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Our Kabayan problem

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Noli de Castro was vice president for six years and a senator for three. Last November 8, some four months after leaving government service, he reassumed his role as principal anchor of the flagship ABS-CBN newscast, “TV Patrol.”

I have no objection to the so-called revolving door in journalism, the practice where journalists join government service for a time and then return to the profession. Done right, done with circumspection and utmost professionalism, both sides of the door can profit. I think, for example, of Salvador P. Lopez, journalist-turned-diplomat-turned-journalist. Government service benefited from his insight and erudition, his facility with words and his capacity for work. When he returned to newspapering (he wrote regularly for the Inquirer in its early years), his writing was deepened by his experience in government and diplomacy.

But De Castro, simply “Kabayan” (Countryman) to millions of Filipinos, reminds me that there are dangers to the revolving door; for one thing, it can give media’s audience an attack of vertigo.

Last week, I heard De Castro (on the dzMM simulcast of “TV Patrol”) introduce a news report by Jorge Cariño on former Gov. Jose Leviste’s evasion-of-sentence case. Cariño, a savvy reporter with good sources and an excellent manner of delivery, was reporting live from the New Bilibid Prison, after the first hearing on Leviste’s forays had been concluded. De Castro began by asking Cariño about the remarkable statements the former Batangas governor said during the hearing, and then immediately focused on Leviste’s claim about housing.

Apparently, Leviste had cast his net of blame wide, and implied that the government housing project constructed near the national prison had contributed to the current culture in the NBP, which allowed him to move in and out of prison with great ease.

But De Castro was, of course, housing czar during the last two-thirds of the Arroyo years, and his question was meant to prove that Leviste did not know what he was talking about. Perhaps Leviste really didn’t, but it struck me, while listening to De Castro, that he was using Cariño’s report to kill Leviste’s aspersions. In other words, he acted, and sounded, like a partisan.

I do not believe in journalistic objectivity; or, to be more precise, I subscribe to the view, defined by Kovach and Rosenstiel in “The Elements of Journalism,” that objectivity applies to the method that journalists use, not to the journalists themselves. (The analogy, I think first made in the 1920s, during the consequential debates between journalist Walter Lippmann and the philosopher John Dewey, was to the scientific method.) I did not therefore expect De Castro to feel unmoved by Leviste’s particular insinuation; at the same time, I did not expect him to use a news report as an opportunity to defend himself. In short, I expected him to act as a professional journalist, not as a former politician with a record to protect.

Is this an impossible ideal? I hope not, for all our sakes. Whether De Castro likes it or not, he was part of the Arroyo administration. (The ordering of events to persuade him to run for vice president in 2004 was a masterstroke of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s, and helped her win the election.) He will find himself fielding more and more adverse news reports, either on “TV Patrol” or on his radio program. If he continues to conduct himself as an ex-politician, should he still call himself a journalist?

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The pattern I outlined in the last column about “reader intensity” and the new-look Inquirer.net website seems to be holding up. To again use Fr. Joaquin Bernas’ column as benchmark: More people on Monday read Conrad de Quiros’ column “Repetitions” and the day’s editorial on just compensation for Piatco (“Good enough”), but many more people recommended, tweeted and shared the Bernas piece on the reproductive health bill (“Levels of discourse in the RH debate”). As of 3 p.m. on Monday, however, the De Quiros column on history repeating itself generated about two-thirds more comments than did the Bernas piece—a fascinating, whole other layer of public opinion. Layers and layers of possible meaning: This is what I mean when I say feedback has gotten fat.

Incidentally, I made a mistake when I referred to my friend Lynette Ordoñez Luna as the managing editor of Inquirer.net; she is, in fact, executive editor. My apologies.

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RIZAL 150 NEWS. On Tuesday, the much-anticipated Penguin translation of “El Filibusterismo,” by the eminent Harold Augenbraum, the man behind the National Book Awards in the United States, becomes available worldwide.

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My sincerest thanks to the many well-wishers who called or who greeted me by SMS and e-mail or on Facebook. The depth of my (undeserved) good fortune can be plumbed in part by looking at the list (culled from the foundation’s website, at nieman.harvard.edu) of Nieman Fellows from the Philippines: Juan Saez (Class of 1958), Rodolfo Reyes (1966), Crispulo Icban (1967), Eduardo Lachica (1968), Pedronio Ramos (1969), Eddie Monteclaro (1971), Benjamin Defensor (1972), Jose Macaspac (1973), Marites Vitug (1987), Rigoberto Tiglao (1988) and Malou Mangahas, my editor in chief at the Manila Times (1999). I never met the gallant Sandra Burton, who left money to fund the education of Filipino journalists when she passed away in 2004, but like many others I read her closely during those heady days, from 1983, when she reported on the Aquino assassination and its aftermath for Time magazine; in that sense, I am only one of many children of Time.

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

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