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Who needs us?

/ 05:05 AM July 08, 2019

Once upon a time, newspapers made no pretense of impartiality, but were extensions of their administrations. History is indeed written by the victors, and there have been times when propaganda and objective news were deliberately mixed to shape public opinion. Thereafter, there was an attempt to separate news from opinion, such that specific pages were marked for editorials and “op-ed” — pieces written opposite the editorials, reflecting opinions not endorsed by the editorial board.

That landscape has changed. For one, newspapers are not our sole sources. Online dailies are mixed in with sites and news blogs, and sometimes no distinction is made between columns and so-called news. Even respected publications are guilty of clickbaiting, exaggeration, or fake news — things which the current political climate heightens and escalates. The average reader is said to have difficulty discerning fake news from real, and it’s this difficulty, or lack of interest, in fact-checking, which inflames and polarizes public opinions.

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In that kind of climate, what use are columnists and op-ed writers? The post-truth era can drive any opinion writer crazy with introspection into the value of truth and of persuasive writing — a debate sparked most recently by a blank column by fellow columnist Richard Heydarian. I think if we stop to think about it too closely, we might come to the conclusion that the purpose of opinion columns is vanishingly small. Who needs us when microblogging platforms can get the point across, and gain more traction?

Moreover, how do we decide — in this era where words spread fast and opinions are one step away from violence — what opinions should be published? We value diverse opinions, which allow readers to explore insights that may or may not align with the official stance of a paper. But at the same time, in publishing the extreme, the bigoted, the insensitive, or the indelicate, we can seem to legitimize and endorse these views, in front of a public which frequently has no capacity or will to differentiate between exaggeration and truth. If we published it, then it must be true. How does one strike that balance between a democracy of opinion with the need for more grounded, less inflammatory work?

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The New York Times describes the job of its columnists as “guiding readers through the events of the moment.” Readers today are probably getting that guidance elsewhere. “Tell readers why they should care,” says one guide to opinion writing. But it does take the wind out of one’s sails to realize that as columnists, rather than personalities, we have little persuasive power. Why bother when troll leaders can tweet 280 characters and irrevocably convince thousands? How do we compete with them, and ought we to try?

Bret Stephens, writing for The New York Times, describes the columnist as a generalist who “performs for his readers.” Maybe one ought to be popular in order to be read; maybe some measure of fame and personality politics is necessary to make any real difference, if indeed that is one’s purpose.

But many of us here began opinion writing in a particularly sensitive era in Philippine history — a dystopian, divisive time — and it makes sense that the relationship between reader and columnist should change to suit the climate. On the part of the former, some effort at critical thinking is required; on the part of the latter, a consciousness of the need for truth-telling and balance, of the power that opinion articles still have even in the social media age.

We have little power over the former, but I do think that we can make it our objective to advance arguments, but not agenda; to want to be read but not quite to be popular. Intellectual rivalries and gatekeeping ought to take a step back in recognition of common threats to institutions and freedoms. History may be written by the victors, but I think that opinion columns of these confusing times should reflect what so many of us feel: that we are struggling; that we do not agree with this injustice or that horror; that we want to fight back, but that words are our only weapon.

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