Passing the buck
WHEN A head of state whose lackluster performance in driving economic growth and whose commitment to agrarian reform appears to be faltering, he berates the news media for reporting “bad” and “unbalanced” news. This picking out of scapegoats was what President Aquino exactly did in a keynote speech to the media summit in Tagaytay City on Friday on the theme “corruption in media.”
Mr. Aquino was at his best in delivering a lecture on good governance and performance of other institutions acting as watchdogs on wrongdoing in public office. He highlighted two issues, the first being the need for “consistent standards” in the media, in the performance of media functions—an area that he said was laden with “conflicts of interest”—which, he claimed, were at the heart of “skepticism, or even hostility” toward the media. “The lack of standards [makes] it easier for corruption to take place,” he said, citing specific cases of corruption taking place.
He then called on the media to improve their standards of gathering news and processing it with institutional mechanisms and to clean up their house by, among other things, paying reporters wages that would enable them to resist attempts to corrupt them by sources in business and industry and public officials who do not like the critical stories about them in the media. The reality in the industry is that media owners pay their staff reasonably well, insist on honesty among their staff, and have adopted internal mechanisms monitoring the quality of their work. It’s fair to say that despite some lapses in adherence to standards, journalistic honesty and dedication to writing accurate and truthful news stories are more the rule rather than the exception, and not the monopoly of functionaries of an administration that tirelessly proclaim themselves as the paragon of honesty and transparency.
These sermons are unwelcome to journalists who perform best when left alone to process the news without badgering from the self-righteous about how to present stories in the media. Newspapermen are professionals with their own rigorous methods and norms in determining what is fact or propaganda of governments, politicians, or vested business interests. They don’t take kindly to being told by presidents and powerful officials how to do their jobs. Journalists and editors have found from experience and continuous exposure to the ways of politicians that presidents and other officials are not mentors of objective and balanced journalism. When they say that media stories are “negative,” what they mean are stories they don’t like to hear or read. As one American editor said, “It is a newspaper’s duty to print news or raise hell.” The press and government are always at loggerheads in a democracy. The government’s job is to present the side of the news that’s favorable to it. The function of a free press is to uncover the sham and expose what the government is not doing right.
Eminent American journalist James Reston, a former Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, once wrote: “The conflict between men who make news and the men who report the news is as old as time. News may be true, but it is not truth. And reporters and officials seldom see it the same way. In the old days, the reporters, or couriers of bad news, were often put to the gallows; now they are given the Pulitzer Prize. But the conflict goes on.”
Now governments have taken upon themselves the task of teaching reporters to do their jobs, according to their standards. Then they tell us they are helping us how to do our jobs properly, but if we follow their norms, the media are reduced to being propaganda organs. They also say they don’t want to regulate the press because state regulation is anathema to democracy. This is hypocrisy of the highest order.
The second point raised by President Aquino against the press at the Tagaytay summit is: “It also falls upon you to enlighten the public further on the difference between opinion and reportage. These days, the line between the two seems thin and easily crossed.” He is terribly confused about newspaper practices. Apparently, he is referring to the placement of commentaries on news pages.
The concept impressed on Journalism 101 college freshmen is that news should go to the news pages and opinion to the opinion/editorial pages, for the purpose of telling the readers that news (which is fact-based) should not be mixed up with opinions. The theory is that this division enables readers to make decisions based on facts. But this division is not as rigid as it is claimed to be. Informed commentaries, often called “analyses,” have found their way into news pages, to provide explanation, interpretation of hard news, or perspective, to enable readers to make sense of swift-running developments.
This perspective is provided by senior journalists or specialists in certain fields. This practice of giving space on the front page to senior journalists is rampant in serious journals, including Le Monde of Paris, the Financial Times of London, the Guardian and Observer of UK, and The Australian in Australia.
Because this concept has led to informed public debate on issues, politicians who receive critical treatment in these commentaries resent this format. The problem begins when governments tell newspapers to move offending commentators from their platforms to some innocuous corners of their newspapers, in order to hew to the division between the news and opinion pages. The simple reason for this intervention is that governments don’t like what commentators write.
This is a blatant attack on editors’ freedom to deploy their staff on their newspapers’ pages. This should be resisted at all cost.