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The ‘polite age’?

/ 09:29 PM December 20, 2013

“Romancing With Words” is the title of a book, published this week, by the University of San Carlos Press. It documents the life and work of a talented, restless writer who morphed from a public relations flack into a seasoned radio journalist on the Internet Revolution’s cusp.

Dr. Erlinda Alburo, who led the Cebuano Studies Center, wrote “The Life and Works of Greg M. Mercado” (no relation to us). The book may help one “understand the context of the times … as it impacts on an individual writer in media.” It does.

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Greg became a voracious reader early on. That started a love for words. Poet Jose Garcia Villa included Greg in his “Roll of Honor.” When World War II erupted, Greg served as a buck private in Misamis Oriental in Mindanao.

In Japanese-occupied Cebu, he signed up with the Visayas Shimbun, for which he was collared by guerrillas. Freed on orders of Col. James Cushing, he fought with the Rough Riders until war’s end.

Greg resumed romancing with words in November 1945. The editor-professor-poet Cornelio Faigao, Johnny Brennan, and Greg launched Cebu’s first postliberation paper. Published every Tuesday, the Courier sold for 20 centavos a copy. “It sold like hotcakes,” Greg recalled. “And in four weeks, it folded, broke.” He had slammed into  the fact that “freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.”

Greg Mercado died at 47—too early to appreciate what Faigao was to write later: “The Cebu Press entered the polite age.” It mutters “amen” to  politicians who bankroll local papers.

Bungoton  (“bearded ones”) muzzled The Pioneer Press. The Cuenco clan denied kenneling those thugs. But candidate Sergio Osmeña Jr. used the “terrorism” charge to wrest Capitol control.

As governor, Osmeña Jr. dismissed charges he’d called up the publishers of the independent Southern Star, edited by Faigao, to ask:  Somos  o  no  somos? The Star folded.

A generation later, his son, then Mayor Tomas Osmeña, banned from City Hall for a time reporters of papers or stations that he claimed were critical. The gut instincts of politicians rarely budge.

Was that what led Greg to find his niche, as a professional journalist, in radio’s emerging role? Before World War II, kzRC of Cebu was the only provincial radio station. By 2011, this number had ballooned to over 222,061, says the National Statistical Coordination Board.

Like most of us, Greg didn’t foresee the forthcoming media revolution. Fax replaced the telegram in the 1970s. The Internet came on the scene in the early 1990s. There were 16 million on the Net at the start; by 2013, some 7.1 billion were “wired” worldwide. That includes 37.6 million Filipinos.

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The first cell phone emerged in the market half a decade later. Now, there are 6.8 billion cell phones. And Filipinos heft 106.9 million of them.

We were the first to wage People Power through text messaging in 2001, Howard Rheingold writes in “Smart Mobs—The Next Social Revolution.” The “Craven Eleven” senators sealed, at Joseph Estrada’s impeachment trial, the second envelope on secret bank accounts. Minutes later, text messages exploded, calling for People Power II. It drove Estrada from Malacañang within days.

The Lebanese cloned that method and whipped up human waves in their Cedar Revolution. Cell phones were ubiquitous in Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution.

The Internet, cell phone and Facebook move truth—or falsehood—at warp speed. “News organizations are abandoning the race to be the first to break the news,” the Economist notes. “[They’re] focusing instead on being the best at verifying.”

“Verifying facts is the central function of journalism,” Harvard’s Bill Kovach would drill into Nieman fellows. “The essence of journalism is a discipline of verification. That holds for a network TV news division or a lone citizen blogging on the Internet.”

At work today is a new culture of impatient journalism not dedicated to establishing whether a story is true. Instead, we are moving toward a journalism of assertion. And the cost to society is high.

Fact-checking and editing, though, are tough work. Many bloggers bog down in chat, speculation, punditry—even cyberbullying. Talk is cheap. “A new journalism of assertion ignores the discipline of authentication,” writes Tom Rosenstiel in the updated book “Elements of Journalism.”

The emergence of cyberspace diminished the role of editors. Bloggers don’t have a similar resource. They are their own gatekeepers. That spells disaster when some don’t have even a nodding acquaintance with the moral codes that govern this craft. A number morph into cyberbullies.

The need is for more, not less, of hard-nosed reporting of facts and commentary anchored on values. A split-second capacity to deliver unverified claims or opinion merely hobbles the functioning of a democratic society by shredding constitutional rights of privacy.

Places with festering social issues require broader cooperation between mainline and new media to hold powerful people and institutions accountable. It helps make informed choice by citizens possible.

The Information Revolution, seen on the Internet, Facebook and other new media, is here to stay. “Searching for news was the most important development of the past decade,” notes the Pew Research Center. “Sharing the news may be among the most important of the next decade.”

Both mainline and online journalists’ first obligation is to truth. “There can be no liberty for a community,” the late Walter Lippman wrote, “which lacks the information by which to detect lies.”

“Words, words, words,” Hamlet mumbles to Polonius. Greg Mercado understood that power in romancing with words, as Erlinda Alburo documents so well.

(E-mail: [email protected])

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TAGS: column, free press, greg m. Mercado, Juan L. Mercado, literature, online journalism, writer
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