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Analysis

Aquino parries criticism, turns the tables on press

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President Aquino pushed the Philippine news media to an agonizing ordeal of self-criticism at the media national summit in Tagaytay City on Friday in the guise of being helpful in improving their standards and addressing corruption in the industry.

He delivered the keynote speech at the summit, attended by media executives, proprietors, editors and other journalists, especially reporters.

In his speech, the President called on the media to lift their game, thereby shifting the focus of criticism of his administration’s parlous economic performance and flagging commitment to social reform—particularly in agrarian reform in Hacienda Luisita, owned by the Aquino family, poverty alleviation, and sluggish job creation—to media shortcomings. These issues have been the focus of media criticism.

Although the President spoke in less confrontational language than in his previous attacks on the media for highlighting “bad news,” there was little ground for many media observers at the summit to believe that the encounter in Tagaytay had opened a new era of amity between the media and the administration.

Mr. Aquino noted that the summit had adopted “corruption in the media” as its theme. He then quickly tried to turn the tables on the media.

He raised the issue of the need for “consistent standards” in the media, the lack of which is alleged to be the source of “conflicts of interests” that leads to corruption.

In regard to the issue of conflict of interests, he said there were many questions left unanswered. For instance: What are the parameters concerning endorsements? What are the requirements for sources? And when anyone is unhappy with how a journalist conducts himself, what are the mechanisms for redress? Is there an ombudsman in the media to whom  aggrieved citizens can turn to?

 

Press institutions

While the absence of a set of standards that applies throughout the industry does not directly lead to corruption, “it does lead to make corruption easier to take place,” according to the President.

These questions stem from the ignorance of institutional mechanisms already in place in most media organizations.

Speaking from personal knowledge, there are mechanisms, such as readers’ advocate, rigorous daily review by editors of news priorities, weekly review of editorials by an editorial board, and critique on grammatical lapses, and there’s a code of ethics against which journalists can be held accountable.

Yes, of all institutions with public interest functions, the media are the most overpoliced. Mechanisms in place include grammar police, ethics police, not to mention working under the constraints of criminal libel law.

The media need no further self-disciplining mechanisms to make them disposed to write “good news” of an administration whose lethargic record of delivering results is the hallmark of governance.

The media have their own “daang matuwid” (righteous path) creed, but they don’t remind the public about it, they don’t pay lip service to it.

They just do their jobs quietly and put out a newspaper every day, and let the reader judge them whether they are producing a  paper worthy of their continuing trust and patronage despite the whining by the government about “unbalanced” or “bad” news.

The President likes to point out that newspaper owners should pay their staff well, implying that low pay is a cause of corruption on the level of reporters.

But if we examine closely payrolls of news organizations, records will show that the media generally pay their news staff higher salaries compared to those of civil servants.

The President has no superior claims to be a protector of the reporters, who are on the frontline of news gathering every day.

No need for apology

Responding to the President’s speech on behalf of the media industry, Alexandra Prieto-Romualdez, the Inquirer’s president and CEO, did not dodge the issue of corruption.

According to a report by Rappler (not by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, which made a laid-back report), she said:

“The basic questions we ask of any news today were first asked and refined several generations ago by print journalists: Is it accurate? Is it solidly attributed? Is it fair?

“Because print was first, those who worked in it have also struggled with the problems of journalism, including corruption. I must tell you that from my own experience and of others in similar situation, one of the most disheartening, disappointing and frustrating things is for one to find out that someone you’ve tried your best to support, whose independence you’ve nurtured breaks that trust by selling valuable editorial estate.

“This betrayal weakens the institution deeply and must be addressed with great conviction.”

She told Mr. Aquino: “Mr. President you have sometimes spoken about being bombarded by negativity, from critics who define negative and positive in their own way. We feel for you … But the Constitution grants that the press is fundamentally free as it allows the press to define negative or positive in different ways. This is the diversity of opinion in the heart of democracy.”

She need not be apologetic to the President for the media doing their constitutionally mandated job.

Truth will take care of itself

Speaking of good or bad news, Lord Northcliffe, the British publisher, said years ago, “News is what somebody wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.”

Add to this Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian communications theorist who said, “The real news is bad news.”

More elegantly. Albert Camus, the French journalist and philosopher, put it this way, “A free press can be good or bad, but most certainly, without freedom a press will be anything but bad.”

Newspapermen of the old school, to which I belong, have not forgotten the injunction of the celebrated editor of the Kansas Emporia Gazette, William Allen White: “The facts fairly and honestly presented, truth will take care of itself.”

This dictum holds true in the digital media age.


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