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Opinion and the gullible columnist

/ 04:11 AM March 29, 2011

OVER THE weekend, Philippine Star columnist Carmen Pedrosa committed a terrible blunder. She criticized Filipinos as being the most gullible people in the world—and then used fake news about a fake study by a fake institution to prove her point. Unfortunately, ironically, pathetically, hilariously, karmically (insert your preferred or even makeshift adverb here), she did not realize the whole thing was fake.

Pedrosa’s display of profound gullibility last Saturday and her dishonest rejoinder on Sunday are destined to become classics of opinion-page idiocy, to be used as cautionary examples in journalism classrooms and ridiculed in media e-groups and on online social networks. I fear, though, that some readers will merely shrug their shoulders and think: Well, that’s opinion writing. You win some, you lose some.

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It is for this reason that I wish to draw some lessons from Pedrosa’s cosmic mistake.

In the first place, regular opinion writers are journalists, too, and are bound by the canons of journalism. This principle holds, whether the opinion writer sees herself as a journalist or not. To quote “The Elements of Journalism” again, the essence of journalism is the discipline of verification. This does not mean that every newspaper columnist should do original reporting; it does mean that each column must be based on a scrupulous regard for the facts. “Comment is free,” the long-time Guardian editor CP Scott famously wrote, “but facts are sacred.”

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Secondly, regular opinion writers have a role to play in the public discourse, precisely as opinion makers. But opinion journalism is not mere opining; it requires an engagement with the relevant facts, and presupposes a thinking-through. Opinion writing, in other words, is an act of reasoning.

To be sure, journalism as a whole is haunted by the specter of error. It is easy to get things wrong: the wrong date, the wrong name, the wrong spelling, even the wrong interpretation. But journalism itself is a never-ending process for sorting out truth from error. Columnists ought to recognize this basic truth and, when mistaken, readily admit their error. It’s part of the whole public discourse thing.

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Is it possible that Pedrosa was merely being ironic, or clever, herself? The five paragraphs she devoted to the non-existent Harvard study and its astounding claim (she wrote, “This is a serious allegation we should not ignore”) preclude that possibility, but it did not stop her from trying to weasel out the following day. “The Mosquito Press [the name of the website] … has thought of a clever way to teach Filipinos not to be gullible so I put it up as the title of my column yesterday.”

But she did not merely “put it up as the title.” She embraced the very notion (absurd on its face) that a study can determine “the most gullible people in the world.” Her thundering conclusion on Saturday passed severe judgment on the Filipino’s thinking capacity. “We are gullible because we are not able [to] or do not question information. We prefer to believe what other persons tell us.” Including, apparently, satirical websites.

I do not dispute that Filipinos can sometimes be gullible. But so can other people. The Sarah Palin phenomenon, for instance, is proof that Americans have a thing or two to teach us about gullibility.

I doubt if Pedrosa will see it this way. On Sunday she wrote: “Whether or not there was such a study by Harvard that ‘Filipinos are the most gullible people on earth’ is less the point than whether it is true that Filipinos are gullible most of the time.” Perhaps the last point is true in Pedrosa’s case; what her Saturday column proved is that at least one Filipino was gullible enough to believe in fake news.

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The story itself is full of giveaway details (for instance, that Trojans came a distant second to Filipinos in the gullibility stakes). But the excerpts Pedrosa chose to run carry astounding details that no thinking person, certainly not someone who presumes to lecture us about our world-class gullibility, could have mistaken for fact. For instance, she wrote: “It may seem like a trivial source but according to the authors the study involved ‘content analyses of over 500,000 historical documents from 300 different societies.’ So we better take it seriously.”

Half-a-million historical documents! Are Filipinos innumerate “most of the time” too?

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The way Pedrosa’s Saturday column began may seem to give the lie to my presentation of the facts. “I would have been among many other Filipinos who would have said the same thing, but it is just as well that a Harvard study beat us to it.” It is possible to argue that she read the alleged study first, and was prompted by it to criticize Filipinos for our excessive naiveté.

But I do not think so. In all likelihood she began with her conclusion. Her low regard for her fellow Filipinos, especially those who did not see the wisdom of constitutional change during the Arroyo presidency or who were undiscerning enough to vote for Noynoy Aquino, is no secret. That must have been why, when she clicked on the link and saw the story, she failed to follow her own advice and “question information.” The story confirmed her worldview, and was therefore true.

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[email protected]/johnnery.wordpress.com

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