When journalists were giants
We used to have statesmen in the Philippine government in the old days—Presidents Manuel Quezon, Sergio Osmeña Sr., Ramon Magsaysay, Diosdado Macapagal, and Carlos P. Garcia, and senators Claro M. Recto, Jovito Salonga, Lorenzo Tañada, Raul Manglapus, Francisco “Soc” Rodrigo, Emmanuel Pelaez, Arturo Tolentino, and many others. Remember them?
Today, we only have politicians running our government, little minds with their selfish interests, politicians like—never mind!
Today, I speak from the vantage point of a retired journalist and journalism professor—an old-fashioned journalist who grew up in a society when facts were facts, not fake news, and opinion was expressed openly and decently, without profanities, and without threats of bullying by trolls mouthing inanities and indecencies.
I grew up in an era when journalists were giants—like Benigno Aquino Jr., who cut his journalistic teeth as the youngest Philippine foreign correspondent during the Korean War at the age of 18; Joaquin “Chino” Roces, who was his publisher in the Manila Times and a champion of press freedom in his time; Teodoro M. Locsin, publisher of the Philippines Free Press who could, at the drop of a pen, invite presidents, vice presidents and senators to parties at his home on his birthdays; Maximo Soliven, whose columns were read as gospel truth; Teodoro C. Benigno, my first mentor; and Armando Malay, my journalistic idol. All paragons of journalistic integrity.
Fourth Estate. In my time, journalists were often referred to as the Fourth Estate, an acknowledgment of the influence and status of the press as one of the centers of power in a democratic society. In the United States and United Kingdom, the term Fourth Estate is sometimes used to place the press alongside the three branches of government: executive, legislative, and judiciary.
In democratic societies, the role of the press as a watchdog on government is vital. It is the champion of the people against abuses by the government. The role of the press is to report the news objectively without fear or favor, and to keep the government honest. As American journalist Finley Peter Dunne put it colorfully, the role of the journalist is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.
The Philippines had been enjoying a viable democracy since 1946—until Ferdinand Marcos decided he wanted to remain in power after 1972, when his second presidential term ended. On Sept. 21, 1972, Marcos proclaimed martial law in the Philippines. Martial law was a historical divide in the saga of Philippine journalism. The old order of libertarian journalism came to an abrupt end.
For 14 years under martial law, many Filipino journalists did “praise release” journalism. This generation of journalists did not have role models and so they grew up without a moral compass. When they were liberated in 1986 after the Edsa People Power Revolution, they went overboard. That is why we had the sensational, irresponsible press after Edsa. And for decades after that, we had no outstanding journalists as role models.
Living in dangerous times. Today, four decades later, we live in dangerous times. We live in an era when journalists have lost their shine. Ask the ordinary Filipino who his mass media idol is today, and he will be hard-pressed for an answer. Noli de Castro? Maria Ressa? The 32 journalist-victims of the infamous Maguindanao massacre? Unfortunately, many of us do not even know their names. Sheila Coronel and Eugenia Duran Apostol? Did you know they are recipients of the prestigious Magsaysay Awards for Journalism? Ermin Garcia Sr., Antonio Abad Tormis, and Jacobo Amatong? No one knows they were community newspaper editors in the 1960s to 1980s who exposed corruption and were murdered by the people they exposed. Heroic lives lived. But who knows them now?
Ermin Garcia, who was shot dead by two assassins in 1966, wrote these prophetic words in 1962: “The only newspaperman hero is a dead newspaperman. Recognition comes only with death. The complete story of the savage conflict that rages inside a newsman between truth and camouflaged falsehood, between principle and convenience, between heart and mind, between conscience and popular favor, is never told and so is never appreciated—until the newspaperman is maimed or is killed, and only then do you get an inkling of implied heroism between the lines of his obituary.”
The press is performing an important function in society. If its members do wrong, let the law and the public decide their fate, not censorship or assault by the government. The public will patronize them if they are doing right. If not, they will just wither away. That is the essence of democracy, and the heart of press freedom.
Crispin C. Maslog ([email protected]) is a former journalist with Agence France-Presse and communication professor at Silliman University and UP Los Baños, Laguna. He is now a senior consultant at the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication and chair of the board, Asian Mass Communication Research and Information Centre, Manila.
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