Imagining his words
Incredulity is the only reaction possible to the preposterous proposition aired by presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella: that the media “use creative imagination” when interpreting the words of President Duterte.
The context was Mr. Duterte’s speech at an event in Makati where he said US President Barack Obama should “go to hell” and the European Union “to purgatory,” and that he might eventually “in my time … break up with America.” Predictably, the incendiary remarks had the Palace once again scrambling after him to explain, justify, or spin his words. Abella said Mr. Duterte’s threat of cutting ties with America was a “possibility that he could, that he might.” According to Abella, the more important thing was, in interpreting Mr. Duterte’s words, “Let’s try to use our creative imagination, okay? Let’s not be too literal.”
Everyone knows defending the President is a difficult job, given his penchant for undisciplined remarks that end up hurting him and his administration. There is sympathy out there for the impossible task in which Abella, presidential communications head Martin Andanar and their colleagues find themselves; there is only so much one can do, after all, to justify invective, bellicose talk, even threats of violence coming from no less than the main man. When he lets loose with “Sipain ko pa yan sa harap mo eh (I’ll kick it in)”—apparently referring to the US-PH alliance and people impressed by it—one feels a twinge of commiseration with the President’s men, for the sleepless nights they must be going through, again.
But calling on the media, and in effect the public, to exercise “creative imagination” when seeking to understand the President’s pronouncements is not just a ludicrous step; it’s also a formula for outright confusion. As it is, the establishment media are already in the crosshairs of his legion of supporters and followers online for being, in their quaint formulation, “bias” against the administration. Reporters who do their job by filing stories about the still-rising body count in the war on drugs, or who merely quote the President’s words verbatim, have been subjected to unprecedented abuse and threats of violence online.
But the media have soldiered on, because they have a duty to the public to report the facts. The media are not in the business of imagining stories, much less creative ones. It should be said that the President’s unfortunate remarks are almost always captured on video, so the plain truth of their existence, and the manner by which they were said, cannot be in dispute. Yet the President himself has complained that his statements are always taken out of context, and that the media almost always fail to get what he is saying.
This has been, in fact, among the standard defenses of Mr. Duterte’s camp whenever he finds himself in another controversy occasioned by yet another ill-tempered remark—that reporters fail to provide the context, that his words are chopped up for sensationalist gain, or twisted to cast him in the worst possible light. But if plain clarity is what is needed, why is the presidential spokesperson telling the media to, in effect, not take the President’s words seriously?
Barely in its fourth month, the administration has been rocked by unending controversy largely because of Mr. Duterte’s language. His communications people should be the first to know, and to impress on their boss, that words do matter. Throwing the burden on the media and the public to make sense of his words by way of “creative imagination” will only invite greater acrimony and confusion.
In any case, the problem is not the interpretation but the words themselves; the President simply needs to speak with greater care, as befits his position.
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