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Taking a swipe at the Cardinal?

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A Jesuit friend I esteem cried foul recently over Karen Boncocan’s characterization of a major homily given by the new Cardinal Archbishop of Manila, Luis Antonio “Chito” Tagle. (The homily, on the occasion of the Feast of Jesus the Nazarene, was read, or rather extemporized, on Jan. 9, but I read my friend’s e-mail to me only the other day.)

My friend wrote: The “news report about Chito Tagle taking a ‘swipe’ against the RH Bill makes gratuitously speculative assertions that I think are inappropriate for a news report. If she [the reporter] were an opinion writer, one could let that pass. But she is supposed to be reporting news and what she does is make assertions here that cannot, in my view, be squared with the actual text of Chito’s homily. Would you know anything about whether this is just a lapse or according to some kind of editorial policy?”

I think the answer is neither—but I am aware that other journalists, from within the Inquirer Group or without, may have other perspectives. Allow me to share my view, for what it’s worth.

Karen’s story was uploaded to Inquirer.net at 9:05 am, or about three hours after the Mass started. “Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle took an apparent swipe at the newly enacted reproductive health law as he officiated Mass during the Feast of the Black Nazarene Wednesday,” the story began. The succeeding paragraphs then ran quotations from the homily, some in English translation only, others in both English and the original Filipino version. And that was it.

This means that the burden of the lead, the “apparent swipe,” rests entirely on the quotations selected. I would have been more comfortable with the story if interviews with others present at the Mass were used to support the lead, but given the story’s nature—it was breaking news—it seems to me the quotations from the homily were sufficient.

But do the quotations in fact serve to support the “apparent swipe”? What is the “actual text” that the story itself offers to the reader as evidence?

There are, in particular, two sets of excerpts from the homily which bear the bulk of the lead’s weight. (I am using the text of the homily found in the archdiocese’s official website.) I will quote them at greater length than in the original story, and use my own translation.

The first is related to the idea of false witness. “Alam po ninyo si Hesus nagdusa dahil sa mga huwad na saksi. May mga binayaran para magbulaan at gumawa ng kaso laban kay Hesus. Itigil na ang kabulaanan. Nagdusa si Hesus dahil sa mga bulaan, mga huwad na saksi. Ang tunay na nanalig kay Poong Hesus Nazareno lalabanan ang kabulaanan na sumisira hindi lamang sa tao at lipunan, kundi sumira sa anak ng Diyos. That should not happen again!” [You know Jesus suffered because of false witnesses. There were those who were paid to lie and make a case against Jesus. Stop the lies. Jesus suffered because of the lies, the false witnesses. The true believer in our Lord Jesus the Nazarene will fight the lies which harm not only man and society, but harm the son of God. That should not happen again!”]

Anyone familiar with the Gospel narratives would understand this passage without necessarily referencing the controversy over the RH Law. But in the context of the event—Cardinal Tagle’s first major address after the passage of the law, and to a massive congregation at that—wouldn’t it be natural for those closely following the RH controversy (such as reporters covering the Church beat) to think that the archbishop did have the new law in mind?

The second set of excerpts is related to the idea of opportunity cost, of what a given amount of funds might buy. “Ang dami-daming reports tungkol sa mga patayan. Mas dumami sana ang sumaksi sa katotohanan na ang buhay ay sagrado. Patotohanan natin yan. Ang dami dami sa mundo ngayon, giyera. Ang pera na dapat sanang gamitin para pakainin ang tao, magtayo ng mga bahay at eskuwelahan na nagagamit para sa pagpatay.” [There are many reports about killings. We hope more will give witness to the truth that life is sacred. Let’s testify to that. So much in the world today [is] at war. The money that should be used to feed people, build houses and schools is used to kill.]

This is no longer a gloss on the Gospel, but a reading of modern-day reality. Again, it is possible to think that the use of certain resonant words, such as the sacredness of life, does not refer to the RH Law. But, given the context, isn’t it also reasonable to assume that those following the RH controversy will think that the reference does in fact exist?

It pains me to disagree with my friend, whose opinion I value highly and whose distress over the story gave me much pause. But I hold with those who favor giving journalists the necessary freedom to write their stories. Reporters covering an event, we like to say, shouldn’t be mere stenographers; they should not simply record what they hear but actively engage with it. And sometimes, engagement means taking the next step of interpreting the meaning of a subject’s words. That, too, is news.

* * *

I would like to thank Chadrica Rafanan, Rolen Inda, Kaye Celine Yadao, Christian Yadao, Corazon Rosauro and Deosa Senita of Sinait, Ilocos Sur, and the redoubtable Adelaida Lim of Baguio City, for e-mailing in response to last week’s column on Apolinario Mabini’s funeral.

My research on Mabini (I am interested in how the emerging American empire came to terms with the unexpected shock of an unlikely public intellectual) is still very much in its early stages. Thus, I could not name the American diarist because the news clippings I read did not identify her. She did, however, meet the revolutionary general Artemio Ricarte in Hong Kong sometime in March of 1903. Perhaps therein lies a clue.

* * *

jnery@inquirer.com.ph/johnnery.wordpress.com


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