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Muckraking

My column last Friday was about “TV Patrol” and its 25th anniversary. I praised the program for being the first to use Filipino for its newscasts, and for its role in building a sense of being Filipino, within the country as well as overseas. At the same time, I did mention the program’s tendency to parallel the Filipino tabloid print media with sensationalism (crime, cleavage and celebrities) and promoting a “culture of negativism and muckraking.”

Over the weekend I read that President Aquino spoke that same day at TV Patrol’s 25th anniversary and had also used the phrase “culture of negativism” to describe the show’s anchor Noli de Castro.

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For those who wondered, my answer is no, I didn’t plan for the column to come out the same day as the President’s speech and using that phrase. I timed my column to appear right before the weekend because ABS-CBN was airing a special documentary on TV Patrol on Sunday.

But since the President did refer to a culture of negativism, I thought I may as well talk some more about this problem and extend it to muckraking. This tendency to emphasize the negative is certainly not limited to TV Patrol. We find it in both broadcast and print media, and in the Inquirer itself, occasionally (smile). And you find the culture of negativism in many countries and in international media networks, Fox News being a prime example. There seems to be a side to humans everywhere to see bad news as good news.

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I’ll be the last person to advocate a return to the deodorized press you find in authoritarian countries, and which we had during martial law, with the suppression of politically sensitive news accompanied by massive fabrication of news about national progress and peace and order and all that.

What I do advocate is investigative journalism that is well-researched, that should appeal both to the mind and the heart, meaning not just making people angry about incompetence and corruption, but also making people think of alternatives.

What we have right now is muckraking, a term popularized in 1906 by US President Theodore Roosevelt to refer to reform-minded American journalists who, beginning in the early 20th century, exposed corruption and government anomalies. Roosevelt did not coin the term, which was already in use with negative meanings, the “muckraker” being a character in John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress,” someone who was more interested in endlessly raking up the filth on the ground rather than looking up to the sky for salvation. Roosevelt, while critical of the muckraking, also said it was important that journalists should expose anomalies, and so “muckrakers” became a badge of pride and honor for the investigative journalists. Unfortunately, “muckraking” retained its negative connotations, to refer to the inability to see any good in anyone.

But, advocates for shrill reportage will argue, we need to get Filipinos to become more politically aware, and you have to do that with much noise and fanfare. I suggest our media people spend time to go out and watch TV with the masses, preferably in urban poor communities and in more remote rural areas to see if we need more show biz. There, TV and radio provide communal entertainment, and the ambience you’ll find is that of boxing matches. People nitpick on how both newsmakers and newscasters look and dress. They cheer and jeer as they watch the news, but without realizing they are transformed by the viewing experience, turning negative even in our dealings with people in the real world.

The phrase “culture of negativism” refers to something that we acquire, and pass on to others. It’s a shared view of the world, of society and nation, and of ourselves. It’s no wonder that the worst critics of Filipinos are Filipinos. Since we see nothing but the worst in ourselves, we begin to believe we are beyond redemption, finding only occasional and shallow comfort in the victories of Manny Pacquiao.

Medium, massage

The Canadian communications theorist Marshall McLuhan, whose birth centenary was celebrated last year, wrote extensively about the effects of mass media on people. He didn’t subscribe to simplistic “shotgun” theories (e.g., if you watch porn, then you become a sex maniac). Instead, he believed that the mass media were powerful because “the medium is the message” or, more sensually, “the medium is the massage.” What he meant was that communications media had different ways of “massaging” the way we use our senses and, ultimately, the way we think. The same piece of news will have different impact on people whether it’s read in a newspaper, heard on radio, or watched on television.

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Publications and reading are intensely private, allowing us to reflect and analyze, and to do this at our own pace. And McLuhan and other social scientists have credited many revolutions that came about in part because of the way books modified the way we thought, rationally and as individuals: from the Protestant Reformation to capitalism.

McLuhan died before the age of the Internet, but he wrote extensively about television, which he said was a “hot” medium in the way it transformed people by engaging, if not capturing, several of our senses. No need for fancy theories here. How many times have we passed a TV set with some mindless show running? We pause and then end up transfixed. When we finally come to our senses, we would have spent several minutes, maybe even an hour or two, feeling guilty for allowing ourselves to be dumbed down.

Another example is the way local newscasts give so much time to accidents, preferably fatal ones. Motorcycle accidents are featured almost daily. Does all the gore of the accidents make people more safety-conscious? Of course not, and the reason is that the TV coverage gives vicarious thrills. The men will shout out, “P-cha,” while viewing the footage of accidents, and then look at each other, almost ready to proclaim: “That won’t happen to me. I’m reckless but I’m smart, I’m macho.”

With political news, the negativity becomes, as I mentioned earlier, a boxing match. There are no good guys or bad guys here, just smart guys. It’s the survival of the fittest, lamangan in Filipino. No wonder that at a recent talk I gave on corruption, someone in the audience actually argued, quite vehemently, that there were no honest government employees, not one. To extend the muckraking metaphor, it’s not just stumbling in the mud and filth, but also ending up wallowing in and enjoying the misery.

There are good men and women out there, in government and in the private sector (which isn’t exactly clean either, excuse me). Let’s hear more about them, from them: the small town mayors who spend from their own pockets for constituents, the cop or teacher or midwife living in scandalous poverty, the overseas Filipinos making the world run. We live in the most difficult times and in the most dire situations, which makes these honest Filipinos all the more heroes and heroines. Now why do we have to wait for CNN to remind us that these Filipinos exist?

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TAGS: `tv patrol’, culture of negativism, featured column, investigative journalism, Media
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