints to doing what is right. And what we see happening in the media can be considered both cause and effect of what happens in government and society, including “envelopmental journalism” in lieu of developmental journalism. There are just too many forces out there willing to spend large sums to get people thinking in a certain way, to serve their own selfish interests.
The other night, I was in a gathering of Philippine agricultural journalists, and one of their longtime leaders was telling me of their traditional difficulty of having their stories get enough exposure, let alone prominence, in the mass media. For a sector of our economy so critical to having more broad-based and widely beneficial economic development, that is indeed sad. But for as long as Philippine media are like what they are now, the likes of Sandra Cam are bound to get more column inches in the papers than the latest agricultural breakthrough would ever manage.
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